Remarkable landmarks in HCM City, such as Sai Gon Notre Dame Basilica or Caravelle Hotel, are familiar to many tourists, but the history behind each building often remains a mystery, even to local people.
But writer- historian Tim Doling from Bristol, the UK, author of the popular heritage blog Historic Vietnam and the new walking tour guidebook Exploring Ho Chi Minh City, knows these stories well.
With his thorough understanding of the city’s history, Doling runs Heritage Tours, which introduces a wealth of lesser-known places of interest, alongside the city’s better-known historic sites.
Originally trained as a medieval historian, Doling has spent most of his career in the cultural sector, running theatres and arts centres in Coleraine (Northern Ireland), Horsham (England) and Hong Kong, and undertaking cultural projects in Asia, Africa and Europe.
First visiting HCM City in 1989 on holiday from Hong Kong, where he was working as Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, he found the city so beautiful and interesting that he sought to return.
Then in 1990, Doling organised a research trip to Vietnam to set up cultural exchanges between his arts centre and Vietnamese arts organisations, which was the start of his long connection with the country.
“Although HCM City was the first place I lived in Vietnam, I knew little about its history until quite recently, in fact, back then from 1996-97 I spent most of my time up in the far north researching my tourist guidebooks on the Northwest and Northeast”, Doling said.
Only after he retired in 2010 did he really start to learn about the city, which he now calls home.
Doling said that one of the first things that struck him was how little anyone knew about the city’s rich history and heritage, and he found it incomprehensible that most visitors were shown nothing more than the Post Office, Cathedral, Unification Palace, Ben Thanh Market and War Remnants Museum.
He was also concerned to see that many old buildings, with historical values, were being “destroyed” every day in the name of development.
So he set out to research the history of the city and the heritage of its buildings in order to publish a guidebook.
“We are very lucky that a lot of French documentation has survived and can be consulted in the National Archives here in Vietnam, as well as in Aix-en-Provence, France (CAOM). There is now also a huge amount of colonial government material online at http://gallica.bnf.fr/”, Doling said.
“Fortunately, although street names in Viet Nam’s cities have changed since French times, the street numbering remains largely the same, so we are able to learn about the history of individual buildings, who designed them, who built them and who lived in them.”
He also added that there were already a number of very skilled Vietnamese historians performing similar research, but their work was not available in English, nor has it been used by the tourist industry.
“So I was lucky to be able to draw on their excellent research when I wrote my railway history book The Railways and Tramways of Vietnam (2012) and my tourist guidebook Exploring Ho Chi Minh City (2014).”
Sai Gon and Cho Lon Heritage Tours was originally launched as a promotional tool in the six-month period leading up to the publication of his guidebook Exploring Ho Chi Minh City.
“However, demand for these tours continued after the book was published, and then my tours were mentioned in the latest Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook, so now it would be difficult to stop,” Doling said.
His tours are offered in conjunction with Asiaplus Tours, www.asiaplustours.com with which he works closely, and they also offer railway tours through Viet Nam. However, at the moment all Sai Gon and Cho Lon tours are led by Doling.
Participants in the Sai Gon Heritage Tour will take a trip tracing the city’s development from an ethnic Khmer fishing village to a modern economic powerhouse.
The Cho Lon Heritage Tour examines the city’s origins in the 1680s as a tiny Minh Huong settlement, explaining the history of its seven distinct Chinese communities and their assembly halls, as well as the rivers, canals, creeks, tramways and railways which once passed through it.
“After more than ten years in the city, it is great to finally discover much of the largely untold history of both the city and if its buildings,” said visitors Andrew Currie and Kate Anderson about Doling’s heritages tours.
“It is highly recommended for anyone interested in architecture and the history of Sai Gon and its development,” they added.
The history of Vietnam’s buildings is one of the highlights making the country special, and it can play an important role in developing tourism.
“The city is fast losing everything which once made it the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ – the very things which many visitors come to see,” Doling noted.
“I really hope that the destruction can be stopped before it’s too late.”