A historian, a researcher, a writer and a former tour guide, Tim Doling’s knowledge of Saigon’s past is next to none. Photo by Vu Ha Kim Vy
You originally lived in Hanoi working for various institutions including the Ministry of Culture and Information. How did you end up moving to Saigon?
I lived in Hanoi from 1999 to 2004 because of my work there with the Ministry, but when we decided to relocate back to Vietnam after my semi-retirement in 2010, Saigon was the obvious choice — my wife was born here and her family still lives here.
What interests you about the history of this country?
What intrigues me is the way in which so many different cultures have left their mark on the country’s development — Khmer, Cham, Chinese, French, American. This is particularly evident in the Vietnamese arts and culture sector.
Why do you think there are so many gaps in the documentation of Vietnam’s recent history? Are these gaps being filled?
A huge amount of documentation was destroyed, either during the two Indochina wars or in their immediate aftermath. The history of the south during the period 1945 to 1975 is poorly documented. There’s not much left, apart from a few surviving RVN government records and American military and aid documentation gathered by the University of Texas and other US institutions. Gaps are now being filled, but this is through individuals making available their personal collections of photos and documents.
You’ve got a particular interest in the railways and tramways of Vietnam and by the end of this year will have published two books on the subject. What makes this topic so fascinating?
I was interested in railways as a child, though I was never a railway fanatic. My book The Railways and Tramways of Vietnam was written at the suggestion of my wife’s late brother Vinh, who spent most of his life as a railwayman. One day back in 2007 he commented that no-one had ever written a history of Vietnam’s railways in English. The ups and downs of the railway network mirrors the history of the country. It’s a miracle that a railway repeatedly blown to bits over a period of 30 years is still operational today.
What is the goal of your website, Historic Vietnam?
I use it to enhance people’s understanding about Vietnamese history. Since I launched my website back in late 2013, I’ve posted nearly 240 different articles on everything from historic buildings and American war vestiges to Saigon movie shoots, Vietnamese railway history and famous characters who have visited or lived here.
Why is Vietnam’s heritage so important?
By preserving heritage, we pass our history on to our future generations, so that they can understand and learn from it. Heritage plays an important role in people’s lives, giving them a sense of place, a sense of identity and a sense of pride. The destruction of familiar landscapes, coupled with the stresses of everyday life, can result in feelings of loss of identity and roots.
What challenges do you face when you do your research?
The lack of documentation. Sometimes it’s also difficult to photograph and get access to specific heritage buildings.
Part of your work is to document “hitherto undocumented historic buildings”. What key buildings have you covered so far?
Documenting the history of buildings is crucial if you wish to make a case for their preservation. I’ve spent a lot of time researching the history of many important old landmarks, like the District 1 People’s Committee building (1876), the Customs Directorate building (1887) and the former Cochinchina Government Secretariat building at 59 Ly Tu Trong (1888). Former government buildings are the easiest to document, but private residences can often be difficult — information about that old colonial mansion at 112 Vo Van Tan in District 3 was hard to find. Many old villas may be lost because we can’t document their pedigree and argue for their preservation.
How do you feel about the gradual destruction of this country’s historic buildings in the name of progress?
The city must continue to develop, and new, modern structures must be built, but a balance needs to be found between old and new. There is no need always to destroy the old to accommodate the new; alternative sites can be found. To fit the urban context, new buildings must reflect existing patterns, but much of what’s been built in recent years is alien in design, badly sited and bears no relationship to the city’s character and traditions.
Why is it so important to have an inventory of [historic] buildings other than temples and revolutionary vestiges?
The problem is that if [the authorities] don’t know what’s there, how can they be expected to preserve it? The crucial step must be to inventory what’s left, so that an informed decision can be taken regarding what must be preserved.
To see more of Tim click on historicvietnam.com