Historian Tim Doling’s newest book Exploring Ho Chi Minh City draws back the curtain on Saigon’s 300-year history. Tour guide Walter Pearson highlights the best of this substantive guide for both first-time visitors and long-time expats. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Flip through the nearly 400 pages of Tim Doling’s latest book and you will discover new places to explore and familiar locations revealed in great detail. On bookshelves now, Exploring Ho Chi Minh City weaves an intricate and fascinating portrait of Vietnam’s fast-paced southern metropolis. From well-known sights such as the Reunification Palace, a monument with great historical importance to the last half of the 20th century, to the location of Secret Cellar B, once the clandestine site of the Patriotic Printing Support Association, Doling’s book digs deep into the city’s past. The latter, for instance, was built by resistance activists in the early 1950s to provide a safe place where they could print and distribute revolutionary material against the French colonialists.
Those more interested in the religious side of the city will find information on pagodas, churches, temples and assembly halls. Moreover, the author explains the difference between these various institutions, peeling apart the intricacies which separate dinh from den, chua from hoi quan. As someone who has given guided tours in the city for more than a decade, I am sad that my guests rarely understand the differences. It seems, churches aside, if they are colourful and have statues of deities or dragons somewhere, they are collectively either pagodas or temples. Knowing the difference between each of these spaces brings a greater understanding of the city and its origins.
Doling sets up the book with a very useful review of the area as well as a history of Vietnam, tracing the development of the small fishing village of Prey Nokor as it transforms into Sai Gon town and, eventually, Ho Chi Minh City. For tourists or those who have just arrived in Vietnam, reading only the history section would leave you well set up to explore the city and even the rest of the country.
Part of Doling’s motivation for the book was to provide people with city tours that can be attempted on motorbike or on foot. There are 13 suggested tours covering the centre of the city, Cho Lon, Tan Dinh and Da Kao, Phu Nhuan, Gia Dinh, Cho Quan and District 10.
As Doling writes in his introduction, “Most visitors spend just one or … two days in Ho Chi Minh City, perhaps as a base to explore the Cu Chi Tunnels.” With all the official emphasis on Saigon as an economic centre, its cultural significance is often overlooked. Doling’s tours give you a way to explore the city’s culture and history while experiencing its obvious economic pull at the same time.
I would recommend overseas residents of the city take some time on their days off to follow one of Doling’s tours and really get to know the town. For tourists, here is the ideal mechanism to escape District One, the Central Post Office and the War Remnants Museum.
Tours are laid out with step-by-step directions: where to turn, what landmarks to watch out for and so on. In clearly-defined breakouts, each place you visit is described – sometimes in more detail than you might need but, for those who are interested in these things, there are often enlightening snippets about statues, old French street names or quirks of history. Each tour comes with a map to add to the facility of the book, as well as plenty of photographs of old Saigon and a few obligatory colour plates.
However, Exploring Ho Chi Minh City offers more than just short tours of the city centre. Doling also includes trips a little further away – Go Vap, District 12, Hoc Mon and Can Gio, to name a few. With his usual fastidiousness, Doling’s section on Cu Chi includes information on both Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc tunnels. Cu Chi has long annoyed me because most overseas tourists end up being dragged off to the highly-developed Ben Dinh tunnels, ignoring the equally-fascinating underground network next door.
Meanwhile the Ben Duoc installation is often left to only domestic Vietnamese visitors. Yet, in my view, Ben Duoc is infinitely more enjoyable and instructive. The complex includes the usual tunnel recreations but also has an authentic reproduction of a mid-20th century village complete with all the various types of housing and implements. There is also a magnificent Martyrs Memorial with the names of tens of thousands of compatriots killed during the country’s 30 years of war.
Doling trained as a medieval historian and has spent most of his career in the arts sector, running theatres and arts centres in northern Ireland, England and Hong Kong as well as undertaking cultural projects in Asia, Africa and Europe for UNESCO and the British Council. He came to Vietnam in 1989. His previous books are The Railways and Tramways of Viet Nam and guidebooks on North West and North East Viet Nam.
Disclaimer: Although Doling acknowledges me as having contributed to the development of the book, I have to confess my contribution was minimal, if any at all, and my comments on the book are in no way influenced by his generous recognition.