Barbara Adam sits down with a prolific polymath, Tim Doling to talk about his latest book Exploring Hue. Photos by Romain Garrigue.
If ever anyone was in need of overly-dramatic air quotes, it’s Tim Doling, who says he “retired” in 2010.
Since “retiring”, the British historian has written five books on Vietnam and its history, with another in the pipeline. He also writes prolifically about Vietnamese heritage on his website www.historicvietnam.com, works as a translator and cultural tourism consultant, and creates several Facebook pages, including Saigon Cho Lon Then & Now Facebook, and Dai Quan sat Di San Saigon – Saigon Heritage Observatory.
“I don’t particularly like standing still and doing nothing,” he says, without any trace of irony.
Tim is a classically trained historian, with a Masters Degree in Medieval Welsh History from the University of Wales Aberystwyth. But for most of his career, Tim ran theatres and arts centres in the UK and in Asia.
He came to Vietnam in the late 1990s to work with the Ministry and Culture to develop arts management training curricula for universities. And something about Vietnam (including his now wife, who he met in 1995) convinced him to stay, and delve as deep as he could into the country’s fascinating culture and history.
Tim’s latest book is the 523-page tome, Exploring Hue, Heritage of the Nguyen Dynasty Heartland.
The book includes an overview of the history of Hue, which became the capital of Vietnam in 1636, and the trials and tribulations of Vietnam’s royal families, stories full of intrigue, bloodshed, betrayal, revenge and even a little royal insanity.
Research involved lots of reading, talking to Vietnamese scholars and a bit of Indiana Jones style “beating my way through the jungle”, Tim said. His research is aided by his ability to read and speak Vietnamese.
Exploring Hue includes 23 self-guided tours in and around the former capital, most with about 20 points of historical interest. GPS coordinates are supplied for each stop, handy for the more out-of-the-way places. Many of the tours are ideal for walking or cycling.
The book is illustrated with old photographs, drawings and maps, and interesting little sidebars on topics such as Cham architecture, concubines and eunuchs, mother goddess worship and the madness of Emperor Thanh Thai.
“Hue has such a rich heritage and there is just inadequate explanations for visitors as to what’s important,” he said.
Tim names his two favourite parts of Hue as the northern part of the ancient Citadel and the Gia Hoi Old Quarter, east of the Citadel.
“Gai Hoi is the area where all the Chinese assembly halls are, and where lots of intriguing temples and princely houses are based,” he said. “It’s a really beautiful place to stroll about or ride a bike.”
Tim believes there are huge benefits in preserving Vietnam’s cultural heritage, and in promoting heritage and exploratory tourism. He points to statistics that show Vietnam has a woeful rate of attracting return visitors.
“This is the age of independent tourism,” he said. I think it’s really important to facilitate independent travel because this is a way to generate more income from tourism, from higher income people, people who stay longer.”
Tim acknowledges Vietnam’s historic sites are dreadfully under-explained, with little or no effort made to tell the rollicking stories attached to the buildings, or explain their significance and role in history.
“I’m trying to help fill the gaps so people are not standing there like lemons,” he said.
Tim’s next project is to finish an update of Exploring Ho Chi Minh City, published in 2014. Part of the reason it needs updating, he said, is that some of the sites mentioned in the book are now gone.
“There’s been such massive destruction (in Ho Chi Minh City) over the last 10 years,” he said. “There’s really no concept of how valuable the buildings are, economically. It’s a huge waste, just destroying everything for short-term profit.”
While Tim mourns the loss of the heritage buildings throughout Vietnam, he’s determined to help open up the country’s history to visitors, through books, talks and tours. (He leads train tours through Vietnam several times a year.)
“If my work does increase or lead to a growth in tourism or a growth in return numbers, at least I’ve done something,” he said.
For now, there’s the Ho Chi Minh City book to update, and an Exploring Hoi An and Da Nang book to complete. Because retirement is for enjoying yourself, right?
“My job will never ever be done,” Tim said. “I’m going to cram in as much work as I can while I’m still able.”