It’s 8:30 in the morning on a Tuesday, and over a cup of iced coffee in downtown Saigon, historian Tim Doling is explaining that to my right, over 200 years ago, stood Saigon’s first citadel. It was an enormous citadel, judging from Doling’s maps, built with the help of French engineers, and not a stone remains.
It’s a fascinating tidbit of information; one of many our group will absorb this morning on Doling’s newly launched Saigon Hertiage walking tour.
In recent years, a handful of in-depth tours have debuted in culturally and historically rich Saigon. Among them, none reveal as much great detail about the city’s physical and aesthetic progression as Doling’s four-hour tours of Old Saigon and Cholon. Doling, an author and medieval historian who’s worked for cultural sectors in Asia, Africa and Europe, has lived in Vietnam since 1990.
Today, our tour begins promptly at 7:50 in the lobby of the Caravelle Hotel, itself something of an icon, known for housing numerous journalist and media offices during the war. After a cup of potent local robusta and a brief overview of the city’s history, we strike out on foot. Doling leads us both on and off the beaten tourist path. We see the sights of Lam Son Square, the Reunification Palace, and the Notre Dame Cathedral; but also get to pound the pavement of lesser-known streets such as Vo Van Kiet, Ham Nghi and Ton Duc Thang.
Mercifully, in the tropical heat, we are also allowed to take in a few key streets and buildings from the comfort of an air-conditioned van. Circling Nguyen Hue, we observe the site where the city’s first Catholic cathedral was founded and later destroyed -- not by time, but termites. We are let in on the surprising fact that the boulevard in front of the church once served as a public execution yard.
We stroll to the junction where the Saigon River meets the Ben Nghe canal, site of the city’s first tramway stop, and see on the opposite bank the wharf where boatloads of travelers disembarked after long voyages from Europe. The connection between Saigon and international enterprise seems to go a long way back. Doling explains how Chinese merchants, helped by a system of canals that connected Saigon with the river and beyond, established the city’s earliest roots as a centre for trade and business. Missionaries brought education, healthcare and religion, and the riverside settlement flourished.
As Doling expounds on the structures we pass, it’s becomes clear that few if any of the colonial-era buildings retain their original purpose or design. A building may come to life as a private home, transform into a hotel and then reopen as a government office. If Saigon is undergoing rapid development today, through the lens of Doling’s research, we understand this is only the most recent and revolutionary edition in a series of revisions.
We note that before the Caravelle Hotel occupied the corner of Le Loi and Dong Khoi, the land was home to the city’s first theatre; while the famed wet market Ben Thanh is actually on its third incarnation (it began on Ton That Dam, then was relocated to what was called the Grand Canal, now Nguyen Hue, before being built again on Le Loi). We even stop to admire the portico of the erstwhile opium factory on Hai Ba Trung St., now a courtyard and collection of restaurants coyly named, ‘The Refinery’.
There is very little here that appears on the regular city tours, a few of which we encounter at well known attractions. Many of the features Doling references are gone altogether. Even as a long-time resident of Saigon, I found myself walking some stretches of sidewalk for the first time, led on by Doling’s stories into an era when these were nuclei of the city, rather than those we think of today.
With the help of Doling’s personal research, historical photographs, maps and a little imagination, I am able to glimpse a different Saigon -- a Saigon in a quieter time, before the city became synonymous with war and later on made a dynamic return to prosperity. It’s a Saigon that’s worth examining; and certainly, considering how much appeal it still holds, it’s a Saigon worth preserving.
For more information about Tim Doling’s walking tours, and his new book, ‘Exploring Ho Chi Minh City’, visit: www.historicvietnam.com