Exploring Ho Chi Minh City’s heritage with British ‘tour guide’

A historian and anthropologist from the United Kingdom has authored several guidebooks on Ho Chi Minh City and launched tours to offer visitors a window on the metropolis’s history.

An enthusiast of the city’s heritage, Tim Doling has recently begun offering guided tours around downtown areas and Cho Lon in District 5, where many Vietnamese of Chinese origin live.

His tours focus on strolls around the country’s largest economic hub, during which he brings the city to life with insightful anecdotes and erudite observations.

The tours are a vivid representation of the astounding knowledge and experience that Doling, mainly based in the city since the 1990s, has incorporated in his guidebook, “Exploring Ho Chi Minh City.”

The book, published in mid-2014, accentuates time-honored yet lesser-known edifices as well as offers a fresh slant on the city’s popular historic vestiges.

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His profound yet intimate knowledge of the buildings’ history has surprised holidaymakers and even long-time residents.

In late September, two Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters joined four travelers from the UK and the U.S. in one of Doling’s four-hour heritage excursions around downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

The trip, which departed from a square in front of the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, involved a lot of walking and no car or motorbike rides.

Showing the expectant holidaymakers along Dong Khoi Street, Doling provided an oral sketch of its precursor, Catinat Street, which was home to some unique architectural works.

The pundit also detailed the bygone days of other architectural icons and tourist attractions, including the Majestic Hotel, Saigon Central Post Office, and the Albert Portail Bookstore.

He also showed the tourists black-and-white photos to add weight to his stories.

“[The former] Catinat Street really lives up to its name as Southeast Asia’s Canebière [the most famous street in Marseille, France],” Brandon Coleman, a U.S. vacationer, exclaimed.

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Doling went on to show the group of vacationers around several of the city’s other hallmarks such as the Municipal Theater, Continental and Caravelle hotels.

He then drew the tourists’ attention to the Saigon Central Post Office, pointing out that it is not the city’s first post facility.

The first post office was temporarily built in the early 1860s at the site where Metropolitan Building, along Dong Khoi Street, is now.

The French constructed the city’s second post office in the former Catinat Street in 1878, which was later replaced with the current central post office in the late 1880s.

To the tourists’ surprise, Doling revealed that Caravelle Hotel, situated on Dong Khoi Street, is the first-ever theater to be built in the city.

Constructed in the early 1870s, the cozy theater was burned down around 1882.

The French then built the existing Municipal Theater in 1898.

Doling later guided the sightseers to such other streets as Ham Nghi, Ho Tung Mau, Pasteur and Ly Tu Trong, also located in the downtown area, and went on to hold them in awe with his stories. 

He also pointed to a small market on Ton That Dam Street, also in District 1, as the precursor to the city’s iconic Ben Thanh Market.

Following historical turmoil, the market was moved to what is now Bitexco Financial Tower, the city’s tallest skyscraper, and the State Bank of Vietnam mansion.

Nguyen Hue Street, known for its recently opened pedestrian street, was once a ditch in front of the market.

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In mid-1911, as the market became dilapidated and faced collapse, the French made it a thing of the past and built the current Ben Thanh Market.

An unexpected twist came when Doling took the tourists to Ham Nghi Street, also located in the city’s heart, and introduced them to Dong Phat Restaurant, previously known for its mouth-watering roasted duck.

Nguyen Thi Nam, 67, daughter-in-law of one of the restaurant’s two co-owners, revealed that the eatery has fallen into oblivion since 1975 and is hardly known by today’s inhabitants and tourists.

Nam was surprised and deeply moved that a foreigner had chosen to introduce her father-in-law’s restaurant.

“Cultural travelers are currently the biggest spenders, those who are keen on lesser-known knowledge of [Ho Chi Minh City] and willing to spend a lot,” Doling said at the end of his September tour.

“I’m astonished that several veteran city dwellers find nothing special about the city or take its allure for granted. That’s when I decided to launch the heritage tours around [Ho Chi Minh City] to prove everyone wrong.”

“Everyone should join hands to preserve the tourism sector’s ‘gold mine’, so that we won’t regret their ‘extinction’ later,” he said.