Historians of HCMC, part 1: The Map Collector

January 6, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City is racing towards the future at breakneck speed. But there are some who have dedicated themselves to remembering and preserving the city’s past. In this five-part supplement to January’s Urban Archaeology, contributing editor Thomas Maresca profiles the self-made historians who helped us piece our puzzle together.

The Map Collector

Above a café on a corner near the Reunification Palace, 89 year-old Nguyen Dinh Dau lives in a small apartment lined with bookshelves and decorated with antiques. Old maps cover the walls, but they only hint at what treasures are stored in the apartment.

Dau, a respected historian and author of several books and articles, has the largest collection of maps in Vietnam in this apartment, over 3,000 originals and reproductions that date from the 5th century works of Egyptian cartographers to an enormous collection of Vietnamese historical maps from the 15th century onwards.

His maps tell a fascinating story, describing the ways Vietnam has changed over the centuries, in size and shape, as well as in the perception of those making the maps. For Dau, the maps are a key part of piecing together the past. “If you put together the written tales with the maps, you can get a fairly accurate picture of history,” he says.

Dau’s maps trace the development of Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City. Its earliest appearance is found on a 1623 map, under the Khmer name Prei Nokor (meaning The Temple in the Forest). Successive maps show the phonetic development of the word—it is later called “Brai Nagar,” then becomes “Rai Gon,” and ultimately “Sai Gon.”

A map from 1790, the year Saigon’s first Citadel was built, and one from 1815 show the first rapid period of growth expansion in both Saigon and neighboring Cholon (today’s Chinatown of District 5 and 6, which was a separate city until1931). Later maps, during the years of French urban planning and growth, show a layout of Ho Chi Minh City that is still recognizable today.

Dau became fascinated with maps as a young man in his native Hanoi. “I dreamt of traveling, but never had the means,” he says. “At first, I could travel with maps, in my head.”

What started as curiosity later became a passion, as well as a means to further his historical studies. Dau, who graduated from the Sorbonne in 1953, was able to scour the markets and libraries of Paris for his collection, and spent countless hours in French libraries hand-tracing maps.

He’s still adding to his collection via the Internet. Dau’s research has won him a great deal of acclaim—a photo on his wall shows one of the more notable visitors to his modest apartment: former Vietnamese prime minister Vo Van Kiet. His written research is also one of the primary documents of Vietnam’s claim to the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

However much Dau has seen Vietnam change over the years of his own life and over the centuries of his maps, the last decade-and-a-half has seen change at a pace that he finds too fast. “The construction is so anarchic,” he says. “There’s no respect for the history and the milieu.”

Read the next post in the series: A French Connection

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