Historians of Ho Chi Minh City, part 2: A French Connection

January 8, 2010

Philippe Chaplain, photo by Fred Wissink

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 feature, contributing editor Thomas Maresca profiles the self-made historians who helped us piece the puzzle together.

A French Connection

If Nguyen Dinh Dau travels through the history of his homeland with his maps, Frenchman Philippe Chaplain uses old photos and postcards to journey to a time and place he never knew: colonial-era Vietnam.

Chaplain’s interest in history and preservation stems from his work in  his hometown of Bourg-la-Reine, a southern suburb of Paris, where he was in charge of historical preservation efforts and maintained information about the city’s landmarks. He is also the chairman of the Federation Nationale du Patrimonie, a preservation and historical society.

But it was a chance visit to Vietnam in 2002, at the invitation of a French Viet Kieu friend, that took Chaplain in a new direction. His interest in French cultural history and patrimony was piqued by what he saw of the French legacy in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the graceful buildings, public spaces and wide boulevards. He also fell in love with the country.

“I was a Vietnamese person in another life,” Chaplain says.

He began collecting what has become one of the world’s largest holdings of historical Vietnamese postcards and photographs, 90 percent of which he’s found overseas.

His savvy for sharing and display his collection has won him several prizes at international competitions in Hanoi. He started a website, Hanoi La Vie, which has become a leading online historical resource. His photos were also the basis of a book, Saigon, the Pearl of the Far East. (Chaplain graciously shared some of his collection with us for the January 2010 feature.) Chaplain has another site in the works focusing on old Saigon, as well as several Saigon-based exhibitions in the coming year.

Chaplain’s recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City, was a whirlwind of meetings, with hotel managers, local tourism companies, fellow collectors, historians, and architects.

A natural organizer, Chaplain is hoping that a unified push to promote Saigon’s history will make more people aware of the need to preserve what is left.

“We say in France, that many small streams make a river,” says Chaplain. “I hope we can all work together.”

Read the next post in the series: Return to the Scene

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