Surfing in Vietnam

January 16, 2010

In December’s AsiaLIFE (issue 21), we printed an article by Clint Lambert on the resurgence of surfing in Vietnam in Hoi An and on the stretch of the Central Coast in Danang nicknamed “China Beach” by American G.I.s during the war. The article mostly focused on the efforts of Aussie expat Dave Spencer and the newly formed Danang Surf Club to jump start the surf scene, but also touched on the Vietnam Veterans Longboard Society (VVLS), a group of surfers and veterans that formed after the release of Between the Lines, a documentary that follows the lives of two surfers: one who went to war and another who dodged the draft and took refuge on the beaches of Hawaii.

Check out the trailer for Between the Lines below. The film can be ordered from the official website.

Contributed by Tom DiChristopher

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Dear Mr. DiChristopher

I read and continue to read your magazine with considerable enthusiasm. The articles show the ever changing landscape, infrastructure and vibrance of Vietnam, bringing  this to the  front door of the lazy traveller ( of which I am one).  Your article in Volume 22 covering urban archaeology was particularly interesting and while I have seen over the years,  some of these older images of HCMC/Vietnam, wonder if you  know where perhaps one could purchase such images,  as well as any  old maps of the city?

Any assistance, views and/or contacts on this  would be very much appreciated.

Richard Skene

Thanks for the positive words, Richard. First off, I should let you know that Mr. DiChristopher is my father … you can call me Tom.

As for the vintage postcards, many of the shots we featured in the Urban Archaeology story came from the private collection of Philippe Chaplain, which can be found on his website, www.hanoilavie.com. We also turned to Caravelle Saigon: A History, which was released in September to mark the Caravelle Hotel’s 50th anniversary. We did, however, go to vintage bookstore and newstand Bookazine at 28 Dong Khoi for some old photographs (mostly personal snapshots) and old flyers.

We asked another of our Ho Chi Minh City Historians, Thomas Hutchings for advise, and he too pointed us to online resources, particularly Belle Indochine. He also had this advice:

Another way to find old photos is to use the search term in google “saigon ngay xua.” This will return hits with old photos. It’s best after getting the hits to click on images, then go down to various photos and click on any of those. One will thus find even more photos. A knowledge of Vietnamese is not necessary. However, when hits return and the diacritical marks are shown over the term “Saigon ngay xua,” then copy and paste the phrase with the marks and use that as a search term. It will return even more possible sites of old postcards and photos.

So I’m not sure if we answered your query about where to get physical postcards, Richard. Perhaps some of our readers might know. Anyone out there care to leave a comment on where to find vintage postcards of Saigon?

Contributed by Tom DiChristopher

Nguyen Huu ThaiHo 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.

Witness to History

Nguyen Huu Thai is a respected architect, writer and urban planner. He’s an expert on Vietnamese architectural history, but also an eyewitness and participant in some of the most dramatic moments that shaped Ho Chi Minh City.

Born in 1930 to a middle-class family in Danang, Thai studied in French schools and lived a life relatively unscathed by Vietnam’s battles with the French for independence. However, as a student and journalist in Saigon in the early 1960s, he was moved by the events unfolding around him. He became a leader of the student anti-war activist movement, and later, a member of the urban resistance, working with the National Liberation Front (NLF).

When the iconic tank crashed through Reunification Palace, on April 30, 1975, Thai was there and to help raise the flag. He then led a group to secure the Saigon radio station, and his was the first voice to announce the liberation of Saigon and to introduce General Duong Van Minh’s declaration of surrender.

Thai spent the next decade-and-a-half in Vietnam as it rebuilt after its war years. In 1990, he moved overseas for the first time, living and working as  lecturer in Montreal. However, he was drawn back to Vietnam, and in 1995, he returned to his homeland, where he has remained one of the leading voices on Vietnamese architecture, lecturing widely and publishing books such as Contemporary Vietnamese Architectural Problems and New Trends in Vietnamese and World Architecture and Cities.

Thai, like the other historians and preservationists,  is concerned that Ho Chi Minh’s expansion is expanding to the future without keeping an eye to its past. He sees the way forward as combining the city’s architectural provenance with contemporary technique.

In the past, French colonial architecture was altered to respond to the city’s subtropical, monsoon climate. Large windows, high ceilings and ventilated transoms were built to provide for natural circulation, and large overhangs and wooden shutters helped keep the sunlight out and rain out.

From there, Thai points out, colonial architecture progressed with the work of Hebrard, whose “Indochinese” style began to combine Asian and Western architectures. That direction continued into Vietnamese architecture of the 1950’s and 60’s, with buildings such as Reunification Palace, the General Sciences Library on Ly Tu Trong Street and Thong Nhat Hospital in Tan Binh District combining traditional motifs and modern techniques.

The open, airy designs of this past are a contrast to the hermetically sealed, air-conditioned modern skyscrapers springing up in a sort of faceless, placeless international style.

Thai advocates a future-leaning style that takes its cues from the city’s past. It’s not just preserving old buildings, but learning from them and applying their lessons. “I tell young architects you must find your own way to do tropical architecture,” says Thai. “It is a new concept of historical conservation, a question of heritage: How can we combine the old with the new?” Contemporary green architecture, for instance, is already looking to natural, environmentally-conscious design solutions that were more common in the past.

In a sense, Ho Chi Minh City is coming full circle. As it continues to race forward, there are lessons to be learned from its past and a heritage that many hope will be maintained, learned from, and built on. From very different places in this city’s multi-layered history, come a chorus of voices that both remember, and are pointing the way to the future.

Read the first post in the series: The Map Collector

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.

Fond Memories

Thomas Hutchings, a novelist and photographer, is another American who felt the pull of Vietnam. Hutchings served two tours in the Air Force in 1970-71, and like Henry Bechtold, had wanted to come back for years. He finally returned in 2004 and had the same reaction:  “I wished I’d come sooner.”

He returned to his native California, but soon made up his mind to come back for good. “I decided, I can’t stay in the States any longer. I’ve got to go home. I always say that I was born in California but grew up in Vietnam,” Hutchings says.

Once back in Vietnam, Hutchings wrote a novel, Tears of Tay Ninh, which required extensive research for historical accuracy. He’s at work on another novel set during the French colonial period and has continued to research and share information with other Vietnamese history buffs and veterans (www.thomas-hutchings.com).

Another former soldier who has made Vietnam his home is Gil Simpson, who returned with his Vietnamese wife in 2007. Simpson came to Vietnam and after his tour of duty was up, stayed in Saigon all the way until April 1975–just before the fall of Saigon–working in various jobs including managing the International House, a U.S.-run club located on Nguyen Hue, where the Duxton Hotel stands today.

A day spent wandering the streets of downtown HCM City with Hutchings and Simpson is a highly entertaining, living history lesson about the changing face of the city. Their reminiscences are fonder than one might expect considering the circumstances of the time. Perhaps it’s the distance of memory. (As Gil puts it: “Soldiers from World War I didn’t talk about their time in the trenches, they remember that one weekend they spent in Paris.”)  But there seems to be more to it than nostalgia; their stories, memories and research show a special feeling for Vietnam, and are a vital part of the story of HCM City.

Read the next post in the series: Witness to History.

Henry BechtoldHo 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.

Return to the Scene

After the French colonial period, the tumultuous years of the American War followed quickly and left their imprint on the cityscape. In the United States, the conflict remains as a scar on the American psyche, and more than a few veterans who served here would just as soon forget.

However, for some others, their time in Saigon as young men touched something else in them—a fascination with the place and the people, and a wish, perhaps latent for decades, to someday come back.

Henry Bechtold, who lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was drafted and came to Vietnam in 1967, spending most of his time in Long Binh.

“When we went home, no one wanted to talk about the war. We just kind of put it away somewhere,” says Bechtold.

But Bechtold could never entirely close that door. He finally made his first trip back in 2001, without much  of a plan and just a couple of Internet pen-pals as contacts. Looking back on his return, he says he instantly wished he had come sooner.

That first trip inspired him to come back for another five visits. During these trips, Bechtold has tracked down some of the places he remembered from the war years and become a collector of memorabilia and photographs and an amateur historian, avidly searching out locations on old maps and photos and using Google Earth to locate them. His website, www.henrybechtold.freewebspace.com, has become a repository for his images, stories and impressions of Vietnam.

One thing Bechtold has discovered while developing his website is that he isn’t alone among veterans in his love for Vietnam: “So many people wrote, saying, ‘I can’t believe someone else loves Vietnam like me.'”

Bechtold made his most recent trip this past October and stayed through December. He says it won’t be his last.

“My wife keeps thinking I’m going to get it out of my system,” he jokes.

See the next post in the series: Fond Memories

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

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