The historian of Hue

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A local researcher keeps the history of Hue alive via a free library and a journal publishing studies of the former feudal capital

75-year-old researcher Nguyen Huu Chau Phan introduces the 8th edition of Nghien cuu Hue (Study of Hue), which was released early this year, at his family library in Hue.
Photo: Phuong Anh.

Hue researcher Nguyen Huu Chau Phan, 75, has fulfilled two of his father's last wishes.

His father was Nguyen Huu Dinh, a Hue native son and one of the historic city's greatest admirers.

Though Dinh had his hands full as director of the Central Vietnam Department of Fishery and Forestry, he spent most of his free time researching Hue and accumulating a massive collection of historical materials.

Dinh instilled in his son a love of books that led Phan to become at various times a librarian, professor, publisher and history teacher at the renowned Hai Ba Trung High School, formerly known as the Dong Khanh School.

Dinh also left his son his collection of 10,000 rare books about Hue. Before he died, he told Phan that two of his last wishes were to set up a library for those books, and publish a regular journal about Hue, its history and its culture.

Phan can now proudly say he's done both.

Freedom of information

"Studying Hue is no small thing," said Phan.

"Though at present economically Hue cannot compare with Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, in terms of culture and history, Hue can represent the whole country.

"To study Hue is to study Vietnam, to know Hue is to know Vietnam," said Phan, who has opened the family library to the public three days a week every week since 2005, ten years since the death of his father.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Phan welcomes local students, foreign researchers and anyone else interested to his library.

He helps them find what their looking for and photocopies whatever the readers want for them.

"Everything is free here, but because many books in my collection are very rare and were published in 18th and 19th centuries, I don't lend them outside the room."

Phan's collection piled up on the second floor of his house includes the memoir Letters from Indochina by French General Lucien De Reinach written in 1893-1899; Hue Fine Arts by renowned Hue researcher and French priest L. Cadière in 1919; and Kingdom and An Nam People, published in Paris in 1879, six years before the French invaded Hue in 1885.

Apart from the library, the house also includes two underground bomb shelters that Dinh used to hide communist soldiers.

Technically, Dinh worked for the US-backed regime based in Saigon, but secretly he supported the resistance.

Live books

"Books left on the shelf are dead, no matter how useful they are, that's what my father told me," said Phan, who manages the library alone.

He spends his free time categorizing and arranging the collection, and protecting the books from moisture and termites.

Several local and foreigner researchers have found the library an invaluable resource.

University of New England student Lawrence Raymond Fife spent several months culling the stacks at Phan's library for his doctorate thesis.

Fife said he used some 2,500 books and documents from Phan's library, most of which couldn't be found anywhere else.

When his work on historical archeology at a French hill station in central Vietnam was published in June last year, he sent Phan a copy with the inscription: "In appreciation for your help during my research in Hue."

Family legacy

In 1995, the year when his father passed away at the age of 88, Phan gathered a group of seven renowned local scholars to study Hue and begin publishing a journal about the historic town.

Since 1999, the group has published eight journals, entitled Nghien cuu Hue (Study of Hue), of which the latest edition was released early this year.

Each journal of around 300-330 pages features studies by both local and foreign researchers, authors, and historians about everything Hue: history, music, arts, literature, architecture, geography and everything in between.

In addition to republishing centuries' old works from Phan's library, and the new work by the seven core scholars, the writings of several other prominent local authors appear in the publication.

Historian Phan Thanh Hai, deputy director of Hue Monuments Conservation Center, is a notable contributor, as is poet Nguyen Khoa Diem and overseas Vietnamese professor Nguyen The Anh.

Anh was formerly the Research Director at the National Scientific Research Center in Paris, France. He was also a visiting scholar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, and a Visiting Professor at Harvard University. In 1991, he held the "History and Civilizations of the Indochinese Peninsula" chair at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris-Sorbonne, where he has been Professor Emeritus since 2005.

"Apart from the house and the library, my father also left me sufficient money to use only for the publication of the journal," said Phan, noting that the project is non-profit.


Each copy of Nghien cuu Hue costs VND165,000 and Phan and his group have no advertising or marketing, so they rely mostly on word of mouth.

In fact, they spend quite a bit of time convincing interested parties to support the project by buying a copy or two, and they make just enough money to pay contributors.

"Fortunately, there are still many who have a heart for Hue and they appreciate what we are doing," said Phan.

He said the most recent edition sold out, including stocks at several major bookstores, including Fahasa, Phuong Nam, and Thang Long, all of whom want more copies.

In April, Ngo Hoa, deputy chairman of Thua Thien-Hue Province People's Committee, bought 100 copies of the 8th edition of Nghien cuu Hue to give as gifts to visitors at the Hue Festival 2012, held in April 7-15 this year.

Phan said he now receives some 30-40 emails every day from readers from across the globe. His biggest hope is that future editions can have summaries in English, French and Chinese to reach more readers.

Phan said that many donors have asked to fund the project, but that he refuses because he doesn't want the journal to be affected by outside influence.

"We respect the readers and are afraid that once we have more money, our focus will no longer be Hue and its lovers."

Phan's library can be found at 18 Nguyen Hue Street in the town of Hue, Thua Thien-Hue Province.


"In the past, Hue wasn't an ordinary place like it is nowadays," according to Hue researcher Nguyen Huu Chau Phan.

"It was the capital of Vietnam, therefore, to talk about Hue is to talk about Vietnam."

Between 1802 and 1945, Hue was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam's last feudal dynasty.

The former capital is well known for its monuments and architecture, which made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

The Royal Citadel complex, including a system of royal tombs and other structures, remains the most distinctive, intact royal complex in Vietnam. The citadel's collection of artifacts from the feudal days is also the country's most diverse.

Hue is also the birthplace of the modern-day ao dai, Vietnam's national dress, evolved from an outfit worn at the court of the Nguyen Lords at Hue in the 18th century.

The famed cuisine of Hue has been used as a lens through which to study the history of Vietnam, especially periods prior to 19th century.

In Hue, dining is art: elegant, light, and spicy, different from other regions of Vietnam.

One of the most striking differences of Hue cuisine is the prominence of vegetarianism.

Another feature of Hue dishes that sets them apart from other regional cuisines in Vietnam is the relatively small serving size with refined presentation, a vestige of its royal cuisine.

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