Biblioteca da Ajuda (photo by Charlotte Pham © C.M.H. Pham).

Archival Fieldwork

A definite advantage to the presence of the Europeans in central Vietnam since the 16th century for a researcher is the amount of written records they produced. Their accounts, reports, opinions, comments, and observations form the bulk of the archival material available to researchers. To investigate these archives can help bring back to life this fascinating period and highlight the maritime influence and conjuncture of the pre-colonial Cochinchina coast.

There are numerous studies on Vietnam that are based on European archives. However, apart from Pierre-Yves Manguin’s work that dated to the early 1970s, none focus on activities in the maritime sphere, harbours or boatbuilding. Usually, focus is put on maritime trade and on the relationship between foreigners and the Vietnamese. Over a period of 6 months in 2012 I explored archives in France, United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. These archives were studied not so much along nation-centered perspectives, but rather in a more thematic way to allow:

  • Reconstruction of the maritime environment,
  • A focus on ports, harbours, anchorage points,
  • Discussion on navigation,
  • Exploration of maritime activities, and
  • Formation of a more accurate image of life and the practicalities in harbours,

There was a deliberate intention to remain more general as to create a large panorama of the maritime activities that occurred in central Vietnam around the time when the Europeans arrived and settled. This also allowed for investigation through time of how daily life was shaped by the connection to the water and to ultimately shift the perspective towards ordinary life in the harbours and boatyards of Cochinchina. Concurrently, the aim of conducting archival research is to attempt to go as far back in time as possible, identifying temporal markers to elaborate a timeline of boat traditions and observe their roles and evolution across time. This aspect of the research is in progress.

Conducting archival research in the Service Historique de la Défense, Paris. (photo by D.A.M. Nguyen © Nguyen D.A.M.).

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