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  • Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina
  • Christina Firpo
Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina. By Eric T. Jennings. Berkely: University of California Press, 2011. 376 pp. $49.95 (cloth).

Imperial Heights is a much-needed history of Dalat, a former French colonial hill station whose nuanced history, complex symbolism, and deep significance to historical memory belie its simple, quaint charm. As one of the first English-language urban histories of Vietnam, Imperial Heights is a rich complement to existing French and Vietnamese-language urban and provincial histories, including books on Hanoi, Saigon, Hue, Da Nang, and provincial histories published by Vietnamese presses in the 1990s.

The story of Dalat, Jennings writes, is a "narrative of racial survival" (p. 39). French colonists, dying by scores in their new colony in Saigon, needed respite from the city's tropical heat and diseases. Initially, the colonial government sent them to be cured in sanitariums abroad, but the cost became prohibitive. Seeking a local sanitarium site to cure the colony's ailing French men, at the turn of the century the colonial government chose Dalat, on the Lang Biang Plateau in the southern part of the Central Highlands, where the high altitude and cool climate were believed to curb the spread of malaria. The French government built Dalat as a French-style town, a "clone of France" (p. 2), not only to restore the health of those suffering physical maladies but to comfort [End Page 445] those who were homesick for the metropole. The area developed from its original purpose as a sanitarium to, in the 1930s, the proposed new colonial capital designed to emblematize white superiority.

Yet, for all of its celebrated colonial grandeur, Jennings writes, "Dalat was not a product of French hegemony, so much as an admission of vulnerability" (p. 3). After all, Dalat was built as the French government's refuge from colonial threats—from malaria to tropical heat to the indignities of indigenous culture. Jennings shows how Dalat, the "colonial nursery" (p. 1), came to embody the entire narrative of Vietnam's colonial history, from the founding of the colony to the last days of French colonization, as well as the more recent practice of profiteering off tourists'—and even some Vietnamese people's—nostalgia for the colonial past.

As Dalat's development was influenced by cities, sanatoriums, and politics in other French imperial holdings, Jennings locates the history of Dalat in the history of the French empire. Broadening his analysis still further, he draws analogies between Dalat and colonies such as India, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Singapore, as well as the United States and Japan. The history of colonial Dalat, Jennings shows, speaks to concurrent trends in imperial medicine, race relations, childhood practices, colonial hill station designs, tourism patterns, and imperial policies toward minority tribes.

Drawing on cultural history analyses, Jennings uses Dalat as a lens through which to view the major political changes in Vietnamese history. The book's fourteen chapters are organized topically in a loose chronology of Dalat's development, which was influenced by the major political exigencies of the colonial period. The chapters cover myriad issues that went into developing this colonial town, including colonial plans to make Dalat a colonial hill station and the complications of geography and diseases, the first decades of French settlement and its challenges, the lure of sports and recreation in the highland settlement, colonial policies toward indigenous hill tribes that inhabited the area in and around Dalat, urban planning and architecture for the town, the Vietnamese community who migrated as laborers to the newly built town, the colonial social hierarchy that developed there, and the role of religion in Dalat. His chapters about the late 1930s and World War II include especially nuanced analyses of the decision to make Dalat the future colonial capital. His discussion of the Second Indochina War (the Vietnam War) and the period from Reunification in 1975 through Ðổi Mới is limited given that the Vietnamese government has yet to declassify the relevant archival records, but Jennings does an admirable job with the available resources. In the book's epilogue...


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pp. 445-447
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