Its architecture, particularly in Hanoi, remains France’s major contribution to Vietnam.
“What would the city be without its French architecture? asked Chris Godley, an Australian tourist, when he was in Hanoi.
He said that many old French villas are no longer dwellings, especially those in the Old Quarter. “It’s worth walking around to get a glimpse of the buildings, many of which have become extraordinarily beautiful restaurants and gleaming offices.”
Chris is right. While Ho Chi Minh City was considered “The Pearl of the Orient”, attracting visitors with its sumptuous and dense dynamics; Hanoi, on the other hand, is attractive thanks to its charming and unique architecture.
The mix between French architecture and a touch of oriental design has given its own style to Hanoi’s old buildings, both ancient and modern, which will hopefully exist forever.
The surprising legacy of the French in Hanoi
The history of French architecture in Hanoi began at the end of the 19th century when French invaders occupied the city.
French architects began to exert influence on Hanoi’s cityscape in 1893, when the French colonialist troop led by Henri Rivière (1827-1883), a naval commander, retook Thang Long Citadel for the second time. .
Henri Rivière ordered the demolition of the gates of the citadel, the demolition of certain sections of the walls while the palace of Kinh Thien was repaired to house the high command of the invasion force.
A year later, French army engineers built a road linking the citadel to the French concession. The French planned to build a cathedral in the city and the first colonial residences south of the city, as well as the urbanization of the area surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake.
Later, they began to build military quarters inside the citadel, where the royal and mandarin buildings once stood. The French public works section of the civil service launched its first major construction projects with the arrival of the first French governors in the early 1900s.
These projects have changed the landscape of Hanoi. A wide boulevard, Paul Bert Street (now Trang Tien Street), expanded the French Quarter to the east on land reclaimed from ponds between Hoan Kiem Lake and the Red River. Construction continued with the creation of three other boulevards: Rollandes (today Hai Ba Trung), Carreau (today Ly Thuong Kiet) and Gambetta (today Tran Hung Dao).
Where East Meets West
Nowhere else in Southeast Asia except Hanoi does the cultural blend between East and West seem to be so apparent, especially in its architecture. Between 1880 and 1890, Western rationalism mixed with Eastern philosophy created a hybrid culture in which the architecture of Hanoi prefigured the Indochinese of the school of architecture of the 1930s.
In the second stage of Hanoi’s urbanization, public buildings were no longer scattered throughout the city but rather grouped together in a district forming an administrative center of Indochina.
Relying on the solidity and decorative vocabulary of neoclassical architecture, Auguste – Henri Vildieu (1847-1926), an architect working for the colonial regime, decided to attract the attention of the Vietnamese masses.
Between 1892 and 1906, Vildieu designed the Post Office (1 Le Thach, completed in 1896), the French Army Division Headquarters (28 Ly Nam De, completed in 1897) and Hoa Lo Prison (known in around the world under the name “Hanoi Hilton” and inaugurated in 1899).
He even designed grander buildings after 1900, including the Supreme Court (48 Ly Thuong Kiet, 1900-1906), the Palace of the French Governor-General (Hung Vuong Street, 1901-1906) and the Residence of the French Resident Superior of Tonkin (12 Ngo Quyen, completed in 1911).
In a dozen years, French architects had built more than 100 villas combining isolated rationalism and freer compositions. They incorporated into the overhangs of their design, covered staircases, curved facades, terraced roofs and circular windows and also used ornamental Asian-inspired plaster and paint on the exteriors. In doing so, they created a modern neighborhood and changed the appearance of Hanoi.
The living witness of history
Another impressive French colonial architecture in Giao Street, Hai Ba Trung District, Hanoi. Photo: Huu Huy
Colonial construction reached its peak with the Hanoi Opera House, a neoclassical palace that strained the French budget for more than a decade.
Considered to have the same architectural style as the Opera in France and built almost 300 years after the original, it avoids superfluous architectural details, making it more magnificent and attractive. Inside, there is a stage and seating area with two private VIP boxes on the second floor. This is the best place in Vietnam to enjoy classical opera.
The nearby Metropole Hanoi Hotel was built in 1901. As Hanoi’s only colonial hotel, the Metropole is in a class of its own. The century-old hotel offered different things – polished sophistication versus glitzy contemporary brashness, an antique aura versus ultramodern efficiency, and a nostalgic dose of the past versus a dizzying vision of the future.
Guests can decide for themselves which hotel experience they prefer, but judging by the Metropole’s longstanding popularity, many prefer its turn-of-the-century elegance and historic vibe.
In the past, it became known as the best hotel in French Indochina, the Southeast Asian region that today includes Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
French architecture remains beautiful and represents the architectural style of the time. For a quick check, people can visit the old house at 86 Hang Bac Street.
Built in the 1900s, the house has retained the elegance of its neo-classical style. It was known as the “Red House” because it was painted red, a lucky color. Perfectly balanced double-sided panels cover the central entrance.
Even the addition of a half floor and draped wires in the front doesn’t tarnish the tall old lady. The glamor and intrigue can still be felt as you peek down the hallway to look at the beautifully carved doorway and original ceiling.
The original resident of 86 Hang Bac, Pham Chan Hung, owned a gold shop and built his first house in 1923 and rebuilt part of it in the 1930s. Today, many families, displaced during the war and reassigned after the victory of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, live in tiny studios that were once the dining rooms, living rooms and gardens of the house.
The Hanoi authorities have designated it a historic building and will protect it from wrecking balls. While waiting to see what more Hanoi can do with its irreplaceable heritage, here’s a tip: visit as many French architectures as possible, before they become unrecognizable.