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Gallic echoes in old Saigon

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Saigon is a pleasant enough place to idle in for a few days… It is very agreeable to sit under the awning on the terrace of the Hotel Continental, an electric fan just above your head, and with an innocent drink before you to read in the local paper heated controversies upon the affairs of the Colony and the faits divers of the neighbourhood.

– W. Somerset Maugham, 1923

Alain repeats my question, answering without so much as a second thought. “French influence? There’s very little in Vietnam.” Sitting in the Lý Club Saigon, a modern Vietnamese restaurant housed in a refurbished colonial villa, it seems strangely ironic. Here the menu is stocked with a variety of beautifully made dishes, all with a touch of French flair.

But Alain, a resident businessman who has lived in Saigon for the past 11 years, is speaking of a deeper cultural level. There was once a time when French was the official language of government, used extensively by the elite and educated at both ends of the country. Now, 68 years after independence, its influence is waning. “There are more speakers in the older generation, past the age of 70. Now, the younger Vietnamese prefer to learn English.”

And what of the French loanwords to the Vietnamese language? Alain remarks that the borrowed vocabulary is limited, citing the two examples of ga, the term for railway station, and cà phê, a clear contender for the nation’s most well-loved drink. On my second day in Saigon I am swiftly introduced to cà phê sa nóng – a strong, fragrant cup of Vietnamese coffee, capped with a frothy crown and concealing a layer of sweet, condensed milk at its bottom.

In recent years Vietnam has emerged as one of the world’s top producers of green coffee, ranking second only to Brazil. But its strong coffee culture is not the only reminder of the European impact on the local culinary scene. As in Cambodia and Laos, the French brought bánh mì, the single serving baguette that is widely consumed up and down the country.

Perhaps most tangible of all however, are the examples of architecture that the colonists left behind. The street pattern of downtown Saigon, District 1, bears the hallmarks of French urban planning, with wide tree-lined boulevards leading down to elegant civic structures.

At the heart of District 1, even the newest buildings seem respectful of these monuments, mimicking them in both style and scale. Right across from the City Hall, Vincom Center 2 is an upscale shopping mall whose bright exterior is awash with pilasters, French windows and motifs reminiscent of Art Nouveau. Less than 100 metres away, the Park Hyatt has also been styled in a mock colonial manner. It shares one block with a landmark that has occupied the same corner since 1880. Recently renovated, the Hotel Continental of Maugham’s time still stands, its gracious white balconies facing the repainted walls of the Opera House.

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City beautiful

Saigon's Opera House

Saigon’s Municipal Theatre (Opera House)

Façade detail

Façade detail

Notre-Dame Cathedral, known locally as "the Red Church".

Notre-Dame Basilica, locally known as “the Red Church”.

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Iron steeple

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Keeping the faith

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Rusting fence

Inside the Central Post Office

Inside the Central Post Office

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An old map of Saigon, painted on the wall of the Central Post Office

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Morning rush hour

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A legacy in pastel

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Saigon City Hall, modelled after the one in Paris

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Being a Francophile myself, I was really interested in finding French influence in Saigon when I went in summer 2011. But then the baguette and the colonial buildings were probably the most apparent heritage of the French colonial time in the city, and the country. French influence is slightly more palpable in Cambodia as many members of the royal family speak the language. However I remember watching a program on Saigon and one senior citizen spoke to the TV host in French. So yeah, Alain was right.

    February 20, 2013
    • Actually, the French legacy was quite a bit stronger than I had anticipated – especially regarding the coffee culture! Now that I’ve felt it in both Laos and Vietnam, I’m really interested to compare it with what you found in Cambodia. This also reminds me of that baguette you had in Vientiane, if I wasn’t recovering from that bad meal at LCCT, I might have ordered the same thing!

      February 20, 2013
  2. Hi James, because of this post, Im more excited for my Siagon trip ( though quite short at just 2 days) before proceeding to Bangkok for Songkran. I’d like to add you and Bama in my Blogroll. Regards, James2

    February 21, 2013
    • Thanks James, for the comment and follow. 🙂 I see you were recently at Ati-Atihan – that’s a fairly recent addition to my wishlist. Hope to make it there soon enough!

      February 21, 2013
      • You have one year to prepare for it James. I happens in January (with two other major festivals in Visayas: Dinangyang and Sinulog). Let me know if you already have firm plans – I might be able to join you.

        February 21, 2013
      • Sounds good, it will be great to meet a fellow blogger! Hard to know this far in advance but we’ll see if I can take the time off next January. If you ever find yourself booking a trip to Hong Kong drop me a message – I’ll do my best to show you around. 🙂

        February 21, 2013
  3. The street cafe culture of eating / drinking outdoors facing out into the crowds is also quite French. Vietnamese art is very obviously French influenced- you should see their art prior to French arrival, it is very Chinese. The presence of a summer capital both for the northern and southern city administrators is also very European, just like the existence of Baguio.

    Politically and culturally, the influence of the French is among the upper echelon, just like in the Philippines and India and any other country that was colonized, so I wouldn’t expect to see it in the pervasive way some people expect it. It’s there, but you need to really understand the culture and know about others to appreciate it. It cannot be taken at face value.

    February 21, 2013
    • Some great points there chiefmadapple. I feel like I barely scratched the surface in Saigon – and I do agree that in most places the foreign influences are limited to the upper class.

      The Philippines however seems to be an exception to that trend – I find it very unique among Southeast Asian nations for the Hispanic elements that have been incorporated into wider society, for instance the Roman Catholic faith, the cuisine (brazo de mercedes, longanisa and torta spring to mind) and the vast number of Spanish loanwords in Tagalog. Simple phrases like “anong oras na?” and “karera ng kabayo” really pique my interest – I studied Spanish for a year and it surprises me just how much vocabulary is still used in everyday Tagalog, even when the Americans made every effort to replace it with English.

      February 21, 2013
      • I think, and this is really a personal theory, that the Philippines was influenced a lot more by the Spanish simply because we had no unifying language or history. We are islanders, physically separate, with distinct tongues and cultures. On the other hand, Vietnam had 1,000+ years of Chinese rule and many of their words are very similar to various Chinese dialects. The medicine, the traditional clothing (ao dai vs qi pao), the food … I’m surprised actually that most people look for the French influence when they were there but for a blip in time (1887-1954), only 67 years of official rule (the jesuits arrived 100 years earlier, but even if you count that, it’s nothing), compared to the Spanish occupation of more than 300 in our shores. There was no “Filipino” before the Spanish after all …

        February 22, 2013
  4. Great photos, reminded me of my trip there. I got much more of a French vibe in Hanoi than in Saigon, perhaps because of the numerous cafes on every street. I did wonder as I traveled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, how much will still be well preserved and what connection people will have with that past in another 50 years time? Wait and see…

    February 22, 2013
    • Thank you Lydia, I didn’t make it to Hanoi this time so it was great to hear your comparison between the two cities. From what I’ve seen, Laos and Vietnam seem very accommodating and respectful of their colonial architecture… as long as that attitude doesn’t change, much of it should still be around for years to come. On a more general level the persistence of coffee and baguettes does raise an interesting question…

      February 22, 2013
  5. Love that map painted on to the wall of the post office! And I would visit just for the coffee James 🙂 Have to agree with Chiefmadapple about colonial influence being stronger when it serves as a unifying factor. That is the case here in India, what would we do without English? 🙂

    February 23, 2013
    • The coffee in Vietnam was superb – after visiting Saigon I don’t think I could drink the HK equivalent for the next month at least! I’m glad this post has created so much discussion too; those legacies are worth looking back on in future entries. 🙂

      February 23, 2013
  6. This is absolutely beautiful. I’m always so torn when I see beautiful colonial buildings because they are gorgeous, but on the other hand, I know they came with a price. Of course you would look at the urban planning as well. I remember how surprised I was to hear that many Spanish colonies had squares that followed the same structures as those in Spain. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it was just one of those things that I didn’t think about until it was essentially spelled out for me.

    February 23, 2013
    • Thank you Erica. I can understand your perspective… but being an architecture grad I have to confess that it doesn’t strike me as much! I have so many posts of yours to catch up on – hopefully you’re well-prepared for a flood of comments. 😛

      February 23, 2013
      • always 🙂

        February 26, 2013
  7. Sai Gon’s colonial past is a mere echo nowadays, though it can be heard a little louder in Ha Noi. A quarter of Viet Nam’s population is under the age of 15 and their eyes are firmly trained on America and South Korea for their fix of foreign culture.

    June 2, 2015
    • I didn’t know so many people in Vietnam were under the age of 15 – that is quite a revelation! I guess reminders of the French presence are more obvious in the coffee culture and the popularity of bahn mi.

      June 2, 2015
      • There are definitely some linguistic legacies from the French language, you mentioned ‘ca phe’ (cafe). Also, the Vietnamese word for butter is bơ – which is pronounced somewhat like beurre, and so on. But English is the most common second language, because young people are interested in American culture and more foreign business is conducted in it. The only time I speak (very bad) French with very old Vietnamese people and French expats. There are quite a lot of French people here, they live in District Two particularly.

        June 3, 2015
  8. Very interesting post! You are right! Colonialism is full of ironies. While living abroad, sometimes people ask me if I speak French because I am Vietnamese. It is interesting how foreigners can quickly identify colonial influence. Personally, I would prefer people to focus on the Vietnamese-Vietnamese culture rather than the French influence. On the other hand, I am absolutely in love with European cultures and find cultural fusion very fascinating. Well, contradictions!

    November 6, 2016
    • Maybe you got that question because quite a few Vietnamese émigrés from older generations (especially those who moved to Europe) speak French. Earlier this week I met a Vietnamese person who was born and raised in Geneva – she uses Vietnamese with her parents but French is her first language. It was so fascinating to hear her speak English with a French accent!

      December 4, 2016

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