France’s imprint on Vietnam is still clear to see, in all manner of ways.

By John Hung on April 18,2015 12:14 PM


Hanoi Opera House. Photo: Peter Utric

Taking a cyclo ride passed the Opera House - whether in Hanoi or HCMC - along wide, tree-lined boulevards, offers a stark contrast to Vietnam’s typical narrow streets and alleyways. Passing by Parisian-style buildings, ubiquitous coffee shops, and luxury brand name stores, you may begin to wonder whether you’re still in Vietnam.

To the weary traveler it may seem that you’ve slipped into a wormhole and ended up in a 20th century French city, but these are the remnants of French colonialism from over a century ago. Vietnam has a long, intriguing history shaped by the influence of many external factors, including from the French.

In an effort to negate my American bias, we’ll begin with the positive influences. We must thank Alexandre de Rhodes, a French missionary, for developing the written Vietnamese alphabet. The French also left behind beautiful architectural marvels that have led people to dub the two abovementioned cities ‘Paris of the Orient’.

As a lover of food, however, I must personally thank the French for their gastronomical influence. Escargot, flan, the integration of more beef and vegetables like potatoes and artichokes are a few of the French imprints the Vietnamese have since integrated into their cuisine. ‘Banh my’ (baguette sandwiches) are my personal favourite and won’t cost you more than $1.

The most obvious is the introduction of coffee, which has seen Vietnam manifest into one of the most fanatical coffee cultures in the world. Consumed morning, noon and night, rain or shine, coffee is perhaps on par with Vietnam’s inclination towards beer and alcohol. Coffee shops serve as hubs of social interaction for everyone from businesspeople to celebrities to youth, blurring social class. Be sure to leave your sugary water from Starbucks at home - Vietnam specialises in Robusta, which packs twice the amount of caffeine and antioxidants.

You would think that with all that caffeine people would be productive the entire day. Unfortunately, a lot of bad French habits have also permeated Vietnamese society, such as lingering lunch breaks. It’s not uncommon for lunch in Vietnam to last up to two hours. French bureaucracy and the obsession with paperwork and registration further contribute to the sluggish, lackadaisical pace of life.

My intentions are not to generalise or indulge in stereotypes but to make sense of my experience in Vietnam. For better and for worse, France’s colonisation of Vietnam forever changed the country. Most significantly, France’s presence set a precedent for Vietnam’s ongoing struggle between tradition and modernity. This notion is famously satirised in Vu Trong Phung’s novel ‘Dumb Luck’, which criticised Vietnam’s upper class’s preoccupation with ‘Europeanisation’ during the early 1900s.

It’ll be interesting to see how Vietnam changes moving forward, but here’s to the French, we toast our coffee cups to you!

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