The 400th Anniversary of French involvement in Vietnam is fast approaching; Jesuit Priest and early missionary Alexandre de Rhodes arrived in Vietnam in 1620 setting in motion of course of events that would shape both Vietnam and France. The French nation has long abandoned it territorial claim on Vietnam whose people fought long and hard to gain independence and consciously and explicitly reject French influence. Nonetheless, whilst the French have left the mark they made on Vietnam and its culture has not.
As with the British colonialists in India, the French did their best to recreate their own cuisine in Indochina and many of these hybrid dishes born out of foreign ingredients and French cooking techniques were adopted into the cuisine of the wider population in Vietnam and many of the most popular and famous dishes in Vietnam are in part or whole influenced by French cuisine.
The most famous French export to Vietnam’s unique cuisine is the humble bread roll; Vietnamese people eat a lot of bread unlike the majority of people in the rest of South East Asia who eat very little. The Vietnamese have adopted bread as a staple food and made it their own. Vietnamese bread is made with rice flour and complimented by uniquely Vietnamese ingredients and tastes, such as the use of fresh coriander, pickles and raw vegetables in Vietnam’s famous banh mi sandwich.
Vietnam Railway Network
The French colonialists also gave Vietnam its railway network, in the particular the famous 1,726 km Hanoi to Saigon line which after achieving independence the Communist regime renamed the ‘Reunification Line’ – a deeply symbolic act as the Vietnamese people has appropriated a major infrastructure project which was closed associated with French rule in Indochina. Construction of railways in Vietnam commenced in the 1880s and slightly over 50 years later the French had overseen the construction of the entire Vietnamese railway network with the completion of the last section of the Hanoi to Saigon line in 1936. Compared to this early era of railway building relatively little new railway track has been constructed since the French left.
Although only a relatively small proportion of the younger generations in Vietnam learn to speak French – English is now the foreign language of choice for motivated people to learn – the French had a massive impact on the development of the Vietnamese language, particularly the written language. A small number of French words, such as ‘Ga’ for train station, are part of the every day spoken language in Vietnam but the development of a Latin alphabet, with its distinctive tone marks, for the written language is largely attributable to the French. Before the French established it Indochina colony Vietnamese was written using a modified form of Chinese characters. The French system of writing the Vietnamese language was established very early by the Catholic with a fully codified Latin alphabet writing system having been developed by the Jesuits in the 17th Century. The current writing system, however, did not become fully established nationwide until the mid 20th Century very close to end of French rule.
Any visitor to a major Vietnamese city, as well as smaller rural towns, which find buildings that the French colonialists built, in rather the same way that if you go to certain parts of Malaysia you find lots of building constructed by the British. What is distinctive, however, about French colonial architecture is the development of a distinctive Indochina architectural style which is not exactly the same as French architecture not is it traditional Vietnamese architecture, but rather something between the two. The most renown buildings of the French colonial period (the Hanoi Opera House, Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City Hall) have all been constructed in this Indochina architectural style. The genius of the designed, and the lasting appeal of these buildings, is that architectural managed to construct a European style building in a South East Asian city without it looking in any way of place. The decision on the part of the Communist regime of the newly independent Vietnam not to demolish these building, but to assimilate them into the new configured country speaks volumes about the close linkages which formed between the Vietnamese and French cultures.