Memos from Asia

French Influence in Vietnam: 3 Existing Attributes That Will Blow Your Mind

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Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Most people talk about the Vietnam – France relationship with a spooky approach due to the long-lasting conflict between the two countries. Leaving behind the war story, we – Vietnamese do adore the French culture and have adopted this majestic European style as much as we could.

Love it or hate it, the French left a great impact on the history and culture of the Vietnamese. Many of these cultural penetrations are still existing up to now. In this article, we delve into the underbelly of the French influence in Vietnamese culture through three main attributes: cuisine, language, and architecture.

How Did the French Leave Such a Big Impact On Vietnam?

Throwback to the 19th century, Vietnam was colonized by the French as a consequence of the French colonial empire. For nearly a century from 1887 to 1954, the French successfully laid a so-called “protectionism” all over this S-shaped country along with Laos and Cambodia.

Their colonial aspiration led to a wide range of updates and developments intending to turn Vietnam into “the Pearl of the Far East” to compete against the nearby rival – British Hong Kong. This Northern colony was set by the British Empire and referred to as “the jewel on the Queen’s crown”.

The French culture has deeply ingrained in the Vietnamese culture, which has become a crucial part of the country you see today.

Good or bad, the modern Vietnamese nowadays pay a deep respect, or even more, spare no effort to preserve and promote this European input. A foreign visitor will see a rich influence from the French through architecture. Yet little do you know that the image of the French has deeply permeated in all aspects of our culture, from language to food!

French Influence in Vietnamese Culture through Three Lens of Life

Vietnamese Cuisine

They say food is the best reflection of a nation. The French did their best to create a new gastronomy in Vietnam to fit their palate. By introducing their own ingredients and cooking techniques, the French created multiple dishes that are still existing on a Vietnamese table today.

Butter, caramel flan, condensed milk, and Phở are some of the greatest Vietnamese foods that have encountered with the French techniques. However, I pick two other dishes to show you the connection between the two cultures.

French baguette

First off, we have Bánh Mì, a world-renowned Vietnamese street food inspired by the French baguette. Just like the French, we treat Bánh Mì – a type of bread, as a daily staple. It’s made of flour and stuffed with native elements such as fish sauce, coriander, pickles, and meat.

Vietnamese Bánh Mì

Apart from Bánh Mì, Vietnamese adopted coffee as another daily fuel. Vietnamese coffee has been taking the world by storm and little do you know that the French put a great effort in planting coffee beans on a wider scale in this country.

The coffee scene in Vietnam is huge. You will see us reading newspapers on a small plastic stool by the pavement or lighting a cigar in a vintage white-theme coffee shop.

Vietnamese coffee

Vietnam was once a tea-drinking country but the French came and turned the table. Nowadays, Vietnam is one of the largest coffee exporters in the world and becomes pivotal to our economy.

Vietnamese Language

Nowadays, English is the number one hit in terms of foreign language in Vietnam. However, things were completely different just a century ago when French was the mandatory language demanded by the colonial government.

The modern Vietnamese dictionary has recorded nearly 100 loanwords originating in French. For example, we have the word “a-xít” derived from acide (acid), “buýt” for “bus”, “nhà ga” for “gare” (train station), “rượu vang” for “vin” (wine), and many more.

These words become such a lovely and interesting everyday language in the life of the Vietnamese. In the 17th century, the French, along with some Spanish and Portuguese, created the modern Vietnamese language which is now known as “Chữ Quốc Ngữ”.

Vietnamese Architecture

Apart from food and language, architecture is the most visible evidence of the French influence in Vietnam. Some may say the French-inspired buildings can be seen everywhere around the globe and Vietnam is no exception.

However, what you infer from the colonial architecture in Vietnam is the harmony between the French style and native Vietnamese tradition. These two styles are twisted together to become a brand new architectural schooling – the Indochine architecture.

What you see in a typical Indochine architecture (or Style Indochinois) is the iconic turmeric-like or white walls highlighted by the Beaux-Arts motifs. The elegant entryways light up the building, sometimes the dark wood or encaustic floors show up to balance out the setting.

Meanwhile, on the inside, precious hardwoods are used as a sign of Vietnamese traditional approach in the construction. The ancestral altar featured Chinese decorative paintings is placed in the middle, while the extravagant chandelier is amid the ceiling.

These types of buildings are still perfectly preserved nowadays in big cities like Hanoi, Saigon, and some provinces like Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta.

Where to Spot the French Influence during Your Vacation in Vietnam?

That being said, to admire the French culture and influence in the most visible way, don’t forget to visit Hanoi, Saigon, and Mekong Delta!

The exterior of Saigon Central Post Office during sunset

Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, is home to multiple symbolic buildings which are now famous tourist attractions. Hanoi Opera House, Hoa Lo Prison, and Saint Joseph Cathedral are the most sought-after points of interest in town where you can enjoy this jaw-dropping architecture.

Moving further down South on a 2-hour flight, Saigon welcomes you with a vivid metropolis lifestyle. This Southern economic capital boasts a wide range of colonial buildings such as the Saigon Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, and the People’s Committee House.

The inside of Saigon Central Post Office

Wander around District 3 and you will have a chance to spot numerous luxury mansions and villas that have been around since the French colonial era.

Last but not least, we have Mekong Delta as one of the best destinations to enjoy the stunning French architecture. Make your way to Vinh Long or Sadec and visit some of their iconic ancient houses that were once owned by the tycoons and landlords such as Cai Cuong Ancient House and Huynh Thuy Le Ancient House.

Words are never enough to describe how much we’re proud of our culture. The French influence on the life of the Vietnamese is no exception. If you haven’t been to Vietnam before, why not plan a trip there and observe this enriched culture by yourself?

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