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French impressions

In Hanoi's Old Quarter, remnants of France's colonialism still exist on the tree-lined avenues with sidewalk cafes, villas and baguette bakeries.

May 25, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

HANOI — A tall, blond woman in black and a small Asian girl stand at the prow of a gilded barge moving slowly over a wide, jungle-banked river. The woman is Catherine Deneuve, star of the 1992 movie "Indochine" about the war for independence in French colonial Vietnam.

Before the war in Vietnam became an American flash point, the French ruled the country. From the 1850s to 1950s, the empire and colony were locked in a relationship that brought misery to both.

But in another sense, the colonial era in Vietnam bore gorgeous fruit in the melange of styles exhibited in every sumptuous scene in the movie: the willowy Deneuve in a traditional ao dai pantsuit, the Vietnamese orphan she adopts wearing a 1920s cloche hat. The subtle, seductive French-Vietnamese blending infused not only couture but also art, architecture, literature and cuisine. Inevitably, the influences traveled back to aesthetically sensitive Paris, where they can still be detected at certain shops, restaurants and museums.

But to really catch hold of the evanescent style -- its silken fabrics, slow-moving ceiling fans, louvered windows, tamarind trees, lacquer cigarette holders and muddy espresso -- you have to actually visit Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, formerly the administrative center for the French colony of Indochina (which ultimately included Cambodia and Laos).

In Hanoi, the French built wide, tree-lined avenues, grand villas in a hybrid style known as Norman Pagoda and a scaled-down replica of the Opera Garnier in Paris. They spread the language of Voltaire, Catholicism and cafe society; taught the Vietnamese how to make puff pastry; and renamed streets for French dignitaries.

Nowadays, most Americans visit Vietnam to remember the war that ended when Saigon fell in 1975, to meet the Vietnamese people on friendlier terms, see pagodas, trek in the mountains, shop for curios and relax on a South China Sea beach. But after living in Paris for three years, I went to Hanoi last December to seek out what remains of French Vietnam before it vanishes under the rising tide of modernization.

Vietnam stagnated after Communist consolidation, but free market reforms in the 1980s made the economy roar. In 2005, the country celebrated 25 successive years of growth, which has had predictable results. Construction and pollution are rampant, especially in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, and the south. If the north seems to lag behind, it's only because it got off to a late start.

So it is still possible to wander through Hanoi's Old Quarter on the northern and western sides of Hoan Kiem Lake, watching the Vietnamese cook, eat -- indeed, live their lives -- on the uneven sidewalks. The tradition of alfresco dining presumably made them receptive to French-style sidewalk cafes because everywhere people sit at tables under umbrellas that advertise La Vie bottled water. As in Montmartre and St.-Germain-des-Pres in Paris, the people chain smoke, argue and drink coffee, though here it's the Vietnamese brew, so thick that it looks black even after milk is added.


I started in the Old Quarter, at the amiable Hong Ngoc Hotel. The first morning, I bought flowers from a bicycle peddler in the street. Around the corner I found Tan My, a silk and embroidery shop run by three generations of Vietnamese women. Then, already caught in the spell of Vietnam, I kept walking even though I'd only gone out for a bouquet.

On Hang Trong Street, peddlers sell freshly baked baguettes on the curb, and Sunday painters set up easels by the bridge leading to Ngoc Son Pagoda on Hoan Kiem Lake. At Fanny, an ice cream shop on the western side of the lake, the nougat ice cream is almost as creamy as at Berthillon on the Ile-St.-Louis in Paris.

Cars and motorcycles tear through seemingly impassable streets, weaving around bicycle taxis, known as pousses-pousses (push-push in French). Wherever major arteries intersect, the traffic is every bit as chaotic as around the Etoile in Paris.

The beguiling character of the Old Quarter is partly a product of Hanoi's swampy terrain, pockmarked by lakes fed by the soupy Red River. Even after the lakes were drained, roads that once circled them remained in a grid-defying tangle.

Long, narrow tube houses, some of which stretch as far back from the street as 180 feet, became a feature of the district in pre-colonial times, but the French encouraged their building in stone and concrete instead of more flammable wood.

Often picturesquely dilapidated, their facades have green shutters, iron grillwork and plaster medallions. Across from the Cafe des Arts, a bistro on Ngo Bao Khanh Street with credible French onion soup, I saw a tube house restored to its former dignity but painted hallucinogenic orange.

My favorite part of the Old Quarter was the area around Hanoi's St. Joseph's Cathedral, a Vietnamese administrative center before the French arrived.

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