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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

At 13-17 Cham Cam Street I found the colonial-era home of Charles Lagisquet, architect of the Hanoi Opera. Handsomely restored, with a gate, garden and yellow facade, the villa is now the Spanish Embassy.

The approach to the cathedral is along leafy Nha Tho Street, lined by cafes, shops and hotels that cater to Westerners. Halfway down the block, an alley leads to Ba Da Buddhist Temple, where French priests had to hide out when Black Flags guerrillas who harassed colonists laid siege to the neighborhood in 1883.

French missionaries led the way to colonialism in Vietnam, among them Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, who took young Vietnamese Prince Canh to Versailles to meet Louis XVI in the 18th century. The religious men planted seeds of Catholicism that prospered -- today there are about 6 million Roman Catholics out of a population of about 84 million in Vietnam -- even though the bare condition of the Hanoi Cathedral doesn't reflect it. When I visited the soulful, dingy gray neo-Gothic church, which opened in December 1886, girls in red and yellow ao dais were practicing for a Christmas pageant.


By about 1905, Hanoi was the Paris of Vietnam, a playground for colonists enriched in the rice, rubber and opium trades. At the same time, it reflected the empire's effort to shine the golden light of French culture in dark corners of the world.

As proof of their altruism, colonists could point to the new bridge over the Red River, street lights, an electric tram, the railroad reaching Haiphong on the coast and schools where Vietnamese girls and boys learned to write their native language in Roman letters, a transcription system developed by the French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes.

Some of the brightest of them continued their educations in France and returned home more French than the French; others studied Rousseau and joined the revolution. Ho Chi Minh, who lived in Paris from 1917 to 1923 and went on to become the father of Communist Vietnam, said that though the French in France were good, French colonists were cruel and inhuman.

When I moved to the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi's French Quarter on the southeastern side of the lake, I walked in the well-heeled footsteps of the colonists Ho hated -- second sons, soldiers, priests and businessmen who hoped to fare better abroad than they had in the old country. The women commanded legions of servants and sat in front of fans smoking opium-laced cigarettes. The men wore white suits and Panama hats, drank cognac and soda, traveled in touring cars like the vintage Citroens parked at the porte-cochere of the Metropole.

More than the beautifully preserved opera house down the block, the Hotel Metropole epitomizes French Indochina. When it opened in 1901, it was one of the most luxurious hotels in Asia, attracting Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on their honeymoon; Graham Greene, author of "The Quiet American," a 1955 novel set during the waning days of French Indochina; and a host of American lefties, including Joan Baez, who had to retreat to a bunker during U.S. bombing raids in 1972.

By the time foreign correspondent Stanley Karnow saw the hotel during the American war in Vietnam, it was a horrible specter. "Paint flaked from the ceilings, its bathroom fixtures leaked and rats scurried around its lobby," Karnow wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Vietnam: A History."

But today, the Metropole is again the pride of Hanoi, thanks to a 1990 restoration and flawless management by the French hotel chain Sofitel. The three-story lobby yields to a chain of intimate sitting rooms done in dark wood, vintage prints, Chinoiserie furniture, orchids and silk. An Oriental runner lines the creaky grand staircase leading up to rooms in the oldest, most desirable section of the hotel. My chamber reflected the Metropole's glory days in every detail. It had a wood-floored entryway, elegant sitting area, balconies and plush bed where I rested in the hot afternoon, watching the ceiling fan circle.

The Metropole's restaurant, Le Beaulieu, is considered one of the best French restaurants in Vietnam. But when I heard that its maitre de cuisine, Didier Corlou, had recently opened his own restaurant, Verticale, in a 1930s tube house on the outskirts of the French Quarter, I walked there, met the chef and reserved a table.

Corlou, renowned for applying classic French cooking techniques to Vietnamese ingredients that many Westerners might not recognize, has cooked for former French President Jacques Chirac. "Like the French," Corlou said, "the Vietnamese will eat anything." Nevertheless, I let him choose my dinner, a sampling of Verticale's best dishes, from foie gras ravioli in mango juice to Ecuadorean chocolate fondant a la Corlou's French grandmother.

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