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Where to find pieces of Vietnam in France

May 25, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The stylistic melange born during the French century in Vietnam -- roughly 1850 to 1950 -- traveled back to France to influence cuisine, couture, the arts and letters. Even today it lingers at Paris galleries and at traiteurs Asiatiques, small restaurants where delicacies are spiced with basil and lemon grass. Some places to find traces of Indochina in the City of Light:

1. The Musee Guimet, 6 Place d'Iena; 011-33-1-56-52-53-00, www.guimet.fr. A national museum of Asian arts with a collection begun at the height of the French empire. Its sculpture from the Cham kingdom (from the 5th to the 15th century) in south-central Vietnam, is considered the best outside Southeast Asia.

2. The Musee du Quai Branly, 37 Quai Branly, 011-33-1-56-61-70-00, www.quaibranly.fr, has a wide range of artifacts assembled by French colonial missionaries and scientists who worked among the ethnic minorities of Indochina. One of these is Georges Condominas, a French Vietnamese ethnographer who studied the Mong Gar people of central Vietnam in the 1940s. Artifacts he gathered were recently featured in "We Have Eaten the Forest," a special exhibition that premiered at the Quai Branly before moving to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi.

3. La Maison de l'Indochine, 1 Place St. Sulpice, 011-33-1-40-51-95-15, www.maisondelindochine.com, has lectures and exhibitions related to the former French colonial realms in Southeast Asia. Its travel agency offers cultural tours and itineraries for individuals to China and Southeast Asian countries.

4. The French writer Marguerite Duras lived in a fourth floor apartment at 5 Rue St. Benoit on the Left Bank when her novella "The Lover" was published in 1984. A huge bestseller -- made into a movie in 1992 -- the book shocked and seduced France by telling the semi-autobiographical story of a relationship between a French schoolgirl and her older Chinese lover, set in 1920s Saigon.

With fellow leftist writers, Duras frequented the nearby Petit St. Benoit, an old-fashioned restaurant at 4 Rue St. Benoit, www.petit-st-benoit.com, that displays her photo on the wall.

5. Ho Chi Minh -- writer, traveler, secret agent, pastry chef and father of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam -- lived in Paris from 1917 to 1923. He was a great admirer of French language and culture, if not of French colonial politics, and he rented a garret on the Left Bank, joined a political discussion club, spent long hours in the Bibliotheque Nationale and supported himself by doing calligraphy and movie reviews.

In 1919, Ho went to Versailles, where the peace treaty ending World War I was being negotiated, to plead with U.S. President Wilson for support in the struggle for Vietnamese independence. The next year, he was in the city of Tours for the birth of the French Communist Party.

Later he returned to France to work out the post-World War II configuration of Indochina. "His simple manner, his sandals and plain brown tunic, his artless answers, all combined to fascinate Parisian society in the way that Benjamin Franklin had once conquered the city," journalist and historian A.J. Langguth wrote in "Our Vietnam."

Though little that is tangible remains of Ho's early stay in Paris, it is wonderfully evoked by a chapter in "Paris in the Fifties" by Stanley Karnow.

6 The 13th arrondissement: Refugees from Southeast Asia began streaming into Paris in the 1970s, settling in the 13th arrondissement on the Left Bank. Today, the area remains a great place to find cheap, authentic Vietnamese food, especially the ubiquitous pho, a spicy soup eaten with fresh vegetables.

The flavors of Vietnam have also infused up-market eateries such as Tan Dinh at 60 Rue de Verneuil, 011-33-1-45-44-04-84, an award-winning restaurant near the Musee d'Orsay in the seventh arrondissement. The dining room is small but stylish, with a red lacquer ceiling and white window shades. Elegant steamed, fried and raw nems (like spring rolls) are a specialty, as is braised duck for two. Expect to pay $50 to $75 per person, cash only.

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susan.spano@latimes.com

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