New York Times
April 19, 1998
'Moderne' Lives On in a Colonial City
By KATHERINE ASHENBURG
In Hanoi, a rich French legacy of elegant architecture of the 20's and 30's
SNAPSHOTS from Hanoi: A woman in a conical straw hat, her cargo balanced fore and aft, rides her bicycle past the Beaux-Arts magnificence of the former residence of the Governor of Tonkin. Near the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, smart 20's and 30's buildings, inspired by jazz age ideas of nonconformity, house the favored socialist embassies. Around the storied Opera House, now called the Municipal Theater, just reopened after a $20 million refurbishing, stern guards shoo Westerners away -- no admittance except during performances.
Paradox abounds in Hanoi in the 1990's, and not all of it is architectural.
But the city's French colonial buildings, preserved for a half-century in the amber of war and poverty, have a peculiarly ironic poignance. The country that resisted France most strenuously has a capital that evokes that colonial world -- its broad avenues, the order and assurance of its architecture -- perhaps more vividly than any other city. And only now, as Vietnam re-establishes links with the West, is its French heritage threatened, by development and tourism. Although the conservation and restoration of Hanoi's Old Sector, acknowledged as one of Asia's architectural treasures, has been a Unesco project since 1990, it is still very much in the early, planning stages.
There is much to conserve and restore, because the French busied themselves in Hanoi for 70 years, beginning in the 1880's, with their "mission civilisatrice," or civilizing mission. They built in all the late-19th and turn-of-the-century styles, from the chilly neo-classical to the picturesque and nostalgic, but -- more unexpected and delightful -- their notion of the good life in Indochina also extended to very modern houses in the 20's and 30's.
One of the first important French buildings, completed in 1886, was St. Joseph's Cathedral, at Nha Tho on the western side of Hoan Kiem Lake, on the site of a pagoda razed by the French. If the Gothic Revival style of its square twin towers and made-in-France stained glass was slightly old-fashioned by this time, so much the better: it was an immediately understandable shorthand for the mother country and the mother church. Inside the now shabby church, which I visited last Christmas, except for the Vietnamese inscriptions you might be in a poor part of France or in Quebec. Unless it's Christmas, when Vietnamese worshipers fill the front of the church and silent groups of men squat at the back, watching.
The cathedral is somewhat apart from the initial French settlement, which is southeast of St. Joseph's and south of the ancient, jam-packed merchants' quarter. Begun in the 1880's, the French Quarter, as it was called, was a convincing European district, with boulevards, cafes, squares and parks.
Modeled on 18th-century French theaters, the cream-and-white Opera House, at the eastern end of Trang Tien, was built in 1911 and lavished with slate from France, mythological beasts, Art Nouveau windows, glass canopies dripping with lacy ironwork. No wonder the Viet Minh chose one of its bulbous balconies from which to proclaim the August Revolution in 1945.
If the Opera was the ultimate expression of French cultural prestige, it had plenty of company. Nearby, at 12 Ngo Quyen, the residence of the Governor of Tonkin (now the State Guest House), designed in 1918 by Auguste-Henri Vildieu, is a heartbreaker, its classical bones softened and prettified by plaques and swags, the whole painted in sorbet colors. Its terraces had a well-deserved cameo role in the 1993 movie "Indochine"; the wrought-iron gates still have nicks left by real bullets in the 1945 revolution.
Across the street is the Metropole, the famous colonial hotel built in 1911 and patronized by Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham. In a city where the important buildings tend to the cream-to-yellow range (yellow was the Vietnamese royal color), the Metropole's well-behaved arrangement of oriel windows, Ionic pilasters and balustraded balconies comes in a cool white, with green shutters. Smartly restored in 1990, the hotel is now the Sofitel Metropole -- and still the best in town.
At the juncture of Ly Thai To and Ngo Quyen (behind the Metropole) is a building so uncompromising and monumental at first it looks like one of Hanoi's more recent Soviet gifts. But go inside, where you will see clearly that it is Art Deco, with two long galleries radiating from a perforated, semi-circular portico. Designed by Georges André Trouvé in 1930 for the Bank of Indochina, it is now the State Bank and Vietcombank, and a place most visitors will enter to change money. The Deco wrought iron, chocolate marble pillars and Oriental motifs offer ample diversion for those waiting in line.
Even more diverting, and a much more thoroughgoing blend of West and East, is the History Museum, a block east of the Opera, at 1 Pham Ngu Lao.
Designed in what is sometimes called le style indochine, sometimes neo-Vietnamese, its realization in the History Museum is captivating. Designed by Ernest Hébrard, the head of architecture and urbanism in Indochina and an advocate of adapting architecture to local conditions, the two-story building, completed in 1932, is part pagoda, part villa. The central pagoda is the attention-getter, but the real delight is in the details, mostly romantic evocations of "Oriental" effects -- multiple rows of brackets supporting pagoda roofs, wedge-shaped balcony supports, stylized Chinese characters used decoratively. Inside, there are wonderful pieces from the Dong Son era, a Bronze Age civilization, and telling bits and pieces from the 19th-century Nguyen dynasty.
English labeling is scarce in the History Museum and nonexistent in the Museum of Revolutionary History, which tells its story largely through official documents.
One block north, at 25 Tong Dan, this museum is another of Hanoi's architectural ironies: the former Customs House, a U-shape of glacially controlled classicism, in royal Vietnamese ocher, has been reincarnated as the repository of revolutionary history.
Northwest of the French Quarter, the Ba Dinh, or Citadel Quarter, has become socialist Vietnam's showplace, with the dour, overpowering Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and the elaborate museum dedicated to Ho's life, the touchingly small house on stilts where Ho lived, which is open to the public, the Army Museum and a parade square.
All can be visited, and there is often a long line of tourists and Vietnamese outside the mausoleum, where solemn soldiers keep the visitors moving rapidly. Compared with the lively merchants' quarter, this neighborhood is austere and often seemingly empty. It too has its high-style colonial buildings -- notably the Presidential Palace (designed by Vildieu and completed in 1906) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, both imposing manifestations of French power. But the remarkable thing in this leafy district is the concentration of 1920's and 30's houses and apartments, built in local variations of the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles.
Art Moderne is essentially a more horizontal, softer-edged, streamlined continuation of the hard-edged Art Deco style; the line between the two can be murky, but to my eye Hanoi's houses are more often Moderne than Deco. These flat-roofed, stucco houses, often with rounded towers or porticos and illuminated by novelty, or variously treated, glass, cohabit with more folkloric turn-of-the-century styles -- Tuscan or Mitteleuropean villas that look as if some architectural tornado had deposited them willy-nilly in Asia. The sleek, understated modern buildings, on the other hand, although obviously part of international modernism, seem more at home here. And while the turn-of-the-century houses were almost all built by Europeans, the modern style appealed to the first generation of at least partly Vietnamese architects. The two styles are unified by exteriors that range from cream to deep yellow with dark green or black shutters and accents.
Dates and designers for specific houses are not yet easy to come by, although the Unesco project should make that information more accessible. But that in no way dilutes the pleasure of strolling past these highly desirable buildings, now largely occupied by embassies and offices. Beginning at Chua Mot Cot, opposite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are several modern buildings connected with the Polish Embassy. (No. 3 is the embassy itself.) The stucco is grimy, but the curving cornices and balconies proclaim their heritage.
Art Moderne designers liked glass that swept around curves or turned corners smartly: at the corner of Chua Mot Cot and Ba Huyen Thanh Quan is a swanky example of the latter. Its tall tower has a glass corner that runs almost the length of the tower, outlined in textured blocks and overlaid with wrought iron in a geometric pattern that manages to look both Asian and modern.
A short, shady street, Ba Huyen Thanh Quan is lined with modern stucco houses in harmonious shades from cream to brown -- a good example of how well the French lived in Indochina. No. 5, also part of the Polish diplomatic complex, is a hybrid, with a stylized floral bas-relief over the front door typical of Art Deco houses, a tower with a curving metal cornice in the Art Moderne style and -- in the middle of all this modernist restraint -- an unexpectedly Hispanic balcony resting on curvaceous brackets.
The rounded towers of these houses are characteristically at one side, but 10 Ba Huyen Thanh Quan is an arresting exception. More than three stories high, with a long panel of frosted glass, the tower stands dead center, flanked by curving balconies. It looks rather as if someone decided to build a house around an early spaceship. At the same time, its forthright modernism would make it credible on the French Riviera, and it's easy to imagine Hercule Poirot coming around the palm tree in front.
If you turn left at the end of Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, you'll return to Chua Mot Cot, where No. 9 deserves a look for its modernist austerity and Asian motifs (the torii gate over a balcony, chinoiserie balcony railings and tower trim).
Make your way to Le Hong Phong by way of Ba Nuyen Thanh Quan (noting the very jazzy iron fence, part squiggly and part straight, at No. 7) and Chu Van An, another pleasant street with modern houses on one side and older, more picturesque houses on the other.
ONCE you reach Le Hong Phong, the flat roofs and minimal decoration of the modern houses give way to sharply pitched roofs, fancy gables, carved brackets and all the bric-a-brac that turn-of-the-century European builders lavished on what they called villas, commodious houses on spacious streets. At 4 Le Hong Phong, part of the Dutch Embassy, is a natty, square-towered Tuscan villa painted white, gold and green, its surface decorated to a fare-thee-well with incised and appliquéd motifs.
The Slovenian Embassy, at 6 Le Hong Phong, is an appropriately Mitteleuropean villa whose tiled roof is echoed by miniature shed roofs, sheltering windows and balconies. Basically a nostalgic design even early in this century, No. 6 has one charming, early-modern touch -- small turquoise tiles that border the occasional window in thin, interrupted lines reminiscent of Charles Rennie Mackintosh or the Wiener Werkstatte.
Dien Bien Phu (at the acute angle on the left from Le Hong Phong) is a particularly attractive street, with Romanian, Hungarian and Swiss embassy buildings in traditional styles. No. 41, part of the Romanian complex, is an improbable potpourri of hooded Swiss gables, rounded french doors, balconies with vaguely Oriental railings and brackets -- surprisingly unified by a cool gray wash on the stucco, with darker gray trim. The Hungarian Embassy, No. 43-45, is another European building with Oriental motifs. The neighboring Swiss buildings, on the other hand, are handsome, wholly European villas: No. 47, a gabled and bracketed mansion; No. 49, an urbane, cream-colored stucco creation.
Dien Bien Phu will take you back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a fitting ministry for a building in le style indochine. Another intensely ocher-colored European fantasy, its Western structure is iced with chinoiserie panels and Asian tiled roofs; the guardhouse is a perfect little pagoda. And over it all flies the red flag of Vietnam.
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Exploring a French colonial citySightseeing
The Museum of Revolutionary History, 25 Tong Dan Street, is open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from 8 to 11:30 A.M.; Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday also open from 1:30 to 4:30 P.M.
The History Museum, 1 Pham Ngu Lao, is open Tuesday to Sunday 8 to 11:45 A.M. and 1:15 to 4 P.M. $1.
On Ba Dinh Square, the Ho Chi Minh Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 8 to 11 A.M. and 1:30 to 4 P.M.; the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 8 to 11 A.M. and Sunday 7:30 to 11 A.M.; and Ho Chi Minh House, Tuesday to Sunday 8 to 11 A.M. and 2 to 4 P.M. (A passport is required at the mausoleum.)
Where to Stay
Conjuring up the ghost of Graham Greene may not work in the renovated Sofitel Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen, (844) 826-6919, fax (844) 826-6920, but its solid luxury and good service still evoke Hanoi's colonial past. A double room without breakfast costs about $250, depending on the season.
Just opened, in a good central location across from the Australian Embassy, the Guoman Hanoi, 83A Ly Thuong, (844) 822-2800, fax (844) 822-2822, charges about $100 for a double room, including a full Western or Asian breakfast. The rooms are furnished in Biedermeier-style furniture, and there is a health club.
Near the History Museum and the Opera, the Army Hotel, 33C Pham Ngu Lao, (844) 825-2896, fax (844) 825-9276, is quiet and convenient; like many Hanoi hotels in this price range, the rooms are slightly run-down. About $75 for a double room.
Where to Eat
Indochine, 16 Nam Ngu, (844) 824-6097, would be a prime restaurant anywhere in the world. The Vietnamese décor, either in the colonial house or its courtyard, the service and especially the fresh, imaginative food (the soups are sublime) are very fine. A lavish dinner for two with Vietnamese beer might cost about $20.
Huong Lan, 20 Ngo Quyen, is a popular second-floor restaurant close to the Metropole; the grilled fish is recommended. Dinner for two with beer: $10 to $12.
Kinh Do Cafe, 252 Hang Bong, popularly called Cafe 252, prides itself on Catherine Deneuve's patronage (she enjoyed its homemade yogurt during the filming of "Indochine"). A good place for a casual breakfast, lunch or French pastry in the Citadel Quarter. Coffee, yogurt and cake will come to about $2.
Note that in Hanoi goods and services may be paid for in either dollars or dong.
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Wall Street Journal
January 21, 1999
Vietnam Port of Hoi An RenewsBy SAMANTHA MARSHALL
Role as Host of World Bazaar
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
HOI AN, Vietnam -- Six months into the monsoon season, in the spring, favorable sailing weather would blow merchant ships to this stretch of the Indochina coastline for an international market bazaar. Onshore, the ships' masters would haggle over the price of cinnamon, pepper and saffron, creating a babble of languages that is echoed today, three centuries later, by foreign tourists bargaining for souvenirs.
Japanese and Chinese ships first met off the coast to circumvent a trade embargo between the two countries. But in the early 17th century, an enterprising Vietnamese governor opened a port at the mouth of the Thu Bon River and began collecting taxes, giving rise to what became an international trade mecca and Southeast Asia's most important port.
Now, Hoi An is one of the country's top tourist draws, exploiting its history to attract international tourist dollars, one of Vietnam's best hopes for economic development and badly needed hard currency. It's a revival that shows the local initiative and resilience that throughout much of the millennium made Hoi An a trailblazer of Vietnam's economic development path.
Fortunately for the town and its visitors, Hoi An's architectural heritage has survived remarkably intact. Strolling around the surrounding area and through streets lined with 18th-century merchant homes, the visitor today gains a strong sense of the forces and diverse people that shaped Hoi An.
For a small fee, foreign tourists can wander through the 218-year-old family home of Xuong Tran, which opened to the public in 1993 and is one of 840 structures on Hoi An's historical register. Here, family members embroider elaborate tablecloths while Miss Tran, a member of the eighth generation to live in the house, shows tourists around in her rose-pink silk tunic. The 20-year-old university student says this permanent open house can be tiring, but it pays her tuition.
Families have lived in the same houses for generations, and still practice many of the same trades -- tailoring, embroidery, and curing and blending spices -- that sustained them centuries ago. "It's a living heritage," explains Tran Anh, deputy director of the Hoi An Center for Monument Management and Preservation.
Tourism has given a boost to these cottage industries, which have expanded to include brisk trade in tea sets, statuettes and lacquerware, not to mention tailoring and Internet access services.
Centuries ago, enterprising locals set up markets to supply firewood, fresh water and food to passing merchant ships.
Hoi An was a natural port of call. A sheltered harbor at the mouth of a river that leads into the heartland of Vietnam, this small town has held strategic importance since the beginning of the last millennium.
From the small farming and fishing villages that first appeared 2,000 years ago, Hoi An developed between the second and 10th centuries into one of the principle cities of the Champa Kingdom. Archeologists have discovered foundations of several Cham towers, decorated with the phallic symbols of the Hindu god Shiva, scattered throughout the area. The Chams -- a Muslim community that dominated much of Indochina until the 15th century -- practiced a loose blend of Hinduism and Islam. The Cham period saw the beginnings of trade, when sailors from India and Middle East would stop in Hoi An for provisioning.
But Hoi An really came into its own as an international trading center in the 17th century, when Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Indian, Filipino, Indonesian, Spanish and American traders gathered to buy and sell spices, silks and ivory. Indeed, until the 19th century, historians say, Hoi An was the most important port in Southeast Asia.
The merchants left a legacy of international architectural styles. Agents would stay between sailing seasons to open trading houses, where they could store wares and negotiate exchanges with other merchants and the local population. Portuguese, Dutch and French colonial-style structures built over the last 250 years are still in pristine condition.
The European influence extended beyond the architectural: Among Hoi An's European community was French priest Alexandre de Rhodes, who transcribed the Vietnamese language into a Roman script in the 17th century.
It was the Japanese and Chinese, though, who left the most distinctive stamp on Hoi An. Indeed, Hoi An was originally named Fai Fo, or "two trade streets," after the Japanese and Chinese quarters where most of the merchants lived. The Chinese, who have colonized Vietnam throughout most of the millennium, had the biggest foreign presence in Hoi An with about 6,000 -- outnumbering locals, according to one local history of the town. According to Mr. Anh, the current population of 75,000 includes about 800 ethnic Chinese.
Today it's even possible to sip jasmine tea with the descendant of a Chinese political refugee who arrived here in the 1500s. His 18th-century jackwood shop house, known as Tan Ky house, is one of Hoi An's premier historical sites.
As a free port, Hoi An attracted many asylum seekers. Japanese Catholics sought refuge here when Christianity was persecuted in Japan in the 16th century. In fact, Hoi An is recognized as the birthplace of Catholicism in Vietnam, where it still has thousands of followers today.
From the mid-15th century until 1639, when the Shogun prohibited Japanese from traveling abroad, Hoi An also had a large Japanese community. Historian Nguyen Van Xuan, based in the nearby city of Danang, estimates that there were about 300 Japanese living in 60 Japanese-style homes before they were forced to leave.
But not before they built the covered bridge that is one of Hoi An's most famous landmarks. Local legend has it that in the 16th century, a Japanese geomancer ordered the bridge built after a series of earthquakes hit Japan. He believed that a dragon, named Cu, slept below ground with its head in India, its tail in Japan and its heart in Hoi An. Whenever the creature moved it caused natural disasters, but by building a bridge over its weakest point, the Japanese killed it.
The structure apparently brought mixed blessings to Hoi An. By the late 18th century, the Thu Bon River silted up and China's ports opened up. Commerce shifted north to Danang and along the rest of the South China coast, leaving the town dormant until this century. On the other hand, Hoi An is one of the few cities to have escaped bombings by U.S. B-52s during the Vietnam War -- or, as it's known in Vietnam, the American War. The old imperial city of Hue, just 100 kilometers to the north, was flattened.
Now, Hoi An is seeking to raise its profile by gaining a place on the United Nations' list of World Heritage sites.
"We've sent in the application and we hope it will be approved next year," says Mr. Anh of the monument center. Then, if he could have his way, the modern buildings and hotels which have sprung up in the city to capitalize on tourism will be destroyed and "Hoi An will become even more ancient."
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