Traces of the French in Hanoi

by Stanley Meisler

November 25, 2001

There was a time -- romantic in French history -- when French Indochina with its capital of Hanoi shimmered as one of the jewels of the French colonial empire. Thousands of French administrators and teachers and merchants and police lived in Hanoi. The brightest and richest Vietnamese studied at elite French schools there. French law, French bureaucracy and French communications dominated life in the colony. And a visitor could taste a little bit of France and its elegance in the best hotels and restaurants.

France officially still counts Vietnam (as the largest part of Indochina is now known) as a French-speaking country. But I cannot fathom why. A recent week-long stay in Hanoi left me astounded at the dearth of French influence and language. The city seems to have erased almost all traces of a hundred years of French colonialism.

English is the foreign language of choice these days. At the post office and almost all museums, placards and labels impart their information in Vietnamese and English, not French. Teenagers scurry after English-speaking visitors as they stroll through the cacophonic city. Half the youngsters hawk postcards, English-Vietnamese phrase books, English guide books and copies of The Quiet American by Graham Greene. The other half, selling nothing, are pleasant students eager to practice English. "Bill Clinton is my friend," said one. "Is he your friend, too?" A second, hoping to become a tour guide someday, explained to me in English that a soup made from cobra was a good antidote for a hangover and that unfortunate people turn lucky again once they have eaten dog. A third, clearly not as schooled as the others, groped deep into his memory for an English sentence and finally blurted out, "Are you a gay homosexual?"

Even the French-owned Metropole, once the grand hotel of French colonialism, operates mainly in English. I ate lunch one afternoon at the Club des Arts, a new French bistro. The French owner Gérard Gastel greeted me at the door, chatted in French, and led me to a table. When the Vietnamese waitress took my order, however, she did so in English, because, she said, she knew no French.

There were vestiges of French colonialism. A few buildings showed the facades of French architecture. One even featured the kind of grill work that Art Nouveau designer Hector Guimard fashioned for the entrances to the Paris Metro a hundred years ago. Expatriates told me that one or two of the oldest government ministers still spoke French. And, on a couple of occasions, an elderly Vietnamese would show off his childhood education by saying a few words to me in French. But these were exceptions to the rule. Hanoi can hardly count as an affirmation of French culture.

The situation reminded me of the times in the early 1960s when I first visited Cameroun and Tanzania, two African countries that had been colonies of Germany before World War I. It was difficult to find German traces. Some government buildings, dating from the old days, were German-designed and German built. I would sometimes come upon an old soldier who had fought under the Germans during World War I and could recite some words of German. But these were rare moments. Most of the time, it was hard to remember that the Germans were ever there.

There are parallels in time. When I first set foot in Cameroun and Tanzania, Germany had lost its colonies more than 40 years earlier. When I set foot in Hanoi, the French had been defeated at Dien Bien Phu and driven from North Vietnam more than 40 years earlier. And yet the situations are not comparable. The German colonies were no more than a blip in the history of European imperialism. French colonialism, on the other hand, was always regarded as deep-rooted, passionate and enduring.

The French believed they had been anointed to bring civilization to the benighted peoples of Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean. They prided themselves on transforming people of color into model French. They boasted about Leopold Senghor, the former Senegalese president whose exquisite French poetry has earned him a place in the French Academy. Instilling the French language took on the intensity of a crusade. A Peace Corps Volunteer in an African school once told me, "The French teachers do not care if their students cannot add or subtract so long as they cannot add or subtract in good French." In his book about French colonialism, Mission to Civilize: The French Way, the distinguished foreign correspondent Mort Rosenblum wrote a few years ago, "Wherever the French have been and gone, the Gallic stamp remains indelible." That has been true of every former French colonial city that I have ever visited except Hanoi.

I suppose history can explain what happened to Hanoi. After the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, they had to abandon North Vietnam. French influence waned as the Vietnamese led by Ho Chi Minh turned to Moscow for political support and economic assistance. Soviet communist trappings replaced French trappings. North Vietnam's isolation from the non-Communist world intensified during the civil war of the 1960s and 1970s in which Americans fought and died but failed to save South Vietnam from defeat.

In the last decade or so, Vietnam has tried to break its isolation, open trade with the West, and attract foreign investment. Hanoi, in fact, looks like a cauldron of capitalism these days with its lively streets crammed with shop after shop. English is the international language of commerce and tourism, and it is natural for the new capitalists to try to learn English. English, of course, is also the international language of pop culture, and it is natural as well for young people to try to speak it. I do not want to exaggerate its place in Vietnam society; it is not the language of administration or education. That is reserved for Vietnamese. But English is clearly the foreign language that many Vietnamese would like to master.

This embrace of English has come despite the American role in the Vietnam war. A visitor can find reminders: the prison that Senator John McCain and other American prisoners of war dubbed the Hanoi Hilton, the wreckage of a B-52 bomber in the dusky green pond of a crowded neighborhood, a few displays in the Museum of the Revolution that show relics like American military uniforms and photographs documenting what the Vietnamese regard as American aggression. But the anger at the United States appears muted these days as Vietnam seeks American investment and assistance. A large part of the population of almost 80 million, in any case, comprise young people with no memory of the war. It was not even mentioned by any of the youths who crowded me to practice English.

Yet a recital of recent Vietnamese history may not tell all. Perhaps the collapse of French influence in Hanoi is another example of an astonishing phenomenon of the last few decades. Great institutions that once seemed mighty and unshakable have splintered and disintegrated under the relentless currents of change of our times. In my own experience as a foreign correspondent, Franco fascism, Soviet communism and South African apartheid have all crumbled. The collapse of the myth of French colonialism is far less important, of course. But it may reinforce a modern reality. In a world of swirling change, the permanence of great institutions can prove an illusion, their veneer of power hiding brittleness and fragility. Perhaps I am overreaching for significance. But I never expected to see a once French colonial city like Hanoi so bereft of French influence.

November 25, 2001
Washington D.C.

Author's Note: The Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion section intended to publish this piece in the summer news doldrums, but it got spaced out by other copy. If it had been published on September 9th, as I had hoped, it might have raised some eyebrows. On that day, the Sunday Travel section of the New York Times ran three pieces under the rubric, "Following French Traces in Vietnam." Their writers, especially Catherine Texier, a novelist trying to soak up background, reached the opposite conclusion of mine. Where I saw little French influence, she saw plenty. Neither was lying. Writers see differently. I still believe I caught what she missed.

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