Why did the Vietnamese reject French rule

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Searching for traces in Vietnam

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Vietnam - as part of the French colony “Indochine” - had close ties with the “mother country” France for almost a hundred years. Since France's military defeat in the Indochina War and the expulsion of the French in 1954, French influence has declined significantly. Today in Vietnam - in contrast to other Francophonie countries - only a few traces of the French past can be found. But a new approach is emerging.

by Matt Steinglass

The brightly lit four-lane expressway from Hanoi's western suburbs to the magnificent new My Dinh soccer stadium for the national team, which was built for the 2003 Southeast Asian Games, leads through a strange mixture of landscapes. Rice fields sprinkled with buffalo and family graves alternate with the shopping centers of the emerging industrial parks. In the middle of it all, strangely dense nodes of new private residences emerge: there are four to six-story town houses, long and narrow, the facades cluttered, decorated in pastel tones, the side walls windowless and gray in the expectation that the neighbors will soon be building something higher.

In one of those agglomerations of residential buildings, perhaps three kilometers from the stadium, directly on the expressway, there is an imposing four-story mauve-colored house with a mansard roof and rows of windows that are closed with heavy black shutters. At first glance, the building appears to be a convincing replica of a villa in northern France from the first half of the 19th century. Only when you take a second look do you see the cheap materials and the flaws in detail.

Somehow this house is worrying. Not the surprise to find European architecture in this strange area. Something like that can be found all over the world today; Disneyworld and Las Vegas got us used to it. Not that a 19th century French villa seems out of place in Vietnam. Rather, it's the knowledge that that villa shouldn't look out of place - but that's exactly what it does.

“There are many beautiful villas in the old parts of Hanoi that combine French and Vietnamese architecture,” says architect Nguyen Huu Dung, head of science and technology at the Ministry of Construction. The best are from the twenties and thirties. “They fit well in Asian landscapes. With the good, it is difficult to find out which elements are French and which are Vietnamese. " Dung, whose specialty is natural room climate regulation, particularly admires the French contributions, which - like the deep skylights with wooden shutters - provide shade and ventilation in Vietnam's relentless climate.

Given such a long tradition of fusing French and Vietnamese architecture, why would anyone want a tasteless imitation? The mauve-colored villa is simply inauthentic, the owner might as well have chosen a fake Venetian loggia or an English townhouse. Is that all that remains of the rich cultural synthesis of French Indochina in Vietnam? 75 years of French rule in Vietnam must have left a more organic connection than the preference for French rather than English style swindles.

Of course they have. Relations between France and Vietnam are pretty strong today. France has more direct investment in Vietnam (over € 2 billion in capital stock) than any other non-Asian country. It imports goods from Vietnam worth over 800 million euros a year, more than any other non-Asian country - apart from the USA. Vietnam received 77 million euros in government development aid from France in 2002, second only to Japan. Most of the European tourists to the country are French, 87,000 in 2003. About 375,000 French speakers live in Vietnam, and 300,000 French citizens of Vietnamese origin. French is the most popular language among Vietnamese students after English, ahead of Chinese.

But as with the mauve-colored villa, the relationship between France and Vietnam is more complex and indirect than a quick reference to the legacy of colonialism would suggest. The French are interested in Vietnam today, and vice versa. But not in the same way, and often not for the reasons one suspects.

The American modernization of Ho Chi Minh City in the sixties gives the impression of an Asian Los Angeles, but Hanoi's center is French. The winding, narrow streets of the old town give way to diagonal boulevards, lakes and parks - just as the medieval avenues of Paris have been cut by wide streets since the redesign of the city by Prefect Haussman under Napoleon III. Sometimes, when a Westerner strolls through one of these parks in Ho Chi Minh City, he still likes an older man in a jacket and tie with "Bonjour!" to be greeted. “I was a functionary in the colonial administration,” he may say. Or maybe he was a teacher of French literature until he was deported to chemistry in the 1950s.

But such encounters are rare. The French left 50 years ago. And even at the height of the colonial regime, French was not widespread. According to estimates, no more than two percent of the population could speak it. In West Africa colonized by France with its many local languages, French even became the national language for politics and administration after independence. But Vietnam already had a business and government language: Vietnamese. Only a few foreign words remained from French, for example: ga (from gare, train station), ban cong (from balcon), pho mai (from fromage, cheese). But those are the words of modernization, and they were only used by a small urban minority who boarded trains, lived in houses with balconies, and ate cheese.

The fact that France did not penetrate further into Vietnamese society may have to do with the contradicting motives that drove French colonization. The interventions under Napoleon III in the 1850s that led to the occupation of Saigon and the south of the country were efforts by the right. Her goal was to save Christian missionaries and to pursue French business interests. But in the 1870s, during the Second Republic, the left was the driving force behind mission civilisatrice - France's commitment to “civilize the lower peoples” as the progressive Prime Minister Jules Ferry later put it. In 1883 French troops occupied the rest of the country, keeping the king in office pro forma while the French administrators took control of his powerless mandarins.

The humiliation of the traditional Vietnamese regime and the appeal of European modernity led some Vietnamese to embrace the French language and culture as their own. Intellectuals like Truong Vinh Ky and Nguyen Van Vinh advocated a French-led Europeanization of Vietnam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vinh translated Hugo and Dumas into Vietnamese and supported the successful attempt to replace the Chinese writing system with the Latin one used by the Catholic missionaries. The French were reluctant to establish a public school system, but under pressure from the nationalists they finally started in 1913. 40,000 students learned there - in French. Many of these young urban Vietnamese emulated French ideals of modernity. Some went to France to work or study. A few adopted an attitude “more French than the French”: A young Vietnamese named Nguyen Sinh Cung wrote an article for a film magazine in Paris in 1922, in which he defended the purity of the French language against Anglicisms such as le manager and le challenger.

Cung later became world famous as Ho Chi Minh. His intellectual legacy was typical of that of the men who led Vietnam's struggle for independence in the 1940s. In the end, the desire for modernity and freedom awakened by training in France and its economic development could not be satisfied by the colonial regime. It was a die-hard devotee of the French language and culture, General Vo Nguyen Giap, who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

After 1954, France's influence declined sharply. Education in the colonial language largely disappeared from the north. In addition, with the flight of 600,000 Catholics to the south or to France, the proportion of the francophone population continued to decline. In the south, the government turned to the United States, and those educated in their sixties and seventies learned English. In the north, Russian or German was learned in the hope of finding one of the guest worker jobs in the Warsaw Pact countries.

But France quickly improved its relations with Hanoi, rejected American intervention in the war and resumed diplomatic relations in 1973 after the short-lived peace agreement between North and South had been signed. After that, especially after the beginning of the reforms called doi moi in the late 1980s, Francophonie experienced a kind of resurrection. From 1991 onwards, the French government began providing funding and administrative assistance for French language education in Vietnam, including curricula, teacher training and scholarships for study in France. The Alliance Française, supported by the International Organization for Francophonie (Organization Internationale de la Francophonie, OIF), began an aggressive program of cultural export by sending French films, musicians, artists and teachers to Vietnam. In 1997 the OIF held its meeting in Hanoi.

In 2002, nearly 130,000 Vietnamese students spoke French. That is nowhere near the more than 8 million who speak English. However, the quality of English education is often poor, and students tend to choose English because it is compulsory. French-speaking students are more likely to have chosen the language themselves and their teachers are usually better educated. Vietnamese who speak French generally speak this language well.

So why do young Vietnamese want to speak French? Some see it like Phuong, a 20 year old student at Hanoi's “Institute for International Relations”. Phuong is learning English and Japanese at school, but also takes French lessons at L‘Espace, the local French cultural center. The lessons are cheap, he says, only $ 50 for a ten-week course. And then there is the cultural side of things. “French is the language of love,” he explains.

It remains a little unclear what Phuong expects from speaking the language of love, as it is likely to be understood by few of the girls he meets. Other French students are more practical. Nguyen Hoai Quan, a 23-year-old student at a foreign language school in Hanoi, chose French because of the scholarships to study abroad offered by the French government and the OIF. He wants to study economics or business. "It's harder to get to English or American universities from Vietnam," says Quan. They are also far more expensive. And Quan is not in the luxurious position of choosing a language for cultural reasons. He comes from the rural province of Hai Dung. His father is a truck driver, his mother a seamstress.

The cultural reasons for learning French seem to weigh as heavily as the practical ones. A 2002 survey of language students' motives found they viewed French as the number one language for cultural exchange, ahead of English. An online poll from the same year found that 72 percent of Vietnamese see France primarily as a cultural rather than an economic or diplomatic power.

These data support the impressions that are gained from talking to language students. While their parents urge them to focus on English or Japanese for practical reasons, they want to learn French themselves for personal reasons. Contemporary youth culture in Vietnam is blocked by overwhelming expectations for business and education. Even in a big city like Hanoi, there isn't much for young people to do at night. With its aggressive cultural exports, France secured a trademark: a kind of escape into culture that English, with its connotations of financial competition, cannot offer. English may be the language of money, but French is the language of love and Phuong wants to speak it whether someone can understand it or not.

One of France's most tangible cultural legacies in Vietnam is the Catholic Church. In parts of the province of Ninh Binh, 100 kilometers south of Hanoi, you feel like you are in the Artois department in northern France: flat green fields, intersected by dams and overgrown with trees, with a church in each village. Christianity arrived with Portuguese traders in the 16th century, but it was the French who used the persecution of Catholics as a pretext for their imperial conquest. The church became a tool of colonial administration, baptism normal for those who wanted to advance in French-dominated society. At the time of the Indochina War in the 1950s, Catholics were mistaken for the fifth column of the French, and fighting between Catholics and Buddhists rocked South Vietnam in the 1960s.

Christianity, like other religions, has seen a return over the past 15 years. It is not uncommon to find the inscription "1996" above the entrance on a church with a centuries-old Gothic facade, which shows the year it was renovated. Today the Catholic community is estimated to have up to 8 million members, about ten percent of the population "Official estimates are far below. But the Vietnamese Catholics have nothing to do with France. If you crowd into St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi for the crowded Christmas mass, you will hardly see a white face. Prayers and chants are in." Vietnamese, and believers and clergy are Vietnamese, as is the recently elected Cardinal of Ho Chi Minh City, Pham Minh Man.

If you walk down Nha Tho, Church Street, from St. Joseph's Cathedral, you'll find evidence of a more modern French influence. Nha Tho is lined with Hanoi's most desirable shops and cafes. At one end is a tapas bar run by French Canadians, and at the other is Café Le Malraux, owned by a muscular French furniture designer who uses the café as his showroom. After 4 in the afternoon, the bar stools are regularly occupied by three or four good-looking guys who drink beer or pernod during their French-language conversation. Between the tapas bar and the Café Les Malraux is the Mosaique, a design and fashion boutique with French designs, La Brique, the bistro of a French, the Paris Deli, café and bakery, as well as La Boutique and the Silk, a design boutique owned by French investors who specializes in silk embroidery made by ethnic minorities in Vietnam's northern mountains.

Nha Tho represents an important element in the current French interest in Vietnam: relatively young entrepreneurs such as designers and restorers, whose activities in Vietnam combine business with aesthetics and lifestyle. This phenomenon occurs all over the French-speaking world, not just in Vietnam. You can find the same young French in the fashionably relaxed cafés of Benin. Young French seem to have an innate talent for lively, tasteful restaurants and making smart jackets and lamps from local produce.

29 year old Mai La Canaille is a good example. La Canaille's father is Vietnamese and grew up in a small village in Brittany. At the age of 25, she came to Vietnam for two months to look for her roots and fell in love with the country. Today she runs a small clothing brand and sells her products through Tina Sparkle, another Nha Tho boutique.

“When I came here, I didn't speak a word of Vietnamese,” says La Canaille. Today she speaks it well, partly because everyone sought contact with her. “I almost feel guilty about it. Just because I look partly Vietnamese, people want to tell me more than if I just looked French. "

La Canaille's connection with Vietnam is, in fact, almost symbolic of the state of relations between Vietnam and France as a whole. To a certain extent the relationship often seems arbitrary, the colonial years - half a century over - seem almost like the accident of history. The efforts of both sides to strengthen ties may seem compelled, in large part driven by practical considerations. France wants to maintain its status as a diplomatic power, the Vietnamese want scholarships to study abroad, and French emigrants want an extravagant life in a cheap, exotic corner of the world. But there is nothing forbidden about these wishes. They are real longings. The legacy of France in Vietnam creates a number of spaces and themes that different groups can take on for their own purposes. In the course of this development, the old clichés of Indochina will be replaced by something new, surprising and far more interesting.

from: the overview 01/2004, page 73


Matt stone glass:

Matt Steinglass lives as a freelance journalist in Hanoi, Vietnam, and writes regularly for US newspapers and magazines.