The Daily Telegraph - Vietnam, embers of empire
July 16, 2005

Fifty years on, there is still a strong French accent to life in Vietnam.

The French used to say of their former colonies in Indo-China: "In Vietnam they plant the rice, in Cambodia they watch it grow and in Laos they listen to it grow." Things haven't changed much.

In Laos, meditation still seems to take precedence over farming. Cambodia, too, feels timeless: only politicians change with any regularity. By contrast, Vietnam is one of south-east Asia's "tiger economies", a hustling, bustling hub with no shortage of entrepreneurial spirit.

Imperial France invested more in industrious Vietnam than anywhere else, and left more behind. The colonial footprint is stamped most heavily into the culture - architecture and gastronomy - rather than the rule of law or business principles.

For the French, Empire was a mission civilatrice rather than an exercise in upping the trade balance. They tried to create a petite France in their remote colonies, enforcing the French language, a Catholic God and fresh croissants.

As Vietnam prospers and progresses, the French legacy is being hotly debated. To pull down or not to pull down is the toughest question for property developers and city planners. The gorgeous old colonial buildings of Hanoi and (to a lesser degree) Saigon often cost more to renovate than replace.

But demolition would be a travesty because Hanoi, in particular, is one of the most beautiful cities in Asia, with leafy boulevards of teak, lime, almond and banyan trees shading Provençal-style villas and lakeside pagodas.

Against the forces of fast economic growth, the government is trying to preserve Hanoi's historical charm. It recently established an arts-and-crafts street market, held on weekend evenings, in the centre of the Old Quarter (along Hang Dao and its continuation), banning cars from the area after dark.

My guide, Ngo Thi Bao Khanh, told me that new buildings are being constructed in the traditional French way. "Now it's what everyone wants: the romantic style, high ceilings, big windows, lots of light."

Hanoi is a wonderful city to explore by foot or cyclo - the modern-day rickshaw that uses pedal power (one company is called Sans Souci, French for "without a care"). The finest French architecture is along Duong Tran Phu and Dien Bien Phu streets, where most buildings serve as embassies or ambassadors' homes.

In the 1950s, when the French left Vietnam, the easy thing would have been to tear it all down and erase any memory of colonial subjugation. But perhaps some things are just too beautiful to destroy - the ochre-yellow residences with heavy green shutters and elegant cornices, the extravagant belle époque Opera House, the spires of Catholic churches.

Downtown, the more modest villas are in Hanoi's Old Quarter around Hoan Kiem Lake, where a mixture of French colonial, Vietnamese and Chinese architecture is sometimes brought together under one roof.

In this neighbourhood, roads are devoted to particular trades - there's Hang Bo, or "Large Basket Street"; there's also "Bread Street" and "Coffin Street".

I stopped for lunch at Green Tangerine, a French and fusion restaurant on Hang Be ("Boat Street"), a reminder of times past when a network of canals threaded through the city.

Behind the 1928 peppermint façade was a room crowded with French-speakers, a mixture of expats and elderly Vietnamese. A bargain menu du jour featured crab remoulade with Vietnamese roots, dill, sesame and mushrooms, as well as other French dishes laced with mashed lotus seeds, tamarind sauce and chilli.

The enormous French influence on Vietnam's cuisine is seen everywhere, from the slickest restaurants to the sweet-smelling bakeries and street markets.

In no other region of Asia can you see baguettes carried in bicycle panniers or in woven baskets balanced on sellers' heads. Every street corner has a crowded café serving sweet, strong and gritty black coffee (cà phê ), as well as biscuits, cakes and pastries.

One wet, misty morning, I puddle-jumped between the stalls at one of Hanoi's crowded daily markets on a shopping expedition with Didier Corlou, head chef at the colonial-era Hotel Metropole. The narrow alleys were chock-full with delivery men and fresh ingredients, filthy underfoot, noisy with motorbike engines and horns.

Customers dawdled past, catching up on gossip, haggling for ages over prices. As Didier put it: "C'est fantastique, non?" Didier told me he was the only foreign chef in Vietnam when he arrived from France 14 years ago. Ever since, he has been exploring the influence of colonialism in cuisine.

"There is so much the same in France and Vietnam. The croissants here are maybe not sweet, but they are here. Bread has no salt, but is still bread. They have dill, and you do not find it anywhere in Asia. Then they make this beef bourguignon on the street, but cooked in rice wine, not red wine."

Didier hardly took a breath. "This was fusion before I started doing it in restaurants."

We zigzagged between stalls, greeting traders and fingering food. Didier is a familiar sight, his trademark chef's jacket peeping white beneath his coat. We broke off leaves of herbs, crushed coriander between our fingers, snorted the strength of basil and sniffed soft cinnamon.

Didier plucked scallops out of big plastic bowls, squeezing them between finger and thumb, complaining they were too white. He wagged crisp spring onions (for Asia's most delicate spring rolls) under my nose, pointed out the Vietnamese crèpe packed with shredded pork and the great slabs of mortadelle, jambo n and aspic.

"Look at this artisan making pig's blood," Didier exclaimed, pointing to one of his vendor friends behind a table of deep-red sausages.

"This is more expensive than fillet, say 75,000 dong [about £2, for a kilo], and fillet is 50,000. People really love it, just like in France. Now look at these snails. In all of Asia, it's only in Hanoi they have snails - best stuffed with ginger. There are a lot of eels because of the cold water. The same as in France. We don't see this in Thailand or China."

The crossover of Vietnamese and French cuisine makes for a magical mélange. Even Vietnam's national dish, the beloved noodle soup pho, may originate from pot-au-feu - whose final syllable is pronounced the same way. The Vietnamese burn shallots to make consommé for this broth, in the same way the French burn onions.

After a morning bargaining for shrimps, sole and a box of zucchini flowers, after tiptoeing around puddles of blood, ducking beneath the conical non lá hats everyone wears here and dodging porters balancing swing-basket yokes, we emerged into the grey light and light drizzle.

On my right was the convent of St Marie, to my left was Hòa Lò prison. Both French-built, together they reflected the sometimes harmonious, sometimes tense relations between master and mastered. In one, they used to sing hymns with the converted; in the other, they tortured and guillotined political prisoners.

Opinions here are mixed about the French occupation, but mostly they are vague. "The French tried to exploit the people as much as possible," a hotel employee told me.

A market stallholder said: "They were good. The French left us culture, taught us how to enjoy life." But his assistant interrupted him to say he was foolish: "So many terrible things have happened to us since the French, we do not even think of them."

Vietnam is a country deeply scarred by war, yet its outlook is forgiving and forward-looking. Its people believe last century's occupations, battles and political influences have also enriched the nation. "We have had so many wars and so many influences," said Le Quang Hau, sales director at the Hotel Metropole.

"I speak to my father in French, I speak to my wife in Russian, to my son in English and to my neighbour in Vietnamese. This is our history."

A two-hour flight south of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City - also known as Saigon - is a testament to this war-torn past. Its history has made it resilient, charged with initiative and roaring with trade.

The country's commercial hub, it stands on the banks of the Saigon River, where cargo ships jostle with rice barges and fragile sampans, while porters sweat in the humidity, loading the boats.

This port on the rim of the Mekong Delta is steamy hot and searingly stylish. The streets are lined with imaginative one-off boutiques, design stores and busy cafés. Vendors persuade you inside with a soft "Madame, s'il vous plaît?" that is hard to refuse.

I rambled along Dong Khoi and Le Thanh Ton streets, favourites for elegant silk clothing, hand embroidered scarves, faux-antique furnishings and zen-style lacquerware. No wonder so many tourists end up getting a container to ship their purchases home - a service many stores offer.

If you go to Hanoi for the food, you come to Saigon for shopping. The products are tasteful, travel well and are extremely cheap. One shop assistant I met, Ngon, said she thanked the French colonialists for Vietnam's style and the American colonialists for the prices.

I looked at her quizzically. "You know the dong is tied to the dollar? It's very cheap for Europeans," she said with a wink, offering me three sets of coffee cups for the price of two.

For me the strongest French legacy is not to be found in the chic boutiques, or in the halls of haute French dining. The most authentic colonial leftovers I gleaned were in conversations with elderly French-speaking locals, reminiscing about the fight for sovereignty.

In the shadow of St Joseph's Cathedral, I learnt how one man's grandfather was executed by the French. Another had friends imprisoned at Hòa Lò whom he never saw again.

They spoke about how difficult it was under the French to rise above a certain station, no matter how hard they studied or worked. Yet it was matter-of-fact. They smiled and stressed that this was history, and we should move on.

We shared crusty sandwiches called banh mi, an echo of the French pain de mie. I ordered mine stuffed with pâté and laced with chilli.

On the next table, they ate bit tet (the French bifteck): sliced tender beef steak in gravy, with French fries, tomatoes and shallots. It was sopped up with a warm baguette, topped off by a dish of sublime kem caramen (crème caramel). All for a pound. Bargain authentic French fare - in the heart of Asia.

On my last morning in Hanoi, as I was leaving for the airport, a local pedalled up to me with the cry of "Madame, cyclo, Le Monde?" It was just too alluring.

Yes, he could just be trying to sell me a whistle-stop tour of town and a French newspaper. But could he also be proposing a journey of the world? With all its multicultural fusion of East and West, Vietnam does feel like a whirlwind circum-navigation, a global tour de force.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with CTS Horizons (