Vietnam, like many countries in this part of the world, was once under French colonial rule, being a part of Indochina until the French influence ended during the mid 1950’s after the first Indochina war. During their time in Vietnam, the French had great influence on Vietnamese culture, leading to changes in food, language, and architecture; some of it remains, some of it doesn’t.
In addition to some food (such as Banh Mi) and a few French-named streets, one of the surviving reminders of French rule is the architecture, which is prevalent in cities such as Ha Noi, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and is, particularly in the latter, quite beautiful.
Generally, the architecture around the city is a typical case of form following function; the buildings (even the new ones) are ugly, and are built simply to house the ever increasing amount of people living in the city (expats included of course). Some areas of the city really are an amalgamation of old and new; on one side of a road you’ll see a dilapidated apartment block housing entire families and communities across a few rooms; washing hanging over balconies, plants outgrowing their rooting etc, but on the other side of the street you’ll see a modern, glass walled block for the faceless youth of today, walking about with their heads in their phones, taking selfies with their coffee at Starbucks. Of course, cities have to change with the times, but at what cost?
One of the great things about exploring a city like Saigon is discovering small, hidden reminders of a time gone by. Now, I’m not a golden age thinker (well, maybe a little), and I’m in no way suggesting that the early 20th century was a great time for the city, but when you see the old architecture you can’t help but feel that perhaps the city should try to hang on to as many of these little pieces of history as possible. I’ve been to many Asian cities, and the one thing that is always disappointing is the lack of architectural history; no one likes to wander around a city made entirely of high rise concrete boxes, glass facades and pointless curvature (Beijing being a prime example).
This is where Romanticism comes in.
If you walk around certain areas of Saigon you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re in a different city altogether and, if it weren’t for the bikes whizzing around, you’d even be forgiven for believing you’re in a different time.
Sitting outside the Continental hotel for example, drinking coffee and staring out towards the municipal theatre (opera house), gives you a sense of ease that isn’t found in most parts of the city, or even in most of modern life for that matter, and is how you may imagine life would have been some time ago.
By strolling along the Cong xa Paris you can get a feel for how life may have been back in the day, with the hustle and bustle of people visiting the church and crowding the central post office; it’s hard to imagine that it’s much busier now than it was a century ago.
Many buildings situated along the waterfronts no doubt evoke memories for the elders of the city, with some surviving just as they were intended, such as the Majestic hotel, and some being bastardised for modern usage; either way, it’s not difficult to imagine how some parts of the city looked in a time when architecture was actually a proud aspect of a developing city, rather than simply a way of keeping up with supply and demand.
I often find myself passing by old parts of the city’s history and can’t help but feel a false sense of nostalgia, a longing for the past, even though, in reality, I have no idea what the past was really like; it’s easy to fall in love with a long passed era of the city, to sit around in the quieter parks of district 1, or even wander around admiring forgotten architectural gems in district 3. Even in some of the less than central districts, such as districts 5 and 6, there are old buildings that, though losing their battle against nature or modernisation (or both), are now converted to cafes or shops, still retain their charm, and are a quite leftover from a completely different time.
I’m happy that I live in a city with a great history, and that, considering it’s an Asian city, there’s more to the city than high rise eyesores and a typical ‘let’s cram as many people into a concrete tower as we can’ attitude. No matter what influences the French left behind when they were booted out, at least some of the architecture remains, which is good enough for me.