Hanoi was captured by the French in 1873, and relinquished to Ho Chi Minh in 1954. Compared to the 1000 years of Chinese rule over Vietnam, the 80 years of French Colonial rule seem like a mere afterthought.
However, having shifted the capital of French Indochina from Saigon to Hanoi in 1887, the French proceeded on a large-scale re-design of the ancient Sino-Vietnamese city. The high, or low point, rather, of this systematic act of cultural desecration and genocide was the destruction of the city’s main temple and pagoda complex, and its replacement by a completely incongruous and even today, utterly hideous Gothic Cathedral of St John’s.
Other similarly ill-advised and totally out-of-place French impositions onto the city’s urban landscape include the Hanoi Opera House, hardly ever used in its time, and today, a sitting white elephant; the Maison Central, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton” and used as a prison for dissidents during the Colonial and Vietnam War eras; and dozens of other Beaux-Arts style civic and cultural institutions that still remain as Government offices today.
Not all of the French architecture is similarly reprehensible however. The French were also responsible for a proliferation of beautiful villas that dot the colonial quarter and are today, home to the city’s foreign embassies and missions. The same goes for the glorious Hotel Metropole, which today, continues to draw visitors from all over the world.
But ultimately, the French were fooling themselves if they thought they could forcefully re-create, in a city with such a long-standing history, a second Paris or Marseille. Hanoi would refuse to be anything other than Hà Nội.
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