The Legacy of Colonialism

Tricolor threads in the fabric of modern-day Vietnam…

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu which led to Vietnam’s independence after nearly seven decades of French rule. While the French controlled Vietnam for less than one tenth the time the Chinese did, the vestiges of colonization can be seen almost everywhere, from the ubiquitous baguettes and pale yellow Franco-Annamite villas to the subtle loanwords with Francophone roots. To be sure, the colonial era is filled with stories of terrible abuse and racism, a system designed to benefit the few on the backs of the many. This month, Oi aims to divest culture from cruelty, history from horror, in highlighting the legacy left from this period of Vietnam’s history.


“I think that the Vietnamese are fortunate in that they are culturally broad-minded. During the wars, they made a differentiation between the policies of foreign governments and administrations and the culture. The culture is not at fault. When we fought the First Indochina War, we never made the mistake of lumping together French culture and the wrong policies of French colonial administration, so we never boycotted baguettes and red wine and filtered coffee… We don’t have a track record of wanting to get rid of vestiges of colonial times that are part of our history. And personally, I say well, other things may not be so rosy, but French colonial architecture and French cuisine, [people like] Alexander Yersin, are among the positive heritage left to us by the French colonial times,” notes former ambassador and current Vice-President of the Vietnam Peace Committee, Ton Nu Thi Ninh.

Pardon My French

Growing up with parents who were part of the Indochine generation (my father studied in Nantes and my mother taught French at the all girls’ Gia Long school in Saigon), we washed our hands with xa-phong (soap, from savon) in the lavabo (wall sink). My sister played with her bup-be (doll, from poupee) while I ate bich-quy (cookies, from biscuit) while adjusting the ang-ten (antennae, from antenne) on our tiny TV.


Ever since Jesuit father Alexandre de Rhodes visited Vietnam in the 1620s and laid the groundwork for a Latin-based writing system which replaced the variant character-based Chinese one in use since the 13th century, the language has been inextricably tied to French. No matter which side of the linguistic debate you may fall on ― the one side partly attributing Vietnam’s high literacy rate to the fact that it’s one of the few Asian countries to use what some deem an easier-to-learn script, or on the side of academics like the late Gail Kelly, Professor of Comparative Education (State University of New York at Buffalo), who pointed out that the reformed Vietnamese script actually separated following generations of Vietnamese students from their own national literature because they could no longer read it ― it’s undeniable that the French have left an imprint on the Vietnamese language, with upwards of 400 words that have found their way into modern Vietnamese.


There are the obvious ones, simply a transliteration from the French like ban-cong (balcony, from balcon) or pho-mat (cheese, from fromage), but then there are shortened words borrowing a single syllable. A Vietnamese person might take some money out of his bop (wallet, the first syllable from portefeuille) to leave a bo (tip, second syllable from pourboire) at a restaurant. Or order their eggs op-la, a truncated form of oeuf au plat (literally, ‘eggs on a dish,’ or more commonly, fried eggs) or yell ep-phe (spin, from effet) as they’re hitting a slice shot in tennis. Even the dish known the world over for being quintessentially Vietnamese, pho, may ironically be a take on the French “pot-au-feu,” the classic, rustic French beef stew. One of the many theories puts the turn-of-the-century origin of the dish in the Hanoian kitchen of the Vietnamese lover of a French officer, as she attempted to make the celebrated meal of slow-cooked meat, vegetables and spices. Unable to get the flavors quite right, she added local spices like star anise, cinnamon bark, cardamom, cloves and fennel and voilà, Vietnamese “feu” was born.

Haute Cuisine for the People

When the French came, they brought with them strange ingredients and new cooking techniques. Baguettes, flans, yogurt and coffee are now ubiquitous, but there are a few Vietnamese dishes which may not be so obviously French-inspired. Chad Kubanoff, a chef trained in classical French cuisine and now Vietnamese street food expert, says, “banh xeo is probably the farthest removed from the original dish, but I much prefer the Vietnamese ‘crepe’ compared to the French. The added texture and freshness brought by the Vietnamese cooking style have turned a relatively monotone dish into a new exciting creation, filled with contrasting flavors and textures. It’s also a step towards a more balanced and healthy meal with all of the raw herbs and vegetables, compared to the sugar and carbohydrates loaded into the French version.” Vinh Ton That, previously the head chef at Bobby Chinn Hanoi and Shri, agrees that the Vietnamese have put their own take on the French crepe. “Instead of plain flour, milk and butter, the ingredients have been substituted by corn flour, water and oil. But still, the concept is very similar.”


Another of Chad’s favorites is bo kho (beef stew). “It’s a dish that most travelers don’t expect to see or taste in Vietnam. It is very ‘un-Vietnamese’ in its richer flavor and full-bodied broth. Also serving a broth- based dish with a baguette is very rare to see in this country, definitely an ode to its French roots. Another nod to the French is having a piece of pâté or cheese stuffed in bread, as is the concept of eating eggs and bread for breakfast.”

Chad also talks about the more subtle influences of the French on Vietnam’s culinary landscape. “Many French dishes were replicated in Vietnam’s own style, not really with French culinary techniques, but with their own techniques and using ingredients that they already knew. Look at cafe sua da with its condensed milk and also the banh kem sau rieng. Other than using a durian flavored cream filling instead of a pastry cream, we’re basically looking at a standard cream puff.”


Vinh additionally points out that thanks to the French, “a lot of dairy products [have been introduced] that are used especially for cakes or desserts such as butter, milk, cream, vanilla, and so on. I believe we have a great deal of cakes that are inspired by the French as well as a lot of vegetables and fruit products such as potatoes, asparagus and strawberries, just a few of the ingredients that are now used so frequently in local cooking.”

Les Beaux Arts

The arts is another area where French influence can be seen. According to art expert Sophie Hughes, “Vietnam is quite unique in Asia because its fine art has been heavily influenced by the French. The birth of modern Vietnamese art is considered by most art historians to have taken place at the French run L’Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de L’Indochine, an arts school founded in 1925. In fact, the artists who are now considered the ‘four pillars of modern Vietnamese art’ ― Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Nguyen Sang and Duong Bich Lien ― were all graduates of the school.”


“The French teachers at the school introduced materials such as oil paint, techniques such as linear perspective and styles such as neo-classicism and Impressionism. They also introduced the idea of the individual ‘artiste’ in society. Previously there were highly skilled artisans and craftsmen who worked in collectives or craft schools and produced works that focused on teaching moral tales or historical legends. The school and the work coming out of it reflected a shift from a traditional society ruled by Confucian principles into a modern one where the role of the individual was valued. Students were encouraged to use modern European ideas as a means of evolution from traditional Vietnamese art. Lacquer was introduced as a subject at the school and as a result shifted from being a craft material to a fine art, making Vietnam the only country in Asia to make fine art works from lacquer.”

Hanging on to the Past

Colonial era architecture is perhaps the most obvious reminder of the Indochine period, seen through the faded yellow buildings with white trim and blue shutters scattered throughout the country. Magnificent, ornate edifices like the Notre Dame Cathedral (inaugurated in 1880) or the Saigon Opera House (modeled after Paris’ Petit Palais) immediately spring to mind, but architecture lovers equally appreciate the more subtle structures like the Museum of Fine Arts building or the Dragon House (Saigon’s Ho Chi Minh Museum) which fuse European elements like pillars and archways with eastern ones, most notably the dragons on the roof.


Tim Doling, writer and local historian, says: “The French made an important contribution to Vietnam’s urban fabric, from urban planning to architecture, including early structures influenced heavily by ethnic Vietnamese architecture, grand neo-colonial edifices intended to reflect the glories of empire and later ‘Indochinois’-style buildings which fused both Eastern and Western architectural styles. The French influence may still be seen today in a number of modern structures such as Union Square in HCMC’s District 1 which has been sympathetically designed to harmonize with its immediate surroundings.”

Sadly, many colonial-era heritage buildings are disappearing, the victims of neglect, economy or extreme modification. “I think one of the biggest ironies is if you go to any travel agency all over the world, they will sell Saigon on its colonial charm. And yet, its colonial charm is being knocked down every day,” remarks Sophie.


In his upcoming book, Exploring Ho Chi Minh City, a book of history walking tours, Tim notes: “Since I started writing the book in 2011 I’ve had to amend the text on numerous occasions to reflect the demolition of what I would regard as heritage buildings. The art deco apartment block at 213 Dong Khoi, another unlisted structure which even appears in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, is being demolished as we speak. Then there’s the related issue of unfettered modification of historic buildings, such as the original 1868 Chambre de Commerce building at 11 Me Linh Square which has been re-fronted several times so that it now bears little resemblance to the original.”

But when it comes to preservation, the question is: Whose responsibility is it to hang on to the past?

“These problems were highlighted at a seminar by the Ho Chi Minh City Architects Association and they stem from the fact that as yet the city’s development strategy doesn’t include a master plan or legal framework to conserve historical structures and sites. It’s really important that someone takes an inventory of what’s still there and protects the surviving buildings before it’s too late. And of course only the government has the power to do this,” says Tim.


Sophie adds: “Those buildings are obviously aesthetically pleasing but they also represent a brutal time where the French badly mistreated the country they were colonizing. In that sense, I don’t blame the Vietnamese people for not feeling sentimental about it. The sentiment comes from foreigners really. We’re the ones who want the buildings to stay.”

Urban artist Bridget March says that “it is the nature of people to want to hang on to the past ― it gives us a sense of security. We like familiar things. We like to surround ourselves with memories of the good and the bad as reminders, as wayfinders. For instance if we don’t hang on to some remnants of French colonialism, it may be more difficult to tell the stories about, and value, the struggle for independence. In our own lifetimes we collect the memories and the souvenirs of all those who have influenced our lives ― our grandparents, parents, siblings and the things that have changed our lives such as education, foreign adventures, traumas, love and loss. I think our cities should be the same.”


Tim concludes: “There needs to be a balance between the needs of modernization and redevelopment and protection of the city’s remaining architectural heritage. It’s not about celebrating the colonial era which, of course, was a traumatic period for the Vietnamese people, but rather about helping people to understand their past better. Preserving and re-using old buildings where it is possible to do so is also environmentally sound. But above all, these old buildings bring charm and character to the city and emphasize its uniqueness. Many of them are historically significant and this can be a magnet for tourists which helps to regenerate neighborhoods and provide more jobs for local people.”

History Education
For those interested in a deeper understanding of how Vietnam’s past is reflected in its present:

Chad Kubanoff ( leads street food tours created and managed by professional chefs.

– Experience major shifts in 20th and 21st century Vietnam through the eyes of artists with Sophie Hughes (

Tim Doling leads specialist history tours of HCMC. Contact him at 0128 579 4800 or email:

Bridget March ( can be found painting cityscapes along with budding artists in HCMC and Hoi An and soon Sapa (starting early June)

Images by Adam Robert Young

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