A tall, blond woman in black and a small Asian girl stand at the prow of a gilded barge moving slowly over a wide, jungle-banked river. The woman is Catherine Deneuve, star of the 1992 movie “Indochine” about the war for independence in French colonial Vietnam.
Before the war in Vietnam became an American flash point, the French ruled the country. From the 1850s to 1950s, the empire and colony were locked in a relationship that brought misery to both.
But in another sense, the colonial era in Vietnam bore gorgeous fruit in the melange of styles exhibited in every sumptuous scene in the movie: the willowy Deneuve in a traditional ao dai pantsuit, the Vietnamese orphan she adopts wearing a 1920s cloche hat. The subtle, seductive French-Vietnamese blending infused not only couture but also art, architecture, literature and cuisine. Inevitably, the influences traveled back to aesthetically sensitive Paris, where they can still be detected at certain shops, restaurants and museums.
But to really catch hold of the evanescent style -- its silken fabrics, slow-moving ceiling fans, louvered windows, tamarind trees, lacquer cigarette holders and muddy espresso -- you have to actually visit Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, formerly the administrative center for the French colony of Indochina (which ultimately included Cambodia and Laos).
In Hanoi, the French built wide, tree-lined avenues, grand villas in a hybrid style known as Norman Pagoda and a scaled-down replica of the Opera Garnier in Paris. They spread the language of Voltaire, Catholicism and cafe society; taught the Vietnamese how to make puff pastry; and renamed streets for French dignitaries.
Nowadays, most Americans visit Vietnam to remember the war that ended when Saigon fell in 1975, to meet the Vietnamese people on friendlier terms, see pagodas, trek in the mountains, shop for curios and relax on a South China Sea beach. But after living in Paris for three years, I went to Hanoi last December to seek out what remains of French Vietnam before it vanishes under the rising tide of modernization.
Vietnam stagnated after Communist consolidation, but free market reforms in the 1980s made the economy roar. In 2005, the country celebrated 25 successive years of growth, which has had predictable results. Construction and pollution are rampant, especially in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, and the south. If the north seems to lag behind, it’s only because it got off to a late start.
So it is still possible to wander through Hanoi’s Old Quarter on the northern and western sides of Hoan Kiem Lake, watching the Vietnamese cook, eat -- indeed, live their lives -- on the uneven sidewalks. The tradition of alfresco dining presumably made them receptive to French-style sidewalk cafes because everywhere people sit at tables under umbrellas that advertise La Vie bottled water. As in Montmartre and St.-Germain-des-Pres in Paris, the people chain smoke, argue and drink coffee, though here it’s the Vietnamese brew, so thick that it looks black even after milk is added.
INTO THE OLD QUARTER
I started in the Old Quarter, at the amiable Hong Ngoc Hotel. The first morning, I bought flowers from a bicycle peddler in the street. Around the corner I found Tan My, a silk and embroidery shop run by three generations of Vietnamese women. Then, already caught in the spell of Vietnam, I kept walking even though I’d only gone out for a bouquet.
On Hang Trong Street, peddlers sell freshly baked baguettes on the curb, and Sunday painters set up easels by the bridge leading to Ngoc Son Pagoda on Hoan Kiem Lake. At Fanny, an ice cream shop on the western side of the lake, the nougat ice cream is almost as creamy as at Berthillon on the Ile-St.-Louis in Paris.
Cars and motorcycles tear through seemingly impassable streets, weaving around bicycle taxis, known as pousses-pousses (push-push in French). Wherever major arteries intersect, the traffic is every bit as chaotic as around the Etoile in Paris.
The beguiling character of the Old Quarter is partly a product of Hanoi’s swampy terrain, pockmarked by lakes fed by the soupy Red River. Even after the lakes were drained, roads that once circled them remained in a grid-defying tangle.
Long, narrow tube houses, some of which stretch as far back from the street as 180 feet, became a feature of the district in pre-colonial times, but the French encouraged their building in stone and concrete instead of more flammable wood.
Often picturesquely dilapidated, their facades have green shutters, iron grillwork and plaster medallions. Across from the Cafe des Arts, a bistro on Ngo Bao Khanh Street with credible French onion soup, I saw a tube house restored to its former dignity but painted hallucinogenic orange.
My favorite part of the Old Quarter was the area around Hanoi’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a Vietnamese administrative center before the French arrived.
At 13-17 Cham Cam Street I found the colonial-era home of Charles Lagisquet, architect of the Hanoi Opera. Handsomely restored, with a gate, garden and yellow facade, the villa is now the Spanish Embassy.
The approach to the cathedral is along leafy Nha Tho Street, lined by cafes, shops and hotels that cater to Westerners. Halfway down the block, an alley leads to Ba Da Buddhist Temple, where French priests had to hide out when Black Flags guerrillas who harassed colonists laid siege to the neighborhood in 1883.
French missionaries led the way to colonialism in Vietnam, among them Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, who took young Vietnamese Prince Canh to Versailles to meet Louis XVI in the 18th century. The religious men planted seeds of Catholicism that prospered -- today there are about 6 million Roman Catholics out of a population of about 84 million in Vietnam -- even though the bare condition of the Hanoi Cathedral doesn’t reflect it. When I visited the soulful, dingy gray neo-Gothic church, which opened in December 1886, girls in red and yellow ao dais were practicing for a Christmas pageant.
THE PARIS OF VIETNAM
By about 1905, Hanoi was the Paris of Vietnam, a playground for colonists enriched in the rice, rubber and opium trades. At the same time, it reflected the empire’s effort to shine the golden light of French culture in dark corners of the world.
As proof of their altruism, colonists could point to the new bridge over the Red River, street lights, an electric tram, the railroad reaching Haiphong on the coast and schools where Vietnamese girls and boys learned to write their native language in Roman letters, a transcription system developed by the French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes.
Some of the brightest of them continued their educations in France and returned home more French than the French; others studied Rousseau and joined the revolution. Ho Chi Minh, who lived in Paris from 1917 to 1923 and went on to become the father of Communist Vietnam, said that though the French in France were good, French colonists were cruel and inhuman.
When I moved to the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi’s French Quarter on the southeastern side of the lake, I walked in the well-heeled footsteps of the colonists Ho hated -- second sons, soldiers, priests and businessmen who hoped to fare better abroad than they had in the old country. The women commanded legions of servants and sat in front of fans smoking opium-laced cigarettes. The men wore white suits and Panama hats, drank cognac and soda, traveled in touring cars like the vintage Citroens parked at the porte-cochere of the Metropole.
More than the beautifully preserved opera house down the block, the Hotel Metropole epitomizes French Indochina. When it opened in 1901, it was one of the most luxurious hotels in Asia, attracting Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on their honeymoon; Graham Greene, author of “The Quiet American,” a 1955 novel set during the waning days of French Indochina; and a host of American lefties, including Joan Baez, who had to retreat to a bunker during U.S. bombing raids in 1972.
By the time foreign correspondent Stanley Karnow saw the hotel during the American war in Vietnam, it was a horrible specter. “Paint flaked from the ceilings, its bathroom fixtures leaked and rats scurried around its lobby,” Karnow wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Vietnam: A History.”
But today, the Metropole is again the pride of Hanoi, thanks to a 1990 restoration and flawless management by the French hotel chain Sofitel. The three-story lobby yields to a chain of intimate sitting rooms done in dark wood, vintage prints, Chinoiserie furniture, orchids and silk. An Oriental runner lines the creaky grand staircase leading up to rooms in the oldest, most desirable section of the hotel. My chamber reflected the Metropole’s glory days in every detail. It had a wood-floored entryway, elegant sitting area, balconies and plush bed where I rested in the hot afternoon, watching the ceiling fan circle.
The Metropole’s restaurant, Le Beaulieu, is considered one of the best French restaurants in Vietnam. But when I heard that its maitre de cuisine, Didier Corlou, had recently opened his own restaurant, Verticale, in a 1930s tube house on the outskirts of the French Quarter, I walked there, met the chef and reserved a table.
Corlou, renowned for applying classic French cooking techniques to Vietnamese ingredients that many Westerners might not recognize, has cooked for former French President Jacques Chirac. “Like the French,” Corlou said, “the Vietnamese will eat anything.” Nevertheless, I let him choose my dinner, a sampling of Verticale’s best dishes, from foie gras ravioli in mango juice to Ecuadorean chocolate fondant a la Corlou’s French grandmother.
After that, I roamed widely in the French Quarter and villa district to the west, stopping at l’Espace, a cultural center and language school supported by the government of France and the Fine Arts Museum on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, which has several galleries devoted to early 20th century Vietnamese painters who learned Western techniques at Hanoi’s Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts.
I stopped too at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where Capt. John McCain spent five years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down in 1967.
Hao Lo Prison, as it is officially called, is a popular stop for American tourists, who learn that the medieval-looking stone fortress was built by the French in 1896, chiefly for Vietnamese political prisoners. Chained to wooden bunks in grim cell blocks, they succumbed to scabies, dysentery and torture. There is even a guillotine, imported from France for public executions.
Later, over a slice of quiche Lorraine at Kinh Doh, a tiny French bakery near the Fine Arts Museum, I reminded myself that it is dangerous to romanticize. In Vietnam, farmers unable to pay French taxes lost their land. Opium addiction, encouraged by the colonial administration, was rampant. Military conscription and press gangs enslaved a people with a long love of independence.
Just then I looked up and saw an autographed photo of Deneuve, who apparently visited Kinh Doh while filming “Indochine.” I wondered if, like me, the quintessential French beauty had come to love Hanoi. Or did she know all along that the French had landed in no dark corner of the world when they colonized Vietnam?
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Planning this trip
THE BEST WAY
From LAX, Asiana, China Southern, Korean, Cathay Pacific, China, Thai Airways, Singapore and Malaysian all offer connecting flights (change of planes) to Hanoi. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,206.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 84 (the country code for Vietnam), 4 (the city code for Hanoi) and the number.
WHERE TO STAY
Church Hotel, 9 Nha Tho St.; 928-8118, www.churchhotel.com.vn. A small, stylish hotel near the Hanoi Cathedral that fills up fast, so book early. Doubles $45 to $75, including breakfast.
Green Mango Restaurant and Hotel, 18 Hang Quat St.; 928-9916, www.greenmango-hanoi.com. A newly opened budget hotel with only seven stylishly decorated rooms (including two with balconies) near the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake. Doubles $50 to $90, including breakfast.
Hong Ngoc Hotel, 30-34 Hang Manh St.; 828-5053, www.hongngochotel.com. A part of a small, home-grown Hanoi hotel chain, located near the cathedral and silk district. The best rooms are in the rear and have Chinese- style furnishings. Doubles $51 to $79.
Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, 15 Ngo Quyen St., 826-6919, www.sofitel.com, is one of the most historic and handsome hotels in Southeast Asia, exquisitely restored by the French Sofitel group and located near the Hanoi Opera. There’s a pool and one of the city’s best French restaurants. Just make sure to ask for a room in the old wing; doubles from $440.
WHERE TO EAT
Cafe des Arts, 11B Ngo Bao Khanh; 828-7207. Serves Paris bistro fare on the second floor of a town house near the cathedral. There’s a handsome old bar with photos of jazz greats; Fixed-price dinner about $20.
Cafe Goethe, 56-58 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.; 734-2251. A terrace cafe in one of Hanoi’s finest Art Deco villas, now the German Goethe Institute. Lunch specials $4 to $7.
Green Tangerine, 48 Hang Be; 825-1286. A popular, candlelit French restaurant in a fine old town house covered with vines. The five-course fixed-price dinner runs about $20.
Tam Tu, 84 Ly Thuong Kiet St. Excellent and modestly priced Thai restaurant, with a smart location next to the Fansland Cinema, a large-screen theater that often shows classics in their original languages.
Verticale, 19 Ngo Van So St.; 944-6317, www.verticale-hanoi.com. Haute French- Vietnamese cuisine by Didier Corlon, formerly of the Metropole, in a stylishly renovated Hanoi town house. Dinners $40 to $60, not including wine.
TO LEARN MORE
Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, www.vietnamtourism.com.
Consulate General of Vietnam, San Francisco; (415) 922-1577, www.vietnamconsulate-ca.org. U.S. citizens must have visas to enter Vietnam.
See more scenes of French influences in Hanoi at latimes.com/hanoi.