Hanoi is full of beautiful French architecture. Within easy walking distance from Hoan Kiem Lake, the tree lined avenues of the French Quarter and the narrow streets of the Old Quarter are home to some of the best buildings in the city.
For most visitors to Hanoi, the sheer volume of Ochre coloured French era villas and houses is a real surprise. You expect the odd building, but at every turn you seem to catch a glimpse of a gabled roof, a shuttered window or an Art Deco column.
Once you have got your eye in, the hunt for French Hanoi can dominate whole weekends, unearthing architectural gems hidden in the maze of back streets that dominate the city. Regardless of your personal opinion of Art Nouveau or Art Deco architecture, the crumbling magnificence of these buildings has an allure like no other.
The Heart of Indochina
As an administrative centre for French Indochina, Hanoi became a symbol of imperial domination – both cultural and political. As with all imperial ventures, the best way to express this ‘superiority’ was through architecture. Some of the most iconic symbols of the city are distinctly French.
The white washed Metropole Hotel, the almost brutalist Saint Joseph Cathedral and the Art Deco splendour of the State Bank of Vietnam, not to mention Hanoi’s very own little piece of Paris – the Opera House. Replete with roof tiles all the way from France, this reproduction of the famous Palais Garnier in Paris looks strangely out of place in the usually cramped streets of the city, set as it is in isolation. Yet most of Hanoi’s French architecture is very much part of the fabric.
Hanoi has an amazing ability to absorb and integrate. Nothing seems to be out of place – be it the topiary reindeer on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake or the large “Happy New Year 2005” banner in my local cafe – it all seems right. Strange – but certainly right. In a way this is the trick that Hanoi has managed with its French history. Something that could be seen as a negative reminder of the past has been brought into the fold and embraced as one of the family. Hanoi’s embrace has made these crumbling relics as relevant today as they were 100 years ago.
The beauty of French Hanoi is that it is very much alive. The old buildings are not museum pieces; they are like an old pair of jeans, comfortable if a little thread bare. Most of them are in dreadful want of renovation and are under serious threat of destruction in favour of buildings with extra levels that can house ever growing families. But they remain as cafes, family houses, apartments and government buildings spread the length and breadth of the city.
Crumbling elegance is not an easy thing to pull off – go too far and it can get quite messy. Only St Petersburg and parts of Mumbai seem to have ticked the ‘shabby chic’ look quite as well as Hanoi.
From my untrained eye I can pick out three types of crumbling French architecture in Hanoi – the classic grand buildings, often government buildings or hospitals, gabled houses with large overhanging roofs and Art Deco/Moderne villas. Each style has its own charm and unique character, but for me it is the gabled houses and villas that capture the imagination and whisk you a few thousand miles away to a France that never was.
Explore Hanoi’s beautiful architecture by taking a walking tour with us to discover the incredible charm of the remaining French colonial architecture in town!