Atlantic Cities

The Paris-ification of Hanoi

The Paris-ification of Hanoi
Flickr/saturn ♄'s

When the French set out to redesign Hanoi, they weren't simply looking to imprint their urban vision on the Vietnamese. They were looking to create a city of the future.

From 1873 to 1940 and again from 1946 to 1954, Hanoi was under the colonial rule of France. These periods of colonial oversight left a permanent impact on the city's layout. "The French, more than other European countries with colonies at the time, were trying to figure out what their future cities would be like and determining exactly what was 'the gift' they were bringing to these colonies," says Gwendolyn Wright, architecture professor at Columbia University and author of The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism.

It is likely that what the French did give Hanoi was an infrastructure that added a layer of order and sensibility on a continent where cities can feel untamed.

What the French did in Hanoi is somewhat similar to what they did with Paris (above). Barron Haussman's famous plan for the City of Light established wider and more orderly paths but allowed small hints of the city's medieval past to remain.

A current aerial image of a portion of Hanoi that was left mostly untouched by the French.

Prior to the colonial period, Hanoi evolved naturally and, at times, unpredictably. Pathways were established over time and buildings clustered around them. The result was a dynamic and disorderly built environment.  

A current aerial image of a portion of Hanoi that was very carefully planned out by the French during colonialism.

When the French moved in, they endeavored to contain that disorderly urbanism within newly established tree-lined boulevards and public squares. This allowed Hanoi to maintain much of its dynamic identity while also establishing easily navigable and efficient paths to different neighborhoods. 

The French sought to preserve some of Hanoi's character in other ways. They focused on historic preservation (rarely practiced in urban development at the time), making sure to preserve some of the city's uniquely Vietnamese charm. Tourism was an important money-maker (clutch at a time when most French colonies were losing money) and urban authenticity through preservation added value to the city.
 
However, in the end, Hanoi's reorganization came at a cost to locals. Natives had almost no say in the planning process. Land that was not officially registered with the French government would be claimed as government property, leaving natives, unaware of new regulations, to potentially lose everything. 
 

Ultimately, the city of Hanoi took on a character that was specifically French. By creating a built environment that felt romantic and comforting in scale and design, much of the colonial-era buildings were not only liked by natives but are still in use today.

Hanoi's Opera House (courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Hanoi's Presidential Palace, formerly hosting the French Governor-General of Indochina (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons). 

A neo-gothic cathedral in Hanoi (image courtesy Eustaquio Santimano).

Although the locals are glad to have the French gone, there was little "de-Frenchification" of Hanoi after their departure. According to Wright, this is because the French "did a good job with the environments they created. The architecture was decent and the public spaces were popular." Those successful approaches to city planning have led to the creation and preservation of street culture that is specific to Vietnam, especially Hanoi.

A typical night scene in a commercial street in the city (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

"Walking along boulevards is a cultural tradition that did not exist before" says Wright. "The whole idea of the 'flâneur' at a cafe is now very much a part of street life." Mixed in with the typical Asian street commerce culture of cooking, vending and squatting, Hanoi has a street culture that is truly Vietnamese but leaves hints of a European legacy.

Consistently weighing the value of Hanoi's past against French economic interests, what is left is a thoughtful compromise that resulted in an exciting urban experience.

Lede image courtesy Flickr user saturn ♄ under a Creative Commons license.

Keywords: Hanoi, Colonialism

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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