Imagine this: Sitting at an outdoor café, you sip your espresso to wash down a buttery croissant. As you gaze up at the grand façade of the Opera House looming before you, the fluted filigrees and floral motifs adorning it like a wedding cake, you suddenly remember you’re not in Europe—you’re in the middle of Hanoi, Vietnam.
Although the colonists have long gone, French influence remains strong in Vietnamese culture today. Just bite into a French baguette, called bahn mi in Vietnamese, for proof.
In the metropolises of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Hanoi, for instance, French cultural influence is tangible and ostentatious, showing off its baroque curves in numerous colonial buildings—think Ho Chi Minh City Hall, the Hotel Continental Saigon, and the Notre Dame Basilica. Erected in 1880, the basilica is like a piece of fairy-tale Europe dropped into Ho Chi Minh City. The towering paean to Roman Catholicism is an architectural point of pride for the 6 percent of Vietnamese who practice Catholicism today.
Even in the smaller coastal cities and rural towns, the buttercream walls and narrow shutters of French villas pepper the landscape. Many of them have been converted into charming hotels or guesthouses and welcome you with wide-open doors.
If you want to see Vietnam through the eyes of one of its best-known French citizens, read L’Amant, an autobiographical love story by Marguerite Duras. The book describes many of the important buildings and places of French colonial Vietnam, where Duras came of age.
If you’re dreaming of seeing Vietnam’s French heritage, our local experts await to show you the lesser-known sites. Visit our In the Footsteps of Marguerite Duras page, or, for a custom-made tour of Vietnam, contact our locally based travel specialists. Bon voyage! Or as the Vietnamese say, “Lên đường bình an!”