The French enter Vietnam
Vietnam’s first encounter with the
French was in the eighteenth century, initially through
missionaries, but later militarily when Pigneau de Behaine,
the Bishop of Adran, recruited a force to assist Nguyen
Anh to capture Hanoi, unify the country and, as Emperor
Gia Long, to usher in the powerful Nguyen dynasty with its
capital in Imperial Hue. Bringing together the north and
the south created the state of Vietnam for the first time.
Pigneau de Behaine’s vision of an Indochinese empire lingered
on in France, until an expansionary French Second Empire,
anxious to match the imperial adventures of Britain and
other European countries, attacked Vietnam in 1846 using
the Nguyen regime’s antipathy towards Christians as a pretext.
By the 1880’s they had secured the entire Indochina peninsula,
and began to exploit its rich resources.
Oppression and exploitation
Although the expressed purpose of the conquest was to bring
liberty to ‘the races and peoples still enslaved by ignorance
and despotism’, the outcome was seventy years of oppression
and near-slavery for the Vietnamese. The Nguyen dynasty
rulers continued as puppets, all rights were removed, and
any dissent was ruthlessly crushed. The predominant interest
of the French in Vietnam was profit – virtually no attempt
was made to better the lot of its people.
The oppression re-kindled folk memories of the centuries
of Chinese domination, and relit the fire of resistance
in Vietnamese hearts. Sporadic revolts and uprisings began
almost from the outset but effective opposition only arrived
when Ho Chi Minh recognised the potential of Communism to
unify the people and provide a strategy to defeat the occupying
Ho Chi Minh unites
From the 1920’s to 1941, Ho Chi Minh patiently brought together
the disparate resistance groups to build a single organisation
- the League for the Independence of Vietnam, better known
as the Vietminh. The Vietminh became the formidable fighting
force that eventually routed the French at Dien Bien Phu,
and were the foundation of the Vietnamese Communist forces,
usually abbreviated to the ‘Viet Cong’.
The curious lack of
The interesting aspect of the Vietnamese colonial period
is not its effect upon the country, but its lack of cultural
impact. The French were in Vietnam for almost a century,
but apart from the buildings, the railway and the ubiquitous
baguettes on sale everywhere in the cities, there are few
obvious traces of their presence. Whereas the French influence
on the culture of other former French colonies in Africa
and elsewhere is immediately obvious to visitors, in Vietnam
there is little to suggest they were ever here.
This is probably due in part to the behaviour
of the colonialists: minor civil servants and business people
in France, but living a life of opulence and self indulgence
in Vietnam. Insulated from the exploitation and degradation
of the Vietnamese people, apart from a small army of domestics
to manage the chores and prostitutes to provide entertainment
for the male administrators and the French army, the colonialists
lived a carefree and gracious lifestyle.
Education for Vietnamese people was minimal,
and health provision non-existent. Opium addiction was encouraged,
and proved a lucrative enterprise. In such circumstances,
cultural transfer was unlikely.
The Chinese sought to Sinicise the Vietnamese
during their occupation, albeit unsuccessfully. Nevertheless,
the impact upon Vietnamese culture, religious beliefs and
social behaviour was profound: probably the most significant
factor in the country’s development thereafter. The French,
motivated by gain, did little more than strip the country
of its natural resources.
The French legacy
Surprisingly, after the victory at Dien Bien Phu, there
was little spontaneous backlash against the tangible mementos
of French domination. Cities, towns, streets and municipal
buildings were re-named, statues and monuments removed,
but there was no attempt to destroy the most obvious symbols
of colonialism, the many pseudo-French public buildings,
chateaus and hill stations. The new Vietnamese authorities
either made use of them for mundane purposes, or left them
to rot. Whether this policy was by design or default, the
result was that many are still standing. As Vietnam opens
up to the world, the French architectural heritage is enjoying
a new renaissance as one of the country’s tourist attractions.