French Colonialism

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 forces.

Ho Chi Minh unites the resistance
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 impact
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.


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