in Vietnam is something of a hotchpotch of styles, but most
constructions can be included in five main categories –
vernacular, Chinese, ethnic, colonial and modern.
Where are all the old
Despite its extensive history, few buildings in Vietnam
are more than a hundred years old, although there are some
notable exceptions. Unlike Europeans, Asian people do not
venerate old buildings. Even in the recent past, when a
house, a temple, or a pagoda fell into disrepair, it was
either knocked down and replaced, or extensively renovated.
When a Vietnamese person says a building is ‘old’, he or
she means that its original purpose has been preserved on
that site, not the building itself. Recent exposure to organisations
with a mandate to conserve tangible cultural relics has
led to a greater concern to retain the original integrity
of old buildings, but most of the skills and knowledge of
the craftspeople who built them have lost.
Vernacular Vietnamese buildings are distinctive- unlike
most of the rest of Asia, they have a massive wooden framework,
rather than the lightweight ‘stilt’ method used elsewhere.
Good examples can be seen all over the country, and particularly
in the villages around Hanoi. Larger public buildings, such
as ‘communal houses’, are also of wooden construction. Stone
and brick were reserved for royal or significant religious
buildings. Nearly all vernacular buildings were single-storey,
with heavy flat-tiled roofs to withstand typhoons. None
had ceilings or chimneys.
The Chinese influence on Vietnamese architecture is seen
most clearly in pagodas and palaces. The distinctive roofs
with elevated hip rafters and half-round tiles, heavy ornamentation
and lavish use of embellishments and motifs are distinctive
features. However, although superficially similar to their
Chinese antecedents, the architectural details of Vietnamese
pagodas differ greatly. However, the layout, orientation,
statues, steles and other external elements of pagodas are
usually Chinese in origin.
Ethnic vernacular architecture
Vietnam has many distinct ethnic groups, and many have preserved
their indigenous architecture, some of which is highly attractive.
The 30m long sweeping straw roofs of the Ba Na ‘rong’ houses
and the E De long houses that sometimes extend over 100m
are particularly interesting.
Colonial French architecture
Vietnam’s colonial buildings are more than a straightforward
replica of French architecture. Adapting to a very different
climate led to many distinctive features, making the style
into a genre in its own right. Good examples of colonial
buildings can be found all over the country, but especially
in Hanoi, Da Lat and Hai Phong. The General Post Office
and the Town Hall in Ho Chi Minh City, the many mansions
and the Opera House in Hanoi, and the interior of the Municipal
Theatre in Hai Phong are all splendid examples.
Heavy taxes on the frontage of old vernacular town houses
led to the long, thin ‘tube’ houses of Hanoi and Hoi An.
Today, spiralling land values and status has placed a premium
upon height. Narrow houses built on a handkerchief of land
rise as much as seven or eight stories to overtake the neighbours.
They are often built in a strange pastiche of French architecture
with ornate balconies, cupolas and decorations fashioned
in cement and concrete and painted in pastel colours. High
ceilings, ceramic tiled floors and large windows reflect
the climate, but the extensive use of wrought iron screens
and shutters on windows, and metal gates and doors, are
the response to a high level of burglary!
Modern public architecture
Outside the towns and cities, public buildings tend to be
functional rectangular buildings with little architectural
merit. Particularly in Hanoi, but also in Ho Chi Minh City
and other cities, there are several interesting examples
of Soviet architecture dating back to the post-French war
period when the influence of the USSR was at its strongest
in Vietnam. Good examples are the State Bank, a blend of
Soviet and oriental styles, the People’s Committee building,
typical of the Soviet ‘brutalism’ architectural period,
and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. All three are in central Hanoi.
More recent public and commercial building
architectural styles have varied from the pseudo-classical
façade of the Trang Tien Plaza shopping centre to the futuristic
Sofitel Plaza Hotel, both in Hanoi. The glass and concrete
high-rise towers, malls and office blocks of Ho Chi Minh
City tend to be closer to mainstream international traditions