The old French quarter of Haiphong is a little-known gem embellishing North Vietnam’s biggest port city. KEITH MUNDY takes a laid-back tour on a cyclo rickshaw.
Conical straw hat pushed back, a man peers skyward. But he’s not scanning for bombers, he’s looking at a roof restoration in progress on an old French villa.
Haiphong only seems to have figured in the global consciousness as the target of devastating Vietnam War – American War to the Vietnamese – bombing raids by brutish B-52s of the US Air Force. But you’d never know about all that, visiting this thriving port city today and touring its old French quarter.
At the heart of northern Vietnam’s biggest port, the bougainvillea still clings to elegant villas washed in pastel shades with louvred shutters covering the windows, and large ceiling fans turning lazily inside. The calm streets are shaded with the delicate beauty of flame trees, and are virtually devoid of cars.
Haiphong may have two million inhabitants and be Vietnam’s third largest city, but in its centre it retains the languor and much of the look of French colonial Tonkin. Also surviving are some hardy cyclo men, who will pedal you round in their rickety mobile armchairs.
Lying back at ease, a gentle breeze caressing your face and wafting through your hair, scarlet petals falling on your clothes, you are in the perfect position to observe the architectural and botanical legacy of the “City of Flame Flowers”, a little known treasure amongst Vietnam’s tourist attractions.
Many visitors come to Haiphong, but few stop to look at it. They go straight to the ferry docks and take a hydrofoil or a slowboat out over the sea to Cat Ba Island, the largest isle amongst the thousands that dot Ha Long Bay, Vietnam’s top tourist destination.
Meanwhile, Haiphong bustles in obscurity, its monstrous sprawl of industrial districts providing most of the employment in what is Vietnam’s premier manufacturing city. There the populace labours at making a gamut of goods that include fish sauce, beer, cigarettes, textiles, paper, plastic pipes, cement, steel, pharmaceuticals and electric fans, with shipbuilding beside the river.
But that humdrum – perhaps harsh – reality is hard to believe when you’re in the old French quarter.
In the 1880s, after wresting control of Vietnam from the Nguyen dynasty, the French established their chief commercial port and naval base in Indochina at Haiphong and made the city of Hanoi, just 102 kilometres inland, the capital of their Indochinese empire. The French were building on an ancient legacy of waterborne trading at this point in the Red River Delta, where northern Vietnam’s biggest river empties into the Gulf of Tonkin, an inlet of the South China Sea.
Here they built docks, wharves, shipyards, customs houses, godowns, administrative buildings, clocktowers and municipal halls. The governor had a palace and the lesser beings of the colonial administration their villas. In addition to working and residential premises, leisure hours were well catered for: hotels, cabarets, brasseries and cafes sprang up, and even a modest opera house.
By 1919, a touring American missionary called the Reverend James Walsh could report in his Observations in the Orient on “a neat, prosperous French city with wide streets, attractive public buildings, comfortable-looking houses, well-equipped hotels, a large theatre, and about every conceivable convenience for its French residents, of whom in normal times there are 5,000.”
The French were there, in the main, to manage the exports to France of the results of their imperial exploitation: coal, rubber, rice, textiles and minerals, for the most part. Colonial Haiphong was the beautiful bloom upon the tree of rough trade.
A whole tropical version of France arose, so much more suited to the steamy climate and sensual atmosphere than what the British or Dutch built in the Far East, such that today Haiphong’s French quarter looks totally right – not a freak of Western interference but absolutely comme il faut.
This is not just a trick of nature, or the astuteness of French design, but most of all an aura bestowed by the Vietnamese people. Despite the bitterness of their colonial experience, they have embraced French Indochinese architecture as their own. This is seen above all in the capital city, Hanoi.
There the renovation and reuse of the French architecture in the governmental and diplomatic district has reached impressive levels of loving attention – a vast pattern of tree-lined avenues full of beautifully renovated, yellow ochre-washed villas with emerald green shutters.
In Haiphong, it’s more a case of affectionate upkeep – due to lack of money rather than lack of concern – with some startling exceptions. On Hoang Dieu Street, an avenue that makes a dividing line between the old French residential and commercial district and the administrative and port district beside the Cam River, things begin to spruce up considerably.
The renovated three-storey mansion occupied by Vietcombank exudes the expensive sheen of prestige conservation, the Art Nouveau ironwork fan projecting over the front door recalling many a posh Parisian address. Presiding over the meeting point of five roads, the Municipal People’s Committee occupies the former palace of the French governor, standing in immaculate splendour within an ornamental garden.
This area is replete with renovated structures washed in that warm yellow ochre characteristic of the French period and beautifully counterpointed by the lush greenery of flame trees and palm trees. Only one building projects a brash modern mood. Sacré bleu, the Post Office has been neonised! Three storeys high with a clocktower on top, its bold frontage signs are doubled up in neon writing.
On Dien Bien Phu Street, the main commercial avenue, matters are mixed, as Vietnam strikes out with its own brand of consumerism, but many a monument remains. Voila! The Hotel du Commerce is in fine fettle. A flamboyant neo-Romanesque structure that was once the centre of French social life, the hotel has been dazzlingly resurrected as Khach San Thuong Mai, which means exactly the same thing.
Further along, the grand old law courts, a neoclassical 1919-built edifice, has become a museum of city history – Haiphong Museum – the exterior bathed in salmon pink, with tall palms alongside, and, bizarrely, a Mig-17 jet fighter in the yard. On the southern edge of this square kilometre district where the French once held sway, facing the central park, stands the neoclassical opera house, previously the focus of French cultural life. Now a big avuncular picture of Ho Chi Minh dominates its gleaming four-columned façade and it functions as Haiphong’s municipal theatre.
All this laid-back charm and confident re-invention, however, belies some pretty heavy times not so long ago, as Vietnam tried to rid itself of imperialist control and intervention. In the mid-20th century, Haiphong was well and truly battered three times, firstly with a fierce naval bombardment by the French in 1946, then by heavy American aerial bombing in 1967 and 1972. The harbour was also mined by the Americans in 1972, because this is where most of North Vietnam’s weaponry came into the beleaguered country on Soviet ships.
In the peace and progress of 21st century Haiphong, these events seem like a bad dream rather than real history. It’s not just the lack of physical evidence that makes it that way but the friendliness of people to foreigners, the spirit of “let’s get on with our lives and look to the future”.
If determined nostalgists want to stroll their streets, to trundle their avenues, admiring the legacy of the imperial past, that’s fine – it’s all good for business and Haiphong people are pleased that foreigners are interested in their city, which for most Vietnamese is just a grim industrial centre.
One last word for the nostalgic explorer. For those who prefer four wheels and luxury leather padding to the three-wheeler with its weathered leatherette, your concierge can arrange a tour in a classic 1940s Citroen Traction Avant limousine with white-gloved chauffeur at the wheel.
Comme çi or comme ça, whichever way you discover it, old Haiphong is worth the ride.