France Influenced Vietnamese Culture
Shortly after the war, La Bibliothèque in Sài Gòn became a popular hidden restaurant for the so-called upper society. Madame Đài, a lawyer and politician from a renowned French-educated family in South Việt Nam, was in charge of the establishment. To make ends meet after being barred from practicing law following the communist victory in 1975, she turned the family home’s library into a clandestine restaurant, selling modest bistro classics like casseroles and coq-au-vin.
Sitting at one of the six tables inside La Bibliothèque was like stepping back in time, surrounded by dusty legal tomes in glassed-in bookcases. Madame Đài, a petite woman with a patrician air and clothed in a typical áo dài, would personally host the small group of French-speaking customers. The restaurant closed in 2000 and Madame Đài passed away not long after, in a small way symbolizing the end of the colonial century in Việt Nam.
As early as the 17th century, French merchants and missionaries attempted to establish economic and political ties in Việt Nam. In fact, Alexandre de Rhode, a French Catholic priest, is credited with developing the romanized script that eventually superseded the Chinese-style Nom ideograms.
France’s colonial adventure began with an invasion on the port city of Da Nang in 1858 and ended with the humiliating defeat of French paratroopers at Điện Biên Phủ, in the northern highlands. The unachievable idea of using the Mekong River as a commerce route to China prompted colonization to begin in the south.
The French moved their emphasis north, aiming to open the Red River to foreign trade instead of the Mekong River, after realizing it was too dangerous. They finally brought the entire country under French authority in 1895, after three decades of gunboat diplomacy and numerous treaties. The south Cochinechine, the central Annam, and the north Tonkin remained under French rule.
As colonial masters, the French were not very interested in establishing industry, but keen to export rice, rubber, and other agricultural products back to Europe. They were also keen to remodel Sài Gòn and Hà Nội in their own image. French villas still give the capital much of its old-world charms, as do the scaled-down replicas of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Paris Opera House.
The French, as colonial masters, were more interested in exporting rice, rubber, and other agricultural products back to Europe than in establishing industry. They also wanted to make Sài Gòn and Hà Nội in their own image. French villas, as well as scaled-down replicas of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Paris Opera House, retain much of the capital’s old-world charms.
For entertainment, the French even built a velodrome and racetrack. The residence of the French Governor-General turned out to be so palatial that when Hồ Chí Minh became president of Việt Nam in 1954, he famously refused to live in such colonial splendor, preferring as simple, traditional stilt house.
To fund these grandiose structures, the French imposed heavy taxes on the local populace and established state monopolies in salt and alcohol manufacturing.
Producers of salt were required to sell their products at a set price to a state-owned corporation. This had far-reaching implications for a country that consumed more than twice as much salt per person as the typical European at the time.
Fish sauce and preserved fish, the two main sources of protein in Vietnamese cuisine, required a lot of salt and were practically costly for the average Vietnamese. In an attempt to force the Vietnamese to purchase the considerably stronger, industrially made liquor from a licensed French business, the colonial authority also forbade traditional rice wine brewing in the countryside.
Not only did these policies turn scores of villagers into salt smugglers and bootleggers, they also ensured there wasn’t much love lost between the locals and the French – which fortunately did not prevent the Vietnamese from borrowing from their cuisine. While the French mostly stayed away from the local fare, preferring a diet based on imported tinned goods, the Vietnamese freely experimented with the new, European foods: kohlrabi with tofu, baguette made with rice flour, pâté with fish sauce and coriander, spring rolls with mayonnaise or chả cá with dill.
Vietnamese cuisine has many French influences, ranging from a fondness for crème caramel and beef and seafood to cooking with wine and beer. But it’s possible that the modest tin of sweetened condensed milk is France’s most enduring culinary legacy. It all began with a 1915 ad campaign by the French firm La Petite Fermiere, which pitched it as a children’s health drink. Young and old Vietnamese loved condensed milk because it satisfied their sweet tooth. It’s still used in sweets, desserts, and coffee, and it’s remained popular long after colonial Indochine died out.