Visitors to Hanoi are not only amazed by the incredible tangles of electrical wires and its unique traits in architecture, but also dazzled by the sparkling European treasures laid by the colonials in the French Quarter.
So do our travelers on Hanoi food tours, and they often ask us history questions related to the French’s legacies, like “what’s in the French Quarter”, and “when did the French control Hanoi?”, or just simply wondering why many houses are painted yellow. Therefore, we would like to cover those interesting questions in this blog post.
1. What’s in the French Quarter?
As its name suggests, the neighborhood exposes the colonial French architectural legacy in Hanoi. It’s where you’ll see old butter-yellow buildings with red roofs and green shutters, and it brings a feeling of a small Paris here and there, in the midst of the newer buildings and skyscrapers of a developing Hanoi.
When zooming in the green tree-lined boulevards in the Hanoi French Quarter, we’ll find yellow painted villas, churches, colonial style hotels, and grand government buildings dominating the neighborhood. Hence, it’s called the French Quarter though the French’s left the city nearly 70 years ago (further details of what to see in the French Quarter covered at the bottom of this post).
2. When did the French control Hanoi?
In 1873, French gunboats sailing up the Red River from the East Sea, and captured the Hanoi citadel. Northern Vietnam was then thrown into anarchy until the French seized Hanoi in 1882. A few weeks after Vietnamese King Tu Duc’s death in 1883, the French attacked Da Nang and captured Hue after a bloody battle and imposed a Treaty of Protectorate on Vietnam.
So, the year 1873 was the milestone marking the French control over Hanoi, and French colonial buildings in the city was built shortly after that.
3. Why are houses painted yellow?
With the “mission civilisatrice” (civilizing mission) political rationale, the colonial French’s buildings in Hanoi (and throughout Vietnam) were designed to reflect the power of France in the Far East. Opinions about why the French painted their houses and buildings yellow color vary, but there are two main theories:
- Symbolical reasons: Yellow, or more precisely, imperial yellow symbolizes royalty and superiority which was traditionally associated with royalty in Vietnam.
- Practical reasons: Yellow absorbs less heat, it helps the building avoid being overheated in a tropical country like Vietnam. Also, yellow goes well with moss green derived from tropical rains.
4. What to see in Hanoi French Quarter?
Hanoi has expanded and grown wealthier in the last two decades, many of the French buildings remain but are now partially obscured by the local-designed colorful shop signs of a developing city.
Fortunately, Hanoi has found its future by appreciating its past. While some of the French buildings have been refurbished as Embassies and Ambassador’s residences, there are still beautiful French houses hidden beneath layers of additions, and there are still much to see, do, and eat in this historical neighborhood.
Within the context of this post, we would like to name a few:
Hanoi Opera House
The Hanoi Opera House (now used as the Municipal Theatre) was regarded as the jewel in the crown of the Hanoi French Quarter. Based on the neo-Baroque Paris Opéra, completed with Ionic columns and grey slate tiles imported from France, the building was constructed in 10 years and finally opened in 1911.
Its interior features crystal chandeliers, Parisian mirrors and sweeping staircases of polished marble, all have been beautifully preserved. Unfortunately, there’s no access to the public unless you go to a performance. But everyone can walk around the ground, and there are also nice coffee shops and bakeries to visit.
National History Museum
One block east of the Opera House, the building that houses Vietnam National Museum of History is a fanciful blend of Vietnamese palace and French villa. Designed by Ernest Hebrard, who became head of Town Planning and Architecture Services in 1923. The building bears his distinct Indochina Style, which blended Eastern and Western traditions.
The museum reflects Vietnam’s evolution from Paleolithic times to Independence. Exhibits, including many plaster reproductions, are arranged in chronological order on two floors covering everything from prehistory to 1945, while the building across the street at 216 Tran Quang Khai covers the post-1945 era.
Sofitel Metropole Hanoi Hotel
The five-star Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel, with 364 rooms, was opened in 1901 as Grand Métropole Hotel. The hotel has a rich history and a long tradition of welcoming travelers of note, among them are ambassadors, writers, heads of state and entertainers.
It’s today not only the iconic colonial hotel in Hanoi, but also one of the most important brands among Vietnam’s luxury hotels. If you don’t stay here, you’re welcome to stop by for a drink at its café terrace on Ngo Quyen Street, or a cocktail by the pool at the Bamboo Bar in its garden area.
The church, built in 1886, is one of the very first structures built by French colonists in Vietnam. Publicly known as “the Big Church”, the Joseph Cathedral survives the wars and times, and still remains intact in a good condition.
The best time to visit this beautiful cathedral is the weekend when the Catholic ceremonies take place. A large number of Catholics living in Hanoi flock to the church to participate in its services. All ceremonies are big and formal with baptisms and ablutions. After your visit, there is a good Pho restaurant within 2 minutes walk, or you may take a walk around the nearby Hoan Kiem Lake.
Hoa Lo Prison
Nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war as a wry comment on its harsh conditions, and often brutal treatment. The jail became famous in the 1960s when the PoWs, mostly pilots and crew members, were shown worldwide in televised broadcasts.
The prison was built in 1896 by the French, who named it Maison Centrale. Today, the museum mostly concentrates on the pre-1954 colonial period when the French incarcerated many nationalist leaders at Hoa Lo, including no fewer than five future general secretaries of the Vietnamese Communist Party. This is an interesting spot to learn about the wars.
The Presidential Palace was constructed in 1906 by Paul Doumer, the French Governor General at the time. Later, in the book “Biography of a City”, William Logan attributed to the construction of the place as “overwhelming passion to construct a colonial capital that would reflect the glory of France”.
Like most French Colonial architecture, the palace is pointedly European. The only visual cues that it is located in Vietnam at all are mango trees growing on the grounds. The palace hosts government meetings and does not open to the public, but you can walk around the grounds and visit its beautiful garden and other nearby Ho Chi Minh relics.
5. What to Eat in Hanoi French Quarter?
This is the most interesting part when talking about a neighborhood, because food is always an indispensable part of every city (and our article posts!).
Though the Hanoi French Quarter is home to some of Hanoi’s ritziest hotels and restaurants, it’s best to have a pho bo on the street while you’re exploring the French influences on the city. This is where to find the best Pho bo in Hanoi French Quarter, or the best pho in Hanoi Old Quarter if you want to visit this neighborhood next.
If Pho is what you’ve already eaten, then Bun should be your next try. Here is Bun noodle dishes that Hanoi is famous for!
Please contact us if you are looking for a private Hanoi food tour with a real local foodie, we are good at what we are doing and looking forward to showing you around our city.