When the French first took over Hanoi in the 1880s, they erected massive, classically French-style buildings intended to overawe the Vietnamese with the might and majesty of the conquerors. Attacking the buildings most associated with the old regime, they demolished most of the Citadel and then destroyed both the 11th century Báo Thiên Pagoda, where Vietnamese emperors prayed for rain, to erect the Gothic-style St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and Báo An Pagoda, the city’s largest temple compound, to make a post office.
Private and public buildings in the new French Quarter, south of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, also reflected the European style, like the Municipal Theater, the Métropole Hotel and the Résidence Superieur across the street. But after World War I a new generation of administrators promoted a change in architecture, one that combined European and native Vietnamese elements. The French set up a Town Planning and Architecture Service in 1923, with Ernest Hébrad its first director.
In Hébrard’s view the existing French buildings were inappropriate for the climate and out of synch with the city’s traditional architecture. He designed the Cửa Bặc Church, opposite the Citadel’s northern gate, very different from St. Joseph’s, with an eclectic set of influences, especially his own favorite art deco. For secular buildings, Hébrard favored verandahs, canopied windows, bigger rooms for greater ventilation and indigenous decorative motifs. The most outstanding example is the History Museum (pictured above). He promoted this as the Indochinese Style, and with the establishment of the Hanoi School of Fine Arts in 1927 he hoped to inculcate his principles into the Vietnamese students.
Employed to build villas in Ba Đình and other parts of Hanoi, the Vietnamese architects further developed the Indochinese style by incorporating terraced roofs, curved facades, arched and circular windows and Vietnamese designs in ornamental plastering above doors and windows. This mix of European and Vietnamese motifs has continued to the new constructions of modern times. Hanoi streets are lined with buildings blending European and native elements. Each has a unique façade, multi-paneled windows, railed balconies and a different type of roof. New modern buildings in Vietnam differ from those in all other Southeast Asian countries. Vietnamese may have been inspired by colonial architecture, but, like everything else they imported from foreign cultures, they added their own notions to create a unique indigenous style of their own.