French Influence in Vietnam

The first gunshot to Son Tra, Da Nang in 1858, marked the beginning of a nearly one-hundred-year involvement of the French in Vietnam. Since then, the country has been through significant changes over the span of a century.

French Architecture

The most obvious French influence of this period is the iconic architecture, whose remains evoke a sense of unwavering nostalgia. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) was the capital of the Cochinchina colony during the French colonization, and it has a large number of stately structures that date back to the colonial times. These classical architectural treasures are undeniably charming, and stand as constant reminders of a conflict period of the country’s history.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica

Saigon Central Post Office

Saigon Central Post Office

Saigon Opera House

Saigon Opera House

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Hotel Continental, the First Hotel in Saigon

French Origin Words

The French invasion in the 19th century also marked the expansion of Vietnamese vocabulary with plenty of French words, which are nowadays officially used by local people. Because most of them are new concepts that were introduced only after the French colonization, local people prefer to use French words and pronounce them with a Vietnamese accent. You can see examples in many construction-related words, such as “công-tơ-nơ” (container- conteneur), “rờ-mọoc”-remorque (trailer), “xi-măng”- ciment (cement), or “ban công”- balcon (balcony). A number of mechanical vocabulary words are also commonly used, such as “bu-gi”- bougie (spark plug), “ghi-đông”- guidon (handle) and “pít-tông”- piston (piston). “Xà bông”- savon (soap) “sơ-mi”-chemise (shirt), “cà-vạt”-cravat (tie) are also new words, and, of course, so is “xích-lô”-cyclo, a three wheel vehicle that you can still see now around Ho Chi Minh city center.

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French-Vietnamese words

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Xích lô- Cyclo

French Influenced Cuisine

Among the numerous things the French brought to Vietnam, the introduction of new cooking ingredients and french cuisine have gradually permeated all aspects of the Vietnamese people’s lives. A lot of ingredients introduced by the French are now frequently used as parts of day-by-day Vietnamese cooking. Some are still called by their French names, because these kinds of vegetable were foreign to the local people. For example, “súp-lơ” (cauliflower) in Vietnamese is pronounced the same as “chou-fleur” in French, “cà rốt” (carrot) is the Vietnamese accent of “carotte”. Other words have simply been suffixed with the word “tây” (western), in order to differentiate from local types. Potato is called “khoai tây” (western yam), asparagus is named “măng tây” (western shoot), onion is “hành tây” (western shallot), celery is “cần tây” (western celery), and parsley is “ngò tây” (western corriander).

Apart from a wide variety of new cooking ingredients, though, the locals have adopted many new types of french dishes, to the point that nowadays they are being widely consumed by almost everyone. A few examples are “sa lát”- salade (salad), “pa-tê”- pâté, “xúc xích”- saucisse (sausage) and dairy products, such as “ya-ua”- yaourt (yogurt) and “phô mai”-fromage (cheese). Among them, “bánh mì”, “cà phê” and “bánh flan” are the most noticeable foods, that have been well adopted by Vietnamese people.

Bánh Mì (Vietnamese Baguette)

“Bánh mì” is  a product from the French colonialism in Indochina, which is nowadays considered to be one of Vietnam’s most sought-after delicacies. Local people have turned these dishes’ heavier bread loaves, which are usually eaten while properly sitting down at a table, into a type of handy fast food, which is always readily available. “Bánh mì” is very easy to get, it tastes extremely delicious and it also offers a wide variety of choices, depending on your preference.

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Bánh Mì- Vietnamese Baguettes

The unique bursting flavor from the combination of western ingredients and Asian herbs has made “bánh mì” a favorite among locals and tourists alike. It begins with a light and crunchy crust baguette that’s typically sliced in half, then spread with a thin layer of pâté and mayonnaise, and finally stuffed with different kinds of meat, including grilled meat, ham, chicken, or the Vietnamese “chà bông”, depending on your personal tastes. Then it is topped with pickled carrot and daikon, sliced cucumber, some coriander and scallion, cracked black pepper, chopped chilli and drops of soy sauce.

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It’s the combination of western ingredients and Asian herbs.

Cà Phê (Café)

Vietnamese people love coffee. They have coffee in the morning for breakfast, in the afternoon as a beverage, and at night as a soft drink, perfect for social meetings. While visiting Vietnam, you’ll find out that coffee is one of the easiest drinks to find. You can enjoy it almost everywhere, from cozy coffee shops along busy streets to local stands in small alleyways. Coffee in Vietnam is usually served with a filter set, therefore you can see every single drop of black chocolatey coffee fall into a translucent glass. This stimulates your senses and brings you a fresher and more authentic taste. You’ll also enjoy the aromatic scent of the premium robusta coffee, spreading through the air, while you wait for your drink to be ready. Then the coffee is sweetened with sugar or condensed milk, and enjoyed over ice for a delicious bitter finish.

Cà phê- Café

Cà phê- Café

Thanks to the introduction of coffee by the French, and to the highlands’ fertile soil, Vietnam has become the world’s second largest coffee bean exporter, sending an incredible amount of coffee beans out to the world every year.

Bánh Flan (Crème Caramel)

Ever since its arrival, this lightly sweetened custard dessert, which is often topped with gooey caramel sauce, has been strongly favored by local people. The Vietnamese make it even tastier, by adding a distinctive flavour of coffee, or some coconut milk. “Bánh flan” in Vietnam are usually steamed in small round cups, and served chilled in a plate, along with some shaved ice.

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Bánh Flan- Crème Caramel

If you are interested in learning more about Vietnam’s food culture, check out our other post on Rice Paper Dishes under $0.50! Otherwise, come here and taste it yourself!

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