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09.00  Stylistic Dialogue among Iconic Buildings in Vietnam

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9:00, Sunday 5 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

Vietnam has one of the most dynamic emerging economies in the world, and heritage tourism plays a significant role in this regard. Tourism in Vietnam has exploded since the beginning of the doi moi (open door) policy instituted in 1986. The number of international visitors has grown from one million in 1994 to 6.8 million in 2012 and 7.8 million in 2014, and accounted for 52% of spending for travel and tourism gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014. At the same time, domestic tourism has grown exponentially and accounts for 48% of travel and tourism-related GDP. Concomitantly, heritage tourism has greatly expanded as well, paralleling the interest, from both the state and public perspectives, in cultural heritage. All eight of the Vietnamese sites (five cultural, two natural, and one mixed) inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list date from 1993 or later, and currently seven sites are on the tentative list.  

This paper considers the architectural heritage of Vietnam, in particular that of the modern era. Focusing on Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, this paper begins with an analysis of the prevalent discourse of architectural heritage among tour agencies located in the two cities, and then the narratives of those advocating for the protection of the architectural heritage of both cities. The paper then proceeds to assess a series of architectural stylistic influence among buildings erected during the colonial and postcolonial periods. Whereas Hanoi is considered to be characterized by a cohesive style of buildings in European styles as well as Vietnamese architecture built across its millennial history, the architectural heritage of Ho Chi Minh City, known as a city of much more recent origins that was largely built by colonizers, has been much less collectively articulated. Whereas in Hanoi a group of Vietnamese historians took the initiative to protect colonial-era buildings from wholesale destruction or alteration, in Ho Chi Minh City, until recently, no viable movement existed for the protection of colonial-era buildings. In other words, one of the main differences between the two cities in terms of architectural heritage is that Ho Chi Minh City appears to possess a much more heterogeneous set of styles for buildings. This partly results from a more continuous series of construction operations from 1954 to 1975 in the city as compared to Hanoi. In addition, since 1986, in Ho Chi Minh City, construction and development projects have been undertaken at a much more rapid pace than in Hanoi. At the same time, the architectural qualities and intangible heritage of the ancient “Old Quarter” in Hanoi are starting to be recognized within Vietnam as being worthy of protection. In this regard, this paper argues, tourism has played important roles, both positive and negative.  

In the final section, this paper argues that there actually exists a very interesting, and fairly consistent pattern of stylistic architectural dialogue across colonial and postcolonial periods in Ho Chi Minh City, from the late nineteenth century to today. Two of the most iconic colonial-era buildings, the Opera House and the Central Post Office, have continued to exert influence on later designs built in varied architectural styles. Their motifs are echoed and replicated by a number of buildings of the postcolonial era. The most salient stylistic consistency in the city is the unusually large quantity of buildings with curved, rounded corners that give long stretches of streets their unique and cohesive character. Focusing on the delicate subject of the place of colonial-era architecture in the heritage politics of contemporary Vietnam, this paper argues that generations of architects across colonial and postcolonial periods were clearly inspired by existing architecture of the city, and that such influence is discernible from the material evidence of the buildings themselves, in the face of the general absence of any direct acknowledgment of such influence. This paper, therefore, advocates for a broadened view of architectural heritage in Vietnam; one that takes into account multiple layers of architectural evolution.

Hazel Hahn


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