Instructor: Lauren Collins
April 26th , 2023
Vietnam History and Colonization: From Statue to Culture
Before Saigon was Ho Chi Minh City, and before Saigon was Saigon, the southern region was known as Cochinchina. In this region of Vietnam, there lies a statue with complexional inheritance. The Statue of Gambetta. In the photobook titled “Photograph album of colonial French Indochina 1890-1900” There was an image of this statue captioned “Statue of Gambetta”. While this statue existed only from 1889-1955, the French had been colonizing Vietnam from 1887 to 1954. With the French colonization of Vietnam, there has been a rise in new foods, religion, etc; But this statue’s meaning and final unknown removal hold mirror and reference to the complexional feelings Vietnamese people have had for the French Colony.
In the photobook, the photo itself lied there like a piece of history, the image itself had such yellow coloration with a french caption of what I can only make out as “Statue Of Gambetta” followed by presumably its location and the word ‘Saigon’. Even with bright exposure from the cameras back then, you can still see the statue of Gambetta. Leon Gambetta himself as the centerpiece, and two soldiers on bottom in a massive square center surrounded by trees. The Statue of Gambetta was erected in Saigon, known at the time as Cochinchina in Vietnam on May 4th, 1889 in remembrance of French statesmen Leon Gambetta. He’s remembered best for his war efforts during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). He was also noted as France’s first prime minister. It was mentioned that he inspired the naming of streets and public spaces “all over the French empire”. This decisively notes how the French people saw him, a ‘hero’. But this is where Vietnam saw it differently. After the French built the statue it stood tall for 66 years. According to Tim Doling’s article named “Icons of Old Saigon: The Gambetta Monument” he stated that “ To this day, the ultimate fate of the itinerant Gambetta monument and its unfortunate twin remain a complete mystery.” While the monument’s cold clothes in the warm, tropical country of Cochinchina drew the most fascinating and vocal criticism, it represented a more significant sense for the Vietnamese people as a figure commemorating colonialism. And on May 7, 1954, when Vietnam eventually declared its independence from France, you can hear the sincere sentiment of the Vietnamese people expressed in the declaration speech by Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.
In the english translation of the “Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam” provided by George Mason University. Ho Chi Minh states “Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.” His statement was criticizing France’s declaration of The French Revolution which also stated that “All men are born free with equal rights…” After, he states the effects of the french colonization has had on Vietnam, economically, socially and politically. This includes statements such as making them more impoverished through expectations of mines, forestry; having unjustifiable taxes; enforced inhuman laws and set up three ‘distinct’ political and geographical regimes that created a greater divide for true nationality. One of the biggest critical comments came from the French lack of allying themselves with the Vietnamese nationalist when Japan invaded. Ho Chi Minh stated “the French imperialists went down on their knees and handed over our country to them.” This succeedingly put them in a worst position being affluence by now both by the French and Japanese. They detailed the final surrender from the French in Vietnam to the Japanese on March 9 in 1945, as the mark of freedom, and when the Japanese lost WWII and left Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh stated “The truth is that we have wrested our independence from the Japanese and not from the French.” giving final sentiment on the situation.
While the French gave a negative impact to the sentiment of the Vietnamese people, there is no denying that the French impacted future Vietnamese cuisine and religion. One of France’s arguably most iconic bread “Baguette” has been transformed by Vietnamese people into what we now know as the Vietnamese baguette otherwise known as Bánh Mì. A common food for street vendors and tourists alike, the sandwich contains some types of meat (grilled pork, grilled beef, Vietnamese ham, etc) pickled vegetables, cilantro, pepper, and sometimes Vietnamese butter and pâté. On page 765, Aditiany additionally stated that “rice flour for the baguette makes it a lighter option to the heavier French loaf, and gives the crust a thinner, crunchier texture.”(Aditiany) as to reference the Vietnamese using rice flour in place of white wheat flour. In addition to the Vietnamese baguette, there was also now Vietnamese coffee, a use of Robusta coffee bean that is slowly dripped onto condensed milk giving rich and creamy notes of espresso. Aditiany stated that “In 1857, the French colonial government introduced coffee to Vietnam, and large-scale production on plantations started in the beginning of the 20th century.” (Aditiany 765). Besides cuisine, the French had the primary mission of coming to Vietnam to spread their religion. Back then in the 1600s Vietnam had roots of Chinese Confucius, Taoism, and Buddhism. Aditiany stated that “The French began to convert Vietnamese to Catholicism in 1644, and in 1659, the first vicariate was founded”(Aditiany 762) As of today, approximately 7 percent of the population is Catholic.
While the Vietnamese were negatively impacted by the French socially, economically, politically, influence of French culture can be seen today, including in the food and religion. The statue’s departure and unidentified rest echoes the final thoughts of the Vietnamese toward the French in terms of letting go of the harboring of opposing oppressive identities and forming a new identity of Vietnam moving ahead while remembering the importance of their history.
Doling, T. (2015, October 19). Icons of Old Saigon: The Gambetta Monument. Saigoneer. Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://saigoneer.com/old-saigon/5485-icons-of-old-saigon-%E2%80%93-the-gambetta-monument
Minh, H. C. (1945). Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. History Matters. Retrieved April 26, 2023, from https://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5139/
Aditiany, Savitri. (2016). The influence of French colonialism on Vietnam’s culture. 14. 761-771.