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What the French brought

(No.11, Vol.3, Dec 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Vietnam’s top specialist in cultural heritage conservation, Prof Hoang Dao Kinh, told a seminar on Dalat architecture in 2004 that: ‘There is a museum of French architecture in Dalat’.
Architect Hoang Dao Kinh was not the first person to have voiced that opinion. Many European architects had similar remarks once they set foot in Dalat.
When proposing to build the city of Dalat, Dr. Yersin, Dr. Tardif and Indochina’s Governor General Paul Doumer all wanted this city to be a special one, unlike any other Asian city. They wanted it to fit in well with nature.
Architecture is the soul of a city. For the construction of Dalat, French governor Paul Doumer brought in talented and famous planners and architects from France, and he himself watched closely over the process. Paul Doumer envisioned for Dalat to be a typical highland city, adhering entirely the motif of the likes of highland cities in Europe, and at the same time, a natural sanctuary. In 1921, Ernest Hébrard, a world-renowned architect, was charged with planning Dalat city.
To make Dalat the capital of Indochina colony, Hébrard’s main philosophy was to concentrate residence areas around lakes (there is a chain of eight lakes: Xuan Huong, Than Tho and six others along Cam Ly spring). Accordingly, there would be military zones, hospitals, schools, sport facilities, administrative buildings and parks around Lake Xuan Huong, Vietnamese residence areas, areas for villas of the French, hospitals, and markets. After Hébrard’s plan, there were others proposed by architects Pineau (1933), Mondet (1940) and J. Lagisquet (1942), but only that of Lagisquet was approved by the authorities. The common feature of the four architects was the respect for nature, attempting to preserve the natural beauty. The city opened its view to the Langbian peak, with non-edificial zones such as the pine grove along the Prenn road, the hills to the north of Da Thien, the Pin Thouard hill and the north-east of Lake Xuan Huong. According to the design of Lagisquet, the whole Dalat was designed to be a garden. Not following this principle is betraying nature, because this is the only suitable way. Hébrard and Lagisquet are considered the creators of the soul of Dalat of those days.


Lycée Yersin (The Pedagogical College of Dalat today) in its early days.
Photo from the archive of Nguyen Hang Tinh

Note that at that time, while in Hanoi and Saigon, the French only paid attention to the architecture of some big buildings, such as the Governor General’s Palace, Resident Superior Palace, Governor’s Palace, City Hall, the post office, the Opera House, banks, and museums, but in Dalat, even the smallest construction projects had to be approved by the Governor General. The city planners were also handpicked by him. Hébrard’s and Lagisquet’s main proposals also had to be approved by a decree of the Governor General in order to be realized. The planning was extremely meticulous and detailed.
Hébrard and subsequently, Lagisquet have puffed into a wilderness the soul of a city that the French had to admit was unique in the Far-East. Among over 2,000 old French villas in Dalat, I have visited the 1,000 oldest ones, which are considered representative of the far-away French architecture of the end of the 19th century.
From the very first thatched cottage built in 1883 for 30 Vietnamese soldiers to 10 Chalet style wooden houses, by 1930 (after finishing Hébrard’s project), 398 big, ‘very French’, reinforced concrete villas had been built. Dalat expert Le Phi said , in 1937 the French began to promote Dalat as a centre for tourism, culture, science, and hunting. In realizing Lagisquet’s plan (1943) after the Hébrard stage, many more urban structures were developed, and the number of villas reached 743. When Dalat became Bao Dai’s, the last Vietnamese King’s land in 1949, the number of villas had surpassed 1,000. No two villas looked exactly alike; each building is a perfect piece of imaginative and romantic architecture, adding to the features of the mountains and forests surrounding Dalat. Villas no. 14, 18, 20 (on today’s Tran Hung Dao street) mimic northern French architecture (wooden sides, brick walls), but the façades and space arrangements are different from one another. The villas near the end of Ly Thai To or Quang Trung streets have block architecture in the Southern French style (the façade curves down like a bow, tiled roofs, edged with curved tiles, give it an antique look, there are big rooms with timber floors, porches with one stair on the left and an elevated hind part). The ones on Co Giang Street follow the style of the Basque region in the south-east of France; small houses with tilted roofs; from the outside they look like palaces, but they have simple and compact interiors. On the other hand, the public buildings such as the Geography House (the Map Department of Dalat today), the Lycée Yersin (The Pedagogical College of Dalat today), and the Dalat railroad station look like those of the central part of France; big, tilted roof and stone walls, heavy-looking but very airy, with a lot of light and a reasonable interior lay-out; big buildings often have a corridor in the middle with a door to each room.
After the French era, the American and the southern Vietnamese regime, during the 1960s and the first half of 1970s, continued to follow the guidelines of Hébrard and Lagisquet. Many new buildings were constructed, but the old ones remained unmistakably distinct. These are the villas, always with a flower garden, distantly separated, having wide views in beautiful and romantic directions: to the pine groves, to the valley, to the Langbian peak, or to the 99 high spots in the city. All of these villas hide themselves under the pine trees and none has more than three floors, in order not to obstruct the natural view.


A villa on Tran Hung Dao Street
Photo: Ha Huu Net


A stone villa on Quang Trung Street
Photo: Nguyen Hang Tinh


Lycée Yersin (The Pedagogical College of Dalat today) in 2010
Photo: Bach Ngoc Anh


An abandoned building on Hung Vuong Street
Photo: Nguyen Hang Tinh


A villa on Le Lai Street
Photo: Nguyen Hang Tinh

By Nguyen Hang Tinh
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