Part 9

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ARRIVAL OF THE FRENCH

struggling in the aftermath three almost consecutive wars–of war so much needed to be done, so quickly and with no money. Other more urgent needs took priority. So the Vietnamese made do with what they had, leased the grandest villas to foreign governments for embassies or offices and sub-divided many villas for multiple-occupancy, tacking shops on the front. This benign neglect meant the survival of much of Vietnam’s French colonial architectural heritage, rather than demolition and new buildings — until the past ten years.

To a Western town planner, Hanoi’s Old Town of Thirty-Six Streets still might appear to be a tangled warren of electricity and telephone wires (many of them illegally tapping into the supply) with a jumble of cubical excretions on roofs whenever a family has had enough money to add another room or a temple to their ancestors. Many of these old houses were overcrowded — they still are — and lacked even minimal sanitation. When people could afford to, families have literally torn down their old family homes and replaced them with five and six-storey houses or mini-hotels with little thought of preservation — sometimes moving elsewhere.

But for the past few years, there has been a strong feeling that Hanoi’s architectural legacy, French villas as well as old tube houses in the Thirty-Six Streets, those that remain, must be preserved.