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Finding Modernist Architecture in Vietnam’s Most Historical City

Updated: Sep 9, 2018

Too bad they couldn’t agree on the same color… Photo ©Darren Bradley

Ask most Americans about the city of Hội An in Vietnam (or Faifo, as it was also called by Westerners), and you’ll probably get a blank stare. At least, that’s been my experience. But for those who do know about this place, it’s one of the best preserved cities in the world, full of buildings from the 15th through the 19th century. So going in, I was not expecting to take many photos of Modernist architecture. Turns out, I was wrong…

The RAP Hội An Cinema. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The most well-preserved and charming historic cities around the world seem to share a similar history to that of Hội An. This was once the most important center for trade in Southeast Asia, and also was a major destination for traders from Europe. But by the end of the 18th century, the river had silted up and made it impossible for larger ships to come into port. Trading activity moved to nearby Đà Nẵng, which the French favored and developed and called Tourane. It had a much larger harbor (and remains Vietnam’s principal port to this day). Hội An became a backwater, and there was virtually no further development there for nearly 200 years. (As an example, the city of Bruges in Belgium has a very similar story).

Old merchant house. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The place definitely lives up to its reputation. It looks like a movie set and delivers whole-heartedly on a romantic vision of what we imagine Vietnam should look like – a historic mix of Asian and French colonial architecture in narrow, picturesque, tree-covered streets along a lazy, meandering river.

Typical interior courtyard in a house in the city. Photo ©Darren Bradley

A French Colonial house in the old streets Hội An, which is now a popular restaurant. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Japanese Bridge was built by Japanese merchants living in Hội An in the 16th century. The Japanese subsequently left when their emperor issued an edict to return to Japan and cease all trade or contact with the outside world. Photo ©Darren Bradley

View of tourist boaters and evening diners along the Thu Bòn river. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Photo ©Darren Bradley

This city is a time capsule. It was virtually untouched by the Vietnam Wars (neither the French war nor the American-led conflict), and was only rediscovered as a tourist destination once Vietnam opened up again in the mid-90s. Today, the road between Đà Nẵng and Hội An is a solid, unbroken chain of luxury hotel resorts along the beach, including major chains like the Four Seasons, Sheraton, and Marriott. And the town itself is full of stylish boutique hotels catering to tourists. Compared to Hanoi, which has retained its pre-90s grittiness and authenticity, Hội An feels like a safe, cleaned up version that has been packaged for tourists. The architecture is beautiful, of course, but most people seem to be here for the food. The regional cuisine is well known here, and tourists flock to the area to take cooking classes, which seem to be the most popular local activity.

While exploring the quaint narrow streets of this city (some of which do not allow cars), walking shoulder to shoulder with [mostly] French tourists, I soon spotted a beautiful and interesting 1950s modern building hidden amongst the older architecture.

A unique mix of Art Déco and Post-War Modernist architecture in a local Colonial vernacular, as favored by the French there in the 1950s.

Then, a while later, I saw another…

Ice cream shop in a 1950s storefront. Photo ©Darren Bradley

And another...

Photo ©Darren Bradley

The designs of many seemed to be very similar.

Photo ©Darren Bradley

I strongly suspect the same architect was responsible for them all, but I could find nothing on either these Modernist houses or the responsible designer. I'd be willing to bet they were designed and built by the French in the early 50s, or by the Vietnamese themselves in the late 50s to early 60s.

Photo ©Darren Bradley

This particular shade of yellow , outside of Hoi An, is really only found on official government buildings and Communist Party buildings. Traditionally, yellow was reserved for the Emperor, who was the only one authorized to wear it. Nowadays, it still evokes authority, which is why the Communist government still uses it. Curiously, it was only in Hoi An that it appeared that all of the buildings did… Photo ©Darren Bradley

What’s interesting is that whenever I pointed out an example of Modernist architecture to a local Vietnamese, they invariably said that it was “American-style architecture” and were very dismissive of it. The reality is that a large majority of it was designed and built either by the French or the Vietnamese, themselves. Remember that the Americans didn't really show up in force in Vietnam until the mid-1960s, and most of their assistance was either with infrastructure stuff, like bridges and railroads, or military bases. The Americans really had little or nothing to do with building houses or commercial/office buildings here.

I love how the Red Cross sign is made of painted breeze block. Photo ©Darren Bradley

But nonetheless, anything modern there is associated with the Americans… For the Vietnamese, French-style architecture means 19th century villas such.

Abandoned former health insurance building near My Son Sanctuary. My guide called this “an American-style building”, but it’s highly likely that it was designed and built by a Vietnamese architect. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Photo ©Darren Bradley

If anyone has any information about the buildings in these photos, or others in the Hội An area, I’d love to know. Thanks!


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