FRENCH OCCUPATION OF VIETNAM

ARRIVAL OF EUROPEANS IN VIETNAM

According to some interpretations of Chinese record, Romans arrived in the Red River delta in A.D. 166. The first Europeans to arrive in the Age of Exploration were Portuguese, who landed near Danang in 1516. They were followed, respectively, by Dominican missionaries, Franciscan monks form the Philippines, Jesuits expelled from Japan, Dutch traders, and British representatives of the East India Company. The Portuguese traded with Vietnam from a commercial colony set up alongside those of the Japanese and Chinese at Faifo (present-day Hoi An).

No one made much money in Vietnam and by the end of the 17th century many of European merchants had gone. The missionaries stayed on however and large numbers of Vietnamese converted to Catholicism. In the end the Catholic Church had a greater impact on Vietnam than on any country in Asia except the Philippines (which was ruled by the Spanish for 400 years). [Source: Lonely Planet =]

The seventeenth century was a period in which European missionaries and merchants became a serious factor in Vietnamese court life and politics. Although both had arrived by the early sixteenth century, neither foreign merchants nor missionaries had much impact on Vietnam before the seventeenth century. The Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French had all established trading posts in Pho Hien by 1680. Fighting among the Europeans and opposition by the Vietnamese made the enterprises unprofitable, however, and all of the foreign trading posts were closed by 1700. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Early Influence of the French on Vietnam

European missionaries had occasionally visited Vietnam for short periods of time, with little impact, beginning in the early sixteenth century. The best known of the early missionaries was Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit who was sent to Hanoi in 1627, where he quickly learned the language and began preaching in Vietnamese. Initially, Rhodes was well-received by the Trinh court, and he reportedly baptized more than 6,000 converts; however, his success probably led to his expulsion in 1630.

Rhodes is credited with perfecting a romanized system of writing the Vietnamese language (quoc ngu), which was probably developed as the joint effort of several missionaries, including Rhodes. He wrote the first catechism in Vietnamese and published a Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese dictionary; these works were the first books printed in quoc ngu. Quoc ngu was used initially only by missionaries; classical Chinese or chu nom continued to be used by the court and the bureaucracy. The French later supported the use of quoc ngu, which, because of its simplicity, led to a high degree of literacy and a flourishing of Vietnamese literature. After being expelled from Vietnam, Rhodes spent the next thirty years seeking support for his missionary work from the Vatican and the French Roman Catholic hierarchy as well as making several more trips to Vietnam. *

French Help Nguyen Anh Establish the Nguyen Dynasty

France became more deeply involved in Vietnamese affairs in when a Nguyen lord—Nguyen Anh sent an entourage to Versailles to seek help from Louis XVI. In 1802, with French help. Vietnam ws unified under Nguyen Anh, who became known as Emperor Gialong (1802-20). His successors however persecuted Christian missionaries.

Soon after the Nguyens suffered a serious defeat in 1783 at the hands of their rivals, the Trinhs and the Tay Son Dynasty, Nguyen Ahn met with French missionary bishop Pigneau de Behaine and asked him to be his emissary in obtaining French support to defeat the Tay Son. Pigneau de Behaine took Nguyen Anh's five-year-old son, Prince Canh, and departed for Pondichery in French India to plead for support for the restoration of the Nguyen. Finding none there, he went to Paris in 1786 to lobby on Nguyen Anh's behalf. Louis XVI ostensibly agreed to provide four ships, 1,650 men, and supplies in exchange for Nguyen Anh's promise to cede to France the port of Tourane (Da Nang) and the island of Poulo Condore. However, the local French authorities in India, under secret orders from the king, refused to supply the promised ships and men. Determined to see French military intervention in Vietnam, Pigneau de Behaine himself raised funds for two ships and supplies from among the French merchant community in India, hired deserters from the French navy to man them, and sailed back to Vietnam in 1789. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The second Tay Son Emperor Quang Trung died in 1792, without leaving a successor strong enough to assume leadership of the country, and the usual factionalism ensued. By this time,Nguyen Anh and his supporters had won back much of the south from Nguyen Lu, the youngest and least capable of the Tay Son brothers. When Pigneau de Behaine returned to Vietnam in 1789, Nguyen Anh was in control of Gia Dinh. In the succeeding years, the bishop brought Nguyen Anh a steady flow of ships, arms, and European advisers, who supervised the building of forts, shipyards, cannon foundries and bomb factories, and instructed the Vietnamese in the manufacture and use of modern armaments. Nguyen's cause was also greatly aided by divisions within the Tay Son leadership, following the death of Quang Trung, and the inability of the new leaders to deal with the problems of famine and natural disasters that wracked the war-torn country. After a steady assault on the north, Nguyen Anh's forces took Phu Xuan in June 1801 and Thang Long a year later. In 1802 Nguyen Anh proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long, thus beginning the Nguyen dynasty. When he captured Hanoi, his victory was complete and, for the first time in two centuries, Vietnam was united, with Hué as its new capital city. *

French Conquest of Vietnam

In the mid-19th century, Vietnam suffered under weak leadership, revolts in the 1840s and 1850s, floods, a smallpox epidemic and tribal uprisings, France’s military activity in Vietnam began in 1857, when the French Navy attacked Danang harbour with 14 ships in response to Emperor Thieu Tri’s suppression of Catholic missionaries. Saigon was seized in early 1859 and, in 1862, Emperor Tu Duc signed a treaty that gave the French the three eastern provinces of Cochinchina.

The French used used the persecution of Christians as an excuse to intervene in Vietnamese affairs. They had little difficulty in taking over Vietnam. The cloistered North Korean emperors were good at composing poetry, making love to dozens of women and reciting classical Chinese literature. But they lacked the ability to harness modern technology, organize a large army and sustain a modern economy. They also squandered the kingdoms's treasury building tombs and palaces in Hue.

Between 1859 and 1883 all of Vietnam fell under French colonial control. The French defeated the Vietnamese at the Battle of Ky Hoa in 1861 and were given three eastern provinces of Cochin China by Emperor Tu Doc. In 1864—under terms that were similar to those given to the British by the Chinese after the Opium Wars—the French set up ports in Vietnam, produced opium as a cash crop which was sold to the Chinese, and required the Vietnamese to pay humiliating war reparations.

South Vietnam (Cochin China) became a French colony. In 1884, France formed a protectorate over Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and Annam (central Vietnam) , Laos and most of what is now Cambodia. Together they constituted French Indochina.

Early French Moves in Vietnam

By 1857 Louis-Napoleon—the first President of the French Republic and, as Napoleon III, the ruler of the Second French Empire—had been persuaded that an invasion of Vietnam was the best course of action, and French warships were instructed to take Tourane without any further efforts to negotiate with the Vietnamese. Tourane was captured in late 1858 and Gia Dinh (Saigon and later Ho Chi Minh City) in early 1859. In both cases Vietnamese Christian support for the French, predicted by the missionaries, failed to materialize. Vietnamese resistance and outbreaks of cholera and typhoid forced the French to abandon Tourane in early 1860. Meanwhile, fear was growing in Paris that if France withdrew the British would move in. Also current in Paris at that time was the rationalization that France had a civilizing mission--a duty to bring the benefits of its superior culture to the less fortunate lands of Asia and Africa. (This was a common justification for the colonial policies of most of the Western countries.) [Source: Library of Congress *]

Meanwhile, French business and military interests increased their pressure on the government for decisive action. Thus in early 1861, a French fleet of 70 ships and 3,500 men reinforced Gia Dinh and, in a series of bloody battles, gained control of the surrounding provinces. In June 1862, Emperor Tu Duc, signed the Treaty of Saigon agreeing to French demands for the cession of three provinces around Gia Dinh (which the French had renamed Saigon) and Poulo Condore, as well as for the opening of three ports to trade, free passage of French warships up the Mekong to Cambodia, freedom of action for the missionaries, and payment of a large indemnity to France for its losses in attacking Vietnam. *

Even the French were surprised by the ease with which the Vietnamese agreed to the humiliating treaty. Why, after successfully resisting invasions by the Chinese for the previous 900 years, did the monarchy give in so readily to French demands? Aside from the seriousness of the loss of Saigon and the possible overestimation of French strength, it appears that the isolation of the monarchy from the people created by decades of repression prevented Tu Duc and his court from attempting to rally the necessary popular support to drive out the French. In fact, by placating the French in the south, Tu Duc hoped to free his forces to put down a widespread Christian-supported rebellion in Bac Bo, which he indeed crushed by 1865. French missionaries, who had urged their government to support this rebellion, were disillusioned when it did not, especially after thousands of Christians were slaughtered by Tu Duc's forces following the rebellion. The missionaries, however, had served only as an initial excuse for French intervention in Vietnam; military and economic interests soon became the primary reasons for remaining there. *

The French navy was in the forefront of the conquest of Indochina. In 1863 Admiral de la Grandiere, the governor of Cochinchina (as the French renamed Nam Bo), forced the Cambodian king to accept a French protectorate over that country, claiming that the Treaty of Saigon had made France heir to Vietnamese claims in Cambodia. In June 1867, the admiral completed the annexation of Cochinchina by seizing the remaining three western provinces. The following month, the Siamese government agreed to recognize a French protectorate over Cambodia in return for the cession of two Cambodian provinces, Angkor and Battambang, to Siam. With Cochinchina secured, French naval and mercantile interests turned to Tonkin (as the French referred to Bac Bo).

Vietnamese Response to Early French Moves in Vietnam

According to Vietnamese government sources: "French imperialism, then in full expansion, was attacking a decaying feudal monarchy. The Nguyen dynasty, which had ascended the throne after repressing a large-scale uprising, restored the feudal system and all of its repressive institutions. Peasant revolts, however, continued unabated, driving an administrative apparatus, essentially made up of a body of mandarins trained in very conservative and ritualistic Confucian ideology and duplicated in the villages by a body of nobles born into the landlord class, into a tight corner. With a rudimentary infrastructure, the royal court was unable to effectively rule over a territory stretching from north to south for more than 2,000 kilometers . It was in the most vulnerable part, the south, that the French colonialists began their aggression. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Faced with French invasion, the Vietnamese side split into two opposing parties, one arguing for compromise and the other for resistance. The king and high-ranking court dignitaries were afraid of the modern weapons used by the French. They were also misled as to the objectives of the French, believing that the French, having come from so far away, were thinking less about conquering the country than of obtaining trade concessions. Moreover, the Nguyen monarchy, constantly suppressing internal revolts, neither wanted to nor was able to mobilize all the nation's energies to oppose the aggression. All this prompted the king and court dignitaries to implement a policy of hoa nghi (peace and negotiation). ~

Final Phase of the French Takeover of Vietnam

The French initially set up shop in Saigon in 1859. For about a decade they confined most of their activities to southern Vietnam while the Vietnamese emperor ruled from Hue. In 1873, French gunboats sailing up the Red River and captured the Hanoi citadel. Northern Vietnam was thrown into anarchy until the French seized Hanoi in 1882. In 1883, a few weeks after Tu Duc's death, the French attacked Da Nang and captured Hue after a bloody battle and imposed a Treaty of Protectorate.

The final stage of in French colonization began in 1872, when Jean Dupuis, a merchant seeking to supply salt and weapons to a Yunnanese general via the Red River, seized the Hanoi Citadel. Captain Francis Garnier, ostensibly dispatched to rein in Dupuis, instead took over where Dupuis left off and began a conquest of the North. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The 1873 storming of the citadel of Hanoi, led by French naval officer Francis Garnier, had the desired effect of forcing Tu Duc to sign a treaty with France in March 1874 that recognized France's "full and entire sovereignty" over Cochinchina, and opened the Red River to commerce. In an attempt to secure Tonkin, Garnier was killed and his forces defeated in a battle with Vietnamese regulars and Black Flag forces. The latter were Chinese soldiers, who had fled south following the Taiping Rebellion in that country and had been hired by the Hue court to keep order in Tonkin. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In April 1882, a French force again stormed the citadel of Hanoi, under the leadership of naval officer Henri Riviere. Riviere and part of his forces were wiped out in a battle with a Vietnamese-Black Flag army, a reminder of Garnier's fate a decade earlier. While Garnier's defeat had led to a partial French withdrawal from Tonkin, Riviere's loss strengthened the resolve of the French government to establish a protectorate by military force. Accordingly, additional funds were appropriated by the French Parliament to support further military operations, and Hue fell to the French in August 1883, following the death of Tu Duc the previous month.

A Treaty of Protectorate, signed at the August 1883 Harmand Convention, established a French protectorate over North and Central Vietnam and formally ended Vietnam's independence. In June 1884, Vietnamese scholar-officials were forced to sign the Treaty of Hue, which confirmed the Harmand Convention agreement. By the end of 1884, there were 16,500 French troops in Vietnam. Resistance to French control, however, continued. A rebellion known as the Can Vuong (Loyalty to the King) movement formed in 1885 around the deposed Emperor Ham Nghi and attracted support from both scholars and peasants. The rebellion was essentially subdued with the capture and exile of Ham Nghi in 1888.Scholar and patriot Phan Dinh Phung continued to lead the resistance until his death in 1895. Although unsuccessful in driving out the French, the Can Vuong movement, with its heroes and patriots, laid important groundwork for future Vietnamese independence movements. *

French Occupation of Vietnam

After 900 years of independence and following a period of disunity and rebellion, the French colonial era began in 1861 when France occupied Saigon. By 1883 it had taken control of all of Vietnam. The French divided Vietnam into three parts: Chochin (southern Vietnam) , Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and Annam (central Vietnam). Ironically Annam means "southern domain," a reference to the fact it was in the southern part of the Chinese empire. French colonial rule was, for the most part, politically repressive and economically exploitative.

Operating out of Vietnam, the French colonized Cambodia and Laos. In 1887, the French proclaimed the existence of a colony called Indochinese Union, which was made up of Laos, Cambodia, Cochin China, Annam, and Tonkin. The latter three made up modern Vietnam. The French had hoped to use the Mekong River as way of reaching southern China but these plans were dealt a death blow when an expedition, outfit with 700 liters of wine and 300 liters of brandy, was forced back at Khone Falls in Laos.

French Indochina was to be the beneficiary of France’s "mission civilisatrice"—or "civilizing mission"—but the upheaval before and during World War I, however, helped foment different aspirations among different segments of the population in French Southeast Asia. One of the key French strategies in the region was janissemnt (or "yellowing")—trying to turn over local administration and security duties to the local population, keeping French interests in mind. The American employed the same strategy— "Vietnamization"—unsuccessfully in the Vietnam War. Also important for the French was the establishment of protected enclaves like Dien Bien Phu. The expansionist era came to a close and the Vietnamese were forced to return territory seized from Cambodia and Laos.

According to Lonely Planet the French colonial venture in Indochina was "carried out haphazardly and without any preconceived plan. It repeatedly faltered and, at times, only the reckless adventures of a few mavericks kept it going." The Vietnamese Nguyen imperial court continued to exist. The French imposition of the Treaty of Protectorate on the imperial cour0 in 1883 set in motion a tragi-comic struggle for royal succession that was notable for its palace coups, mysteriously dead emperors and heavy-handed French diplomacy. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

French Colonial Administration in Vietnam

In 1887 France formally established the Indochinese Union, comprising the colony of Cochinchina and the protectorates of Annam, Tonkin, and Cambodia, with Laos being added as a protectorate in 1893. There was a rapid turnover among governorsgeneral of the Indochinese Union, and few served a full five-year term. One who did, Paul Doumer (1897-1902), is considered to have been the architect of a colonial system under which Vietnam was politically dominated and economically exploited. Following the partitioning of Vietnam into three parts, the emperor was stripped of the last vestiges of his authority. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In 1897 the powers of the kinh luoc (emperor's viceroy) were transferred to the Resident Superieur at Hanoi, who governed in the name of the emperor. That same year, the Privy Council or Co Mat Vien in Annam was replaced with a French-controlled Council of Ministers. The following year in Annam, the French took over tax collection and payment of officials. Most of the Vietnamese scholar-officials had refused to cooperate with the French, but those who did were restricted to minor or ceremonial positions. Consequently, Frenchmen were recruited to staff a new, continually expanding bureaucracy. *

By 1925 there were 5,000 European administrators ruling an Indochinese population of 30 million, roughly the same number used to administer British India, which had a population more than ten times as large. Under the French laws applicable to individuals, Vietnamese were prohibited from traveling outside their districts without identity papers; and they were not allowed to publish, meet, or organize. They were subject to corvee, and they could be imprisoned at the whim of any French magistrate. The colonial police enforced the law through a network of French and Vietnamese agents. *

Impact of French Colonialism on Traditional Vietnamese Society

The society of Vietnam was transformed in the nineteenth century by the imposition of French rule, the introduction of Western education, the beginnings of industrialization and urbanization, and the growth of commercial agriculture. The establishment of a new, French-dominated governing class led to a rapid decline in the power and prestige of the emperor and the mandarins, whose functions were substantially reduced. When the triennial examinations were held in 1876 and 1879, an average of 6,000 candidates took them; in 1913, only 1,330 did. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In place of the old imperial bureaucracy, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a new intellectual elite emerged that emphasized achievement in science, geography, and other modern subjects instead of the Confucian classics. The new Vietnamese intelligentsia was impressed by the power of the French and by the 1905 naval victory at Tsushima of a modernized Japan over tsarist Russia. Having viewed some of the achievements of Western culture in Europe during World War I, when nearly 150,000 Vietnamese were recruited for work in French factories, the new elite proclaimed their country's need for a modern, Western educational focus. By 1920, even in the conservative city of Hue, the last Confucian outpost, wealthy families refused to marry their daughters to the sons of distinguished scholarofficial families unless the young men had acquired a modern, Western-style education. The traditional civil service examinations were held for the last time in 1919. *

Traditional Confucian village schools, accustomed to teaching in Chinese, introduced instruction in Vietnamese and French into the existing curriculum. Vietnamese who had successfully acquired a higher education at home or abroad entered government service as administrators or were absorbed as doctors, engineers, and teachers as the government expanded its role in the fields of health, public works, and education. Others took up professions outside government, such as law, medicine, chemistry, and journalism. The new elite was composed mainly of Vietnamese from Tonkin and Annam rather than from Cochinchina, a regional bias perhaps attributable to the location in Hanoi of the country's only institution of Western higher education. *

The French period also produced a new group of Vietnamese absentee landowners who possessed riches far in excess of the wealth anyone in the older society had enjoyed. This new group came into existence as a result of the French development of vast new tracts of land in Cochinchina. A few of these large holdings were retained by French companies or citizens, but most were held by enterprising, Western-oriented, urban Vietnamese from Annam and Tonkin who lived mainly in Hanoi and Hue. By investing in light industry and medium-sized trading concerns, they became Vietnam's first modern industrialists and entrepreneurs. *

In urban centers the demand of both the expanding French government bureaucracy and the private sector for secretaries, clerks, cashiers, interpreters, minor officials, and labor foremen created a new Vietnamese white-collar group. The development of mining and industry between 1890 and 1919 also introduced a new class of workers. Because most of the natural resources as well as a large labor pool were located in the North, industrial development was concentrated there, and Hanoi and Haiphong became the country's leading industrial centers. At the same time, conditions of overcrowding and intensive farming in the North provided little room for agriculture on a commercial scale. In order to expand agriculture, the French turned their attention to the underdeveloped, warmer South, where French cultivation of such crops as rubber, coffee, tea, and, in Cochinchina, rice gave rise to a group of agricultural and plantation wage earners. *

The colonial period also led to a substantial increase in the Hoa population. The country's limited foreign and domestic trade were already in the hands of Chinese when the French arrived. The French chose to promote the Chinese role in commerce and to import Chinese labor to develop road and railroad systems, mining, and industry. French colonial policy that lifted the traditional ban on rice exports at the end of the nineteenth century also attracted new waves of Chinese merchants and shopkeepers seeking to take advantage of the new export market. Vietnam's growing economy attracted even more Chinese thereafter, especially to the South. Already deeply involved in the rice trade, the Chinese expanded their interests to include ricemilling and established a virtual monopoly. *

They also were a significant presence in sugar refining, coconut and peanut oil production, lumber, and shipbuilding. Many who began their careers as laborers on the French rubber plantations of Cochinchina eventually started their own tea, pepper, or rice plantations to supply local market needs. Chinese gardeners in the suburbs of Saigon monopolized the supply of fresh vegetables consumed in that city, and Chinese restaurants and hotels proliferated in virtually every urban center. *

Land Ownership Policy Under the French

Not all Vietnamese resisted the French conquest, and some even welcomed it. The monarchy, through decades of repression, had lost the support of the people; and Tu Duc, in the eyes of large segments of the peasantry, had lost his mandate to rule. He had been able to protect his people neither from foreign aggression nor from an unusually high incidence of natural disasters such as floods, famines, locusts, droughts, and a cholera epidemic in 1865 that killed more than 1 million people. Tu Duc's repression of Catholics also created a large opposition group ready to cooperate with the French, and those who did were often rewarded with lands vacated during the French invasion. Much of this land, however, was given to French colons (colonial settlers), often in sizable holdings of 4,000 hectares or more. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Gradually a French-Vietnamese landholding class developed in Cochinchina. Vietnamese, however, were appointed only to the lower levels of the bureaucracy established to administer the new colony. Seeking to finance the growing bureaucracy, the early admiral-governors of Vietnam viewed the colony as the source of the necessary revenue. Rice exports, forbidden under the monarchy, reached 229,000 tons annually in 1870. Taxes extracted from Cochinchina increased tenfold in the first decade of French control. State monopolies and excise taxes on opium, salt, and alcohol eventually came to provide 70 percent of the government's operating revenue. *

Land alienation was the cornerstone of economic exploitation under the colonial government. By 1930 more than 80 percent of the riceland in Cochinchina was owned by 25 percent of the landowners, and 57 percent of the rural population were landless peasants working on large estates. Although the situation was somewhat better in the north, landless peasants in Annam totaled 800,000 and in Tonkin nearly 1 million. Heavy taxes and usurious interest rates on loans were added burdens on the peasants. More than ninety percent of rubber plantations were French owned. Two thirds of the coal mined in Vietnam (nearly two million tons in 1927) was exported. Manufacturing was limited to cement and textiles, partly to placate French industrialists who saw Indochina as a market for their own goods. Naval shipyards and armament factories built under the Nguyen dynasty were dismantled under the French. Much of the craft industry survived, however, because it produced affordable consumer goods in contrast to imported French goods, which only the French colons or wealthy Vietnamese could afford. *

Education in Vietnam Under French Rule

French efforts at education in the early decades of colonial rule were negligible. A few government quoc ngu schools were established along with an Ecole Normale to train Vietnamese clerks and interpreters. A few Vietnamese from wealthy families, their numbers rising to about ninety by 1870, were sent to France to study. Three lycees (secondary schools), located in Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon, were opened in the early 1900s, using French as the language of instruction. The number of quoc ngu elementary schools was gradually increased, but even by 1925 it was estimated that no more than one school-age child in ten was receiving schooling. As a result, Vietnam's high degree of literacy declined precipitously during the colonial period. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The education system was modified. Three levels of general education, infant, primary, and secondary, were established. The old examination system was abolished in 1915, and schools for training administrative officers in the French style were officially launched in 1917. The University of Hanoi, founded in 1907 to provide an alternative for Vietnamese students beginning to flock to Japan, was closed for a decade the following year because of fear of student involvement in a 1908 uprising in Hanoi. *

In Tonkin and Annam, traditional education based on Chinese classical literature continued to flourish well into the twentieth century despite French efforts to discourage it. The triennial examinations were abolished in 1915 in Tonkin and in 1918 in Annam. China, which had always served as a source of teaching materials and texts, by the turn of century was beginning to be a source of reformist literature and revolutionary ideas. Materials filtering in from China included both Chinese texts and translations of Western classics, which were copied and spread from province to province. *

French Rule in Vietnam Steps a Notch in the 20th Century

At the time French Indochina was established in 1887, French social and economic policies were expedited on a relatively small scale. A policy of development and exploitation was imposed on a larger scale at the beginning of the 20th century. French economic and social activities boosted the country in many ways. The French concentrated investments in the mining industry, as well as several other industries. A number of large plantations, apart from rice, appeared and economical crops, such as tea, coffee, and rubber, were developed. Agricultural products were being considered as commodities. These changes in the economy resulted in a division between the Vietnamese bourgeoisie and the working class.

The Governor General of Indochina decreed to restructure the mechanism of village organization in 1904. This brought a strong resistance to the French who wanted to create a new class of French style landlords. The French colonialists imposed an austere policy for the working class, especially for tillers, and high taxes were imposed on farmers.

As was true with their Chinese predecessors, the French were engaged in a large number of public work's projects such as ports, railways, improved dikes, irrigation systems and roads in Vietnam. In 1910 the French completed a railroad from Vietnam to Kunming in the Yunnan province of southern China so they could sell French products to the Chinese and buy thing like silk, minerals, furs and precious stones. Until fairly recently is was easier to get goods to Kunming via Hanoi that Shanghai.

Saigon—the French Pearl of the Orient

Saigon was made into a Vietnamese version of Shanghai. Using forced labor, the French built a "Pearl of the Orient" with wide boulevards, flashy casinos, snooty sport clubs, luxury mansions, baccarat clubs, brothels, nightclubs, a cathedral and an opium factory on 74 Hai Ba trung Street. One French writer described Saigon as a "French city flowering alone out of a tropical swamp."

Unlike old Hanoi, which was founded in A.D. 1010, Saigon was little more than a hamlet until 1859, when the French captured it and transformed it into the "Pearl of the Orient," a bustling center of commerce in what became known as French Cochin China. before the French took over the most important town in the area was Cochin, a town founded by Chinese in 1788. At that time merchants from China, Japan and many European countries would sail upstream the Saigon River to reach the islet of Pho, a trading center. Cochin is still around and so are the Chinese.

The Port of Saigon was established in 1862. In 1874, Cholon merged with Saigon, and this grew into the largest city in Indochina. During much the French colonial period Saigon was a lazy colonial outpost surrounded by rubber plantations. Saigon grew from about 400,000 people to one million during World War II when hundreds of thousands fled to the city during the Japanese occupation. After that war many of the 900,000 or so non-Communists that fled from North Vietnam after it was taken over by the Viet Minh fled there also.

One of the focal points of Saigon during its colonial heyday was the Hotel Continental, built in 1880 by Pierre Cazeau, a home-appliance and construction material producer. Tien Dat wrote in The Saigon Times Weekly: "In the late 19th century, there were no automobiles and airplanes in Saigon. The high-class traveled in the city by horse-drawn carriages. This means of transport was quite popular on the Catinat (now Dong Khoi), the main street in Saigon at the time. In 1880, French architects started work on a luxury hotel there, which was to be seen as a landmark in the city's social and economic life and a milestone of the hospitality business in Saigon. The majority of the Continental Hotel's customers were French officials, high- ranking civil servants, ladies and luxury travelers who stopped by Saigon on their tours from Hong Kong to Japan or on their trips to the Angkor Temples, the world's seventh wonder. [Source: By Tien Dat - The Saigon Times Weekly - September 29, 2002]

In 1911, Duke De Montpensier, a famous playboy in France, came to Vietnam, carrying with him a car to make a trip to the Angkor Temples. When he was in Saigon, De Montpensier decided to buy the Continental Hotel from the owners and offered it to a countess. A monument he left in Vietnam is the Lau Ong Hoang (Tower of the Lord) in Phan Thiet (Binh Thuan Province). In 1930, Le Van Mau, a Vietnamese landlord in My Tho Township, bought the Continental Hotel from De Montpensier, and transferred the property to his French son-in-law for management. It is certain to say that Mau was the first Vietnamese owner of the then largest hotel in Vietnam.

The 1930s were the heyday of the Continental Hotel which was renovated to French standards. Only wealthy people could afford to stay at the most luxurious hotel in Saigon at that time where they could sit in the terrace enjoying the fresh air from the Saigon River, drinking wine or tea and watching traffic on Catinat Street, which was dubbed Saigon's "Canebire," the name of a famous street in the city of Marseille, France. The famous French writer and philosopher Andr‚ Malreaux and his wife were among the hotel's permanent guests from 1924-1925. Other celebrities who stayed at the hotel included the noted Indian poet Ranbindranath Tagore.

Emperors Under French Rule

The forth Nguyen Emperor, Tu Duc (1848-1883), came to power after he murdered his older brother. He spent much of his time at a pleasure palace where he composed more than 4,000 poems, was entertained by dancing girls, made love with his 104 wives and drank tea made from dew condensed off lotus blossoms. Tu Doc's rule was marked by concessions to the French. Even with all those wives Tu Doc died with no heirs. On his death bed he was reportedly overtaken by guilt. A French chronicler wrote: "He pleaded before the phantom of a murdered brother he believed was standing before him." [Source: David Alexander, Smithsonian magazine, June, 1986 <>]

At mealtime, Emperor Tu Duc had 50 chefs preparing 50 dishes brought to him by 50 servants. To prepare his tea: every night, the tea leaves would be placed in lotus blossoms and collected the next morning infused with the delicate lotus scent. They would be brewed with the overnight dew on the lotus leaves.

"Tu Duc's successor's continued to mount the throne, maintaining lavish life-styles and the trappings of royalty, but the power was not theirs, " wrote David Alexander in Smithsonian magazine, "They were a tragic and pathetic line of infants, incompetents and rebels. One was deposed after one day; another was poisoned after four months. Three—including a father and son—were exiled for resisting the French." <>

Not all of the emperors were willing puppets. Emperor Duy Tan (ruled 1907-16) planned a general uprising in Hue with his poet friend Tran Cao Va. The plot was discovered the before it was supposed to take place. The emperor was exiled and poet was beheaded with a guillotine. <>

Second-to-Last Emperor, Khai Dinh

Emperor Khai Dinh was one of the most despicable of the Vietnamese puppet rulers. He "aptly symbolized Vietnamese impotence," Alexander wrote. "Sickly, childlike, possibly imbecilic, he loved to dress up in imperial robes, a sword by his side—and light bulbs prankishly attached to his chest, which he would light via wires running from batteries secreted in his pockets." [Source: David Alexander, Smithsonian magazine, June, 1986 <>]

Khai Dihn built and lived in the Vietnamese Forbidden City and pretended he was an imperial ruler. During a three-day celebration honoring an auspicious royal anniversary in 1924, Khai Dihn was presented with gifts made of jade, silk and rosewood while a chorus sang, "May his happiness be as immense as the sea. May he be blessed with ten thousand happiness and ten thousand longevities." <>

During a procession at the celebration, a French chronicler wrote: "The central gate of the Imperial City was opened at last. Troops with yellow leggings and white jackets presented arms at the call of the bugle. Royal musicians broke into a march and two white horses, caparisoned in red, advanced slowly, each followed by a bearer with yellow umbrellas." Dancing to the music of gong, flutes and rums, children with golden lotus flower hats formed patterns with illuminated paper lanterns that told the stories of the Nguyen dynasty. <>

Vietnam's Last Emperor, Bao Dai

After Khai Dinh's death in 1926, his 13-year-old son Bao Dai, became emperor-designate of the French protectorate of Annam. Bao Dai had been sent off to France at age nine for nine years at education at an exclusive school, where he acquired a taste for gambling, women and tennis. He ascended to throne in 1932 at the of 18. [Source: David Alexander, Smithsonian magazine, June, 1986 <>]

Bao Dai was the notorious womanizer and preferred French things to Vietnamese ones. He was also regarded as a gentle, simple man, who occasionally dropped in for tea with peasant families. <>

Bao Dai was a puppet for the French and the Japanese. He tried to assert his independence from the French and make some reforms but as he admitted in his 1980 autobiography Le Dragon d' Amman , "Everything in fact which involved the daily life, the future of my country and my people was forbidden to me. I was nothing but an extra in a play." <>

See Bao Dai’s Abdication

Hardships Under French Rule in Vietnam

The French administration and taxation system created great inequalities of wealth. The traditional village system broke down. The French also disrupted the traditional economy, subjected forced labor to inhumane condition on rubber, tea and coffee plantations and introduced a kind of opium that made a large amount of the Vietnamese population into addicts. The French built 83 prisons but only one university. A public education system was established in 1908 as a vehicle to disseminate Western culture in Vietnam. It influenced but did not destroy Vietnamese culture.

According to Lonely Planet: The French colonial government taxed the peasants heavily to fund the ambitious public works projects, devastating the rural economy. "Colonialism was supposed to be a profitable proposition, so operations became notorious for the low wages paid by the French and the poor treatment of Vietnamese workers. Out of the 45, 000 indentured workers at one Michelin rubber plantation, 12, 000 died of disease and malnutrition between 1917 and 1944. Shades of King Leopold’s Congo." [Source: Lonely Planet]

Over 100,000 Vietnamese fought under the French flag in Europe in World War I. During World War I, France sought to maximize the use of Indochina's natural resources and manpower to fight the war while it cracked down on all patriotic mass movements in Vietnam. Indochina, mainly Vietnam, had to provide France with 50,000 soldiers and 49,000 workers, who were forcibly drafted from the villages to serve on the French battlefront. Indochina also contributed 184 million piastres in the form of loans and 336,000 tonnes of food. These burdens proved all the heavier as agriculture was hard hit by natural disasters from 1914 to 1917. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Vietnamese Resistance During the French Colonial Period

The Indochinese Union proclaimed by the French in 1887 may have ended the existence of an independent Vietnamese state, but active resistance continued in various parts of the country for the duration of French rule. Lacking a unified nationwide organization, the Vietnamese national movement, though still vigorous, failed to take advantage of the difficulties France was experiencing as a result of war to stage any significant uprisings. The scholars' movement had declined while new social forces were not yet strong enough to promote large-scale campaigns. The Quang Phuc movement had planned to seize Hanoi through the combined action of patriots within the country and a revolutionary army trained abroad. The secret operation was betrayed, however, and many members of the movement were arrested. Other members joined different organizations, armed themselves with rudimentary weapons, and sought to bring soldiers from the local militia over to their side. On January 6, 1919, 150 armed patriots attacked the garrison at Phu Tho. Meanwhile, enemy posts in other provinces, such as Nho Quan in Ninh Binh and Mong Cai near the Chinese border, were besieged. However, the attacks failed. The Quang Phuc had the intention of launching a series of attacks against many military and administrative centers in Tonkin, but the plan was not implemented. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Again in Tonkin, on August 31, 1917, soldiers of the Thai Nguyen garrison held a mutiny under the leadership of Sergeant Trinh Van Can, a former partisan of Hoang Hoa Tham, and Luong Ngoc Quyen, a member of the Quang Phuc movement. Joined by many soldiers, the insurgents killed the French commander, seized a large load of arms and munitions, and liberated many political prisoners who then joined the ranks of the combatants. The town of Thai Nguyen was liberated. The insurgents, after a series of discussions, gave up their plans for extending their activities to other provinces. Instead, they dug in at Thai Nguyen in the hope of consolidating their strength. On September 4, the French retook the town, forcing the insurgents to leave. Scattered in the mountainous region around Thai Nguyen, the rebels continued their struggle against 2,000 French troops for another six months. ~

In Annam, the most important event was the call for an uprising made by King Duy Tan, who was enthroned in 1907, at the age of seven, by the instigation of patriotic mandarins and scholars, particularly Thai Phien and Tran Cao Van. The principal forces on which King Duy relied were the soldiers who were gathered in the thousands in Hue and about to leave for France. The signal for the start of the revolt should have been given on May 3, 1916. Unfortunately, the secret was leaked and the French disarmed the soldiers before the day of their departure. Duy Tan attempted to flee the capital but was captured and exiled to the Island of Reunion. Scattered armed groups were rapidly eliminated by the French, and the patriots Thai Phien and Tran Cao Van were executed. ~

In Cochinchina, patriotic activity manifested itself in the early years of the century by the creation of underground societies. The most important of which was the Thien Dia Hoi (Heaven and Earth Association) whose branches covered many provinces around Saigon. These associations often took the form of political-religious organizations, and one of their main activities was to punish traitors in the pay of the French. Connected to these secret societies, a movement led by a former monk, Phan Xich Long, was organized in 1913. Its members, wearing white clothes and turbans, attacked the cities with primitive weapons. Phan Xich Long was eventually captured and executed by the French. In 1916, underground societies in Cochinchina tried to attack several administrative centers, including the central prison in Saigon and the residence of the local French governor. On the night of February14, 1916, thousands of people armed with knives and wearing amulets infiltrated Saigon and fought French police and troops who succeeded in defeating them. ~

The colonial administration, while harshly suppressing the national movement, sought to appease the elite by introducing a few paltry reforms, with promises of important postwar reforms from the more generous "liberal" governors. These promises were never fulfilled. The fact that France succeeded in holding on to Vietnam during the war years was mainly due to the weakness of the national movement. There were of' course patriots to carry on the fight for national independence, but the new and still embryonic social forces failed to give the movement the necessary vigor and direction. Not until these forces had further developed over subsequent decades was the national movement able to be revitalized. ~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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