A tall, blond woman in black and a small Asian girl stand at the prow of a gilded barge moving slowly over a wide, jungle-lined river. The woman is Catherine Deneuve, star of the 1992 movie "Indochine," about the war for independence in French colonial Vietnam.
Before the war in Vietnam became an American flash point, the French ruled the country. From the 1850s to 1950s, the empire and colony were locked in a relationship that brought misery to both.
But in another sense, the colonial era in Vietnam bore gorgeous fruit in the melange of styles exhibited in every sumptuous scene in the movie. The subtle, seductive French-Vietnamese blending infused couture, art, architecture, literature and cuisine. To really catch hold of the evanescent style -- its silken fabrics, slow-moving ceiling fans, louvered windows, tamarind trees, lacquer cigarette holders and muddy espresso -- you have to visit Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, formerly the administrative center for the French colony of Indochina (which ultimately included Cambodia and Laos).
In Hanoi, the French built wide, tree-lined avenues, grand villas in a hybrid style known as Norman Pagoda and a scaled-down replica of the Opera Garnier in Paris. They spread the language of Voltaire, Catholicism and cafe society.
Nowadays, most Americans visit Vietnam to remember the war that ended when Saigon fell in 1975. But after living in Paris for three years, I went to Hanoi to seek out what remains of French Vietnam before it vanishes under the rising tide of modernization.
Vietnam stagnated after Communist consolidation, but free-market reforms in the 1980s made the economy roar. In 2005 the country celebrated 25 successive years of growth. Construction and pollution are rampant, especially in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, and the south. If the north seems to lag behind, it's only because it started later.
Still, it is possible to wander through Hanoi's Old Quarter on the northern and western sides of Hoan Kiem Lake, watching the Vietnamese cook, eat -- indeed, live their lives -- on the uneven sidewalks. The tradition of alfresco dining presumably made them receptive to French-style sidewalk cafes because everywhere people sit at tables under umbrellas that advertise La Vie bottled water.
Into the Old Quarter
I started in the Old Quarter, at the amiable Hong Ngoc Hotel. The first morning, I bought flowers from a bicycle-borne peddler in the street. Around the corner I found Tan My, a silk and embroidery shop run by three generations of Vietnamese women. Then, already caught in the spell of Vietnam, I kept walking.
On Hang Trong Street, peddlers sell fresh baguettes on the curb, and Sunday painters set up easels by the bridge leading to Ngoc Son Pagoda on Hoan Kiem Lake. At Fanny, an ice cream shop on the western side of the lake, the nougat ice cream is almost as creamy as at Berthillon on the Ile-St.-Louis in Paris.
The beguiling character of the Old Quarter is partly a product of Hanoi's swampy terrain, pockmarked by lakes fed by the soupy Red River. Even after the lakes were drained, roads that once circled them remained in a grid-defying tangle.
By about 1905, Hanoi was the Paris of Vietnam, a playground for colonists enriched in the rice, rubber and opium trades. At the same time, it reflected the empire's effort to shine the golden light of French culture into dark corners of the world.
As proof of their altruism, colonists could point to the new bridge over the Red River, streetlights, an electric tram, the railroad reaching Haiphong on the coast and schools where Vietnamese girls and boys learned to write their native language in Roman letters.
Some of the brightest of them continued their educations in France and returned home more French than the French; others studied Rousseau and joined the revolution. Ho Chi Minh, who lived in Paris from 1917 to 1923 and went on to become the father of Communist Vietnam, said that although the French in France were good, French colonists were cruel and inhumane.
When I moved to the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi's French Quarter on the southeastern side of the lake, I walked in the well-heeled footsteps of the colonists Ho hated.
Today the Metropole is again the pride of Hanoi, thanks to a 1990 restoration and flawless management by the French hotel chain Sofitel. The three-story lobby yields to a chain of intimate sitting rooms done in dark wood, vintage prints, Chinoiserie furniture, orchids and silk.
I stopped at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where Capt. John McCain spent five years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down in 1967. Hao Lo Prison, as it is officially called, is a popular stop for American tourists, who learn that the medieval-looking stone fortress was built by the French in 1896, chiefly for Vietnamese political prisoners.
Later, over a slice of quiche Lorraine at Kinh Doh, a tiny French bakery near the Fine Arts Museum, I reminded myself that it is dangerous to romanticize. In Vietnam, farmers unable to pay French taxes lost their land. Opium addiction, encouraged by the colonial administration, was rampant. Military conscription and press gangs enslaved a people with a long love of independence.
Just then I looked up and saw an autographed photo of Deneuve, who apparently visited Kinh Doh while filming "Indochine." I wondered if, like me, the quintessential French beauty had come to love Hanoi. Or did she know all along that the French had landed in no dark corner of the world when they colonized Vietnam?