From baguette sandwiches to Roman Catholic architecture, colonial heritage is everywhere in Vietnam

A place with a definite French flair like no other, this is one of the first destinations in my ‘revenge travel’ series

A place with a definite French flair like no other, this is one of the first destinations in my ‘revenge travel’ series

One of those indelible legacies that the pandemic left on me – besides the increased feeling of anxiety and borderline pathological cleanliness OCD – is a mild intolerance to gluten. ” Anathema to a Traveling Food and Travel Writeryou might say. An emphatic ” nevermind“I’m notorious for shooting that down these days. There is a gluten-free alternative to almost anything edible. Yes, even the good old beer!

But long before the culinary world was looking for such benign alternatives to meet the needs of gluten-struggling souls, the Vietnamese had a trick up their sleeve for a whole different set of reasons. But more on that a bit later.

I find myself in Vietnam these days. This is one of the first destinations in my “revenge trips” series that I have planned for the next two months. A place with a definitive French flair like no other.

As we know, from 1887 until the Geneva Accord of 1954, Vietnam was part of French Indochina, a vast colonial stronghold that also included Laos and Cambodia. Even now, nearly 70 years later, it’s easy to find French influences throughout the region, albeit with a few twists.

Women cook and sell banh mi sandwiches in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

Women cook and sell banh mi sandwiches in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. | Photo credit: Getty Images

For example, my daily breakfast is a delicious grilled bánh mi sandwich. A mini baguette-shaped sandwich stuffed with a curious assortment of French toppings and condiments like roast pork, pork pâté and mayonnaise that pairs superbly with typical Asian dishes like sweet chilli sauce and fresh coriander leaves.

Airy and porous

But it’s the crispy baguette that puts it all in perspective for me. What started as a full-sized French baguette made with de rigueur wheat flour at the start of colonial rule turned into gluten-free Vietnamese-style mini bread made with rice flour (a staple of Southeast Asia) – giving the bread a more airy and porous texture than ever before.

There are French-style bakeries all over Vietnam, serving not only bánh mi in its various permutations and combinations, but also the beloved French coffee. Another surprise on the otherwise tea-obsessed continent.

Modern Vietnamese writing is also distinct from its other immediate neighbors in Southeast Asia. This one with its base in Roman script was promoted by the French colonial authorities after its creation by Alexandre de Rhodes, a Jesuit missionary.

The Cathedral Basilica of Notre-Dame de Saigon is based on the architecture of Notre-Dame de Paris.

The Cathedral Basilica of Notre-Dame de Saigon is based on the architecture of Notre-Dame de Paris. | Photo credit: Wiki Commons

Religion too – and more particularly Roman Catholic architecture – is another vestige of the French past. With their soaring arches, opera-like balconies and tall columns, some of the most beautiful buildings are the churches I find in the country’s capital, Hanoi, and its commercial capital, Ho Chi Minh City. From Saint Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi to Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica in Saigon, both are based on the architecture of Notre-Dame de Paris.

But Catholicism is not the only organized form of religion the Vietnamese have co-opted from the French. I am talking about perhaps the least known religion in the world. One called Caodaism which I come across as I travel south along this narrow strip of country.

Founded in southern Vietnam in 1926, Caodaism is a monotheistic religion that is a curious amalgamation of various philosophies. With the word ” CADmeaning “high” and ” daimeaning “peace”, its foundations are a fusion of secular and religious philosophies of East and West. Interestingly, its tenets are also based on certain codes said to have been revealed to the founder of the religion Ngo Van Chieu, who was a district head of the French administration in Vietnam, via a series of seance messages from 1921.

Worshipers at a Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh province, southern Vietnam, known as the birthplace of Caodaism.

Worshipers at a Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh province, southern Vietnam, known as the birthplace of Caodaism. | Photo credit: Getty Images

It is said to have over 4.4 million practicing Caodaists, it is the third largest religion in Vietnam after Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. What’s really new about Caodaism is that it combines elements of many of the world’s major religions, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, as well as Jainism!

Historical personalities

Another fascinating aspect of Caodaism is that among its pantheon of saints, historical figures (mostly French, no surprise!) such as Joan of Arc and Louis Pasteur also find a solid footing. But the most eminent and revered of all is Victor Hugo since he gave many teachings and also the text of a number of important prayers to Caodaism.

In fact, he is said to have even predicted that he would become the prophet of a new religion to merge European and Asian mysticism. Philosophical foresight at its finest, right?

The Mumbai-based restaurant writer and critic is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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