The first French concession was granted in 1874, an insalubrious plot of land on the banks of the Red River, southeast of where the Opera House stands today. Once in full possession of Hanoi, after 1882, the French began to create a city appropriate to their new protectorate, starting with the area between the old concession and the train station, 2km to the west. In the process they destroyed many ancient Vietnamese monuments, which were replaced with Parisian-style buildings and boulevards. Gradually elegant villas filled plots along the grid of tree-lined avenues, then spread south in the 1930s and 1940s towards what is now Thong Nhat (Reunification) Park, a peaceful but rather featureless expanse of green marking the French Quarter’s southern boundary.
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The Opera House
The Opera House
A grand example of the Parisian-style architecture for which the quarter is famous is the stately Opera House (now officially known as the Municipal Theatre) situated near the eastern end of Trang Tien. Based on the neo-Baroque Paris Opéra, complete with Ionic columns and grey slate tiles imported from France, the theatre was erected on reclaimed land and finally opened in 1911 after ten years in the building. It was regarded as the jewel in the crown of French Hanoi, the colonial town’s physical and cultural focus, until 1945 when the Viet Minh proclaimed the August Revolution from its balcony. After Independence, audiences were treated to a diet of Socialist Realism and revolutionary theatre, but now the building has been restored to its former glory after a massive face-lift. Crystal chandeliers, Parisian mirrors and sweeping staircases of polished marble have all been beautifully preserved, although, unfortunately, there’s no access to the public unless you go to a performance. Otherwise, feast your eyes on the exterior – particularly stunning under evening floodlights or, better still, the soft glow of a full moon.
After the hectic streets of the Old Quarter, the grand boulevards and wide pavements of Hanoi’s French Quarter to the south and east of Hoan Kiem Lake are a welcome relief. Again it’s the architecture here that’s the highlight, with a few specific attractions spread over a couple of kilometres. The houses you see today, which like those of the Old Quarter survived largely due to lack of money for redevelopment, run the gamut of early twentieth-century European architecture from elegant Neoclassical through to 1930s Modernism and Art Deco, with an occasional Oriental flourish.