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History as inspiration: Tracing Franco-Chinese architectural elements in Hanoi old houses

SSHPA (11-09-2019; Vũ Thị Hạnh) — Special Note: This article has been edited and published in the print edition of the Vietnam Economic Times, October issue, 2019. The author thanks Ho Manh Tung, Nguyen T. Hong-Kong, and Ho Manh Toan for their help in commenting and proofreading earlier manuscripts.

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History is written in textbooks but is indubitably remembered through cultural artifacts and architecture. This is particularly the case when one thinks of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, where its thousands of years of ancient history can be found in the old citadels, and more than half a century of French colonialism can be glimpsed in the Old Quarter houses. Many of these structures have survived the brutality of wars and now feed into the nostalgia of French aesthetic. Yet, in what way can we come to gain greater insight into a cultural space where there is an interconnection between religion, house designs, and forms of feeling? One can find an answer to this question in a newly-published scientific research article titled “Cultural evolution in Vietnam's early 20th century: A Bayesian networks analysis of Hanoi Franco-Chinese house designs” in the Social Sciences and Humanities Open journal of Elsevier.

(Source: Image by Tania_pl from Pixabay)

The study is the first of its kind to systematically break down elements of house façade in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and examine them against the rich cultural-historical continuity of the city and country as a whole. These are the very old houses that today live on in the oil paintings of the Vietnamese artist Bui Xuan Phai (1920-1988) – whose name intrinsically conjures up images of “Phai streets.” The authors, allegedly inspired by Bui Xuan Phai’s paintings and the historical remnants in the capital city, make a brave attempt to statistically analyze and remember the Franco-Chinese architecture in Hanoi’s historic streets. The old houses, many of which have undergone urbanization and commercialization, are documented through 248 photos taken by one of the co-authors, the Vietnamese artist Bui Quang Khiem in ten years from 2007 to 2018. This approach alone speaks volume to the meticulous preparation and patience in conducting research on cultural history.

It comes as an interesting surprise that the type of research data in this study goes beyond such usual methods as observational, experimental, simulation, and derived. In fact, researchers can make data out of what they observe. In other words, the authors see with their own eyes the actual house façade as well as the photos of Hanoi Old Quarter house façade in order to encrypt these images and their elements into data. Given this approach, the data are inevitably subjective—the authors give their evaluation of the house façade based on their own feelings, knowledge, and judgments about Hanoi ancient architecture. The method to generate input data of the study is exceptional in that from seeing the photos (sense) then receiving information about the architectural decoration of the facade of the old houses (perception) to feeling the spirit of old house images (feeling). Feelings of the traditional, feeling of modern and feeling of cultural evolution add extra spatial dimensions of our big three-dimensional space that makes modern, and old Hanoi, are hardly discerned. Since feelings may be colored by personal experience, belief or even memories, the use of quantitative and qualitative data can improve storytelling about Vietnam's cultural-architectural evolution in a more subtle way.

While the dataset in this study is not large and has its limitations, it stands out in a unique manner—the 72 data lines were recorded through a series of photos of Hanoi old houses characterized by Vietnam's cultural evolution in the early 20th century, hence, the value of the information is constant regardless of time or space. The use of Bayesian networks analysis allows the construction of independent and dependent variables that capture the façade decoration of the old houses as close as possible to the religious culture of Vietnam. For example, regarding Buddhist-inspired decorations façade designs, lotus flowers symbolize spiritual enlightenment and rebirth. Taoist-inspired patterns are represented by a cloud or an octagonal fengshui bagua mirror, meanwhile Chinese characters or paper rolls decorated on the façade of Hanoi old houses are symbols of Confucianism.

Among its notable findings, the authors reveal the high probability of the hybrid value when there is a weak presence of Buddhist-inspired decorative symbols. Additionally, when the decoration of a façade is hybrid, the probability of the cultural evolution happening is at its highest. Understanding these changes requires one to dig deeper into the past, to grasp the historical contexts against which such changes were brought about. And this is why scientific studies of this kind are enormously valuable, even as one may debate its subjectivity and model construction. The knowledge of culture, religion, architectural designs, and scientific explanation are all employed to confirm traces of cultural evolution in the 20th century of Vietnam through the Franco-Chinese style old houses of Hanoi.

Cultural evolution is not easy to study, but this study proves that it is not impossible either. A political empire may have no long existence; an economic policy may need to be revised; human needs may change, and our names will be forgotten. The study reminds us of the long-lasting status of the cultural values of Hanoi Old Quarter.


La, V. P., & Vuong, Q. H. (2019). bayesvl: Visually Learning the Graphical Structure of Bayesian Networks and Performing MCMC with ‘Stan.’ The Comprehensive R Archive Network (CRAN). Available from: https://cran.r-project.org/package=bayesvl.

Vuong, Q. H., Bui, Q. K., La, V. P., Vuong, T. T., Ho, M. T., Nguyen, H. K. T., ... & Ho, M. T. (2019). Cultural evolution in Vietnam’s early 20th century: a Bayesian networks analysis of Hanoi Franco-Chinese house designs. Social Sciences & Humanities Open, 1(1), 100001; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssaho.2019.100001.

*This preprint was posted on OSF Preprints: https://osf.io/4gtxw/

Vũ Thị Hạnh (Đại học Ngoại Thương, Hà Nội, Việt Nam; Email: hanhvt@ftu.edu.vn)

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Ý kiến bạn đọc (26):

  • Trả lời Nguyen Thi Thu Trang (11/23/2019 10:16 PM): What a beautiful article! Hope you will write more and more. So wonderful!
  • Trả lời Bích Ngọc Ngụy (11/17/2019 10:48 PM): Your writing skills are very excellent and thanks for your analyzing method. Tks you so much
  • Trả lời Đặng Thị Hải (11/17/2019 10:42 PM): Thanks for your article. It's very interesting and useful.
  • Trả lời Huyen Nguyen Thu (11/13/2019 1:18 PM): It is no exaggeration to say that cultural evolution is hard to study, however such valuable articles like this encourage us to preserve and show our consideration for the old values that are on the verge of being forgotten.
  • Trả lời Trần Chí Anh (11/13/2019 12:23 PM): From a typical Hanoian perspective, I find this article such inspirational as it reminds me of a long-lasting culture and society of Hanoi old quarter. We as Vietnamese people should always appreciate the high value of Ha noi although there may be changes influenced by modernisation.
  • Trả lời Ngan Le (11/13/2019 8:44 AM): It can be found from this article that many old contructions of Hanoi have been influenced by many cultural, religious and artistic factors. The authors have brought a deeper image of Vietnam's capital that can help readers to have a different feeling about the city.
  • Trả lời Nguyễn Thị Diễm Ly (11/13/2019 7:17 AM): I like this article so much! Hope you have many interesting and useful articles. Good job!
  • Trả lời Phạm Phương Mai (11/13/2019 1:32 AM): The article provides data to demonstrate the exceptional values of the Old Quaters which lie even beyond the long historical and cultural levels. It is the aesthetic and architectural values that intrigue me. I hardly sit up and take notice to such elaborate details on the façades of Hanoi old houses to recognise the traces of the Three Harmonious Religions (Buddism, Taoism and Confucianism). Despite the partially subjective analyzing method, it blows a soul to the article. It stands out thanks to the writer's aspiration to perceive the lingering tangible cultural values. The ending paragraphs might be perfect should you suggest a handful of solutions to preserve the original values or lessen the damage caused by time and human effects. I don't want us here only to discuss the work of art combining both European and Asian elements, but to seek for real state of affairs and practical solutions as well. I am longing for the next part of this article. Thank you so much!
  • Trả lời Trương Hồng Linh (11/12/2019 11:28 PM): I found this article really useful. It enriched my scope of knowledge of a new analyzing method. I've never thought that we could collect data through photos and the result could still be trustworthy even it was partly based on personal feelings. I was inspired a lot. However i wish the article would be more informative about the data like what numbers or measurable things stand for each type of personal feelings.
  • Trả lời Trang Hoang (11/12/2019 10:41 PM): Bài viết rất bổ ích và thú vị😍. Nó đem lại rất nhiều kiến thức mới mẻ cho mình. Cảm ơn tác giả về bài viết ạ <3
  • Trả lời Ngô Gia Linh (11/12/2019 10:35 PM): It is true that cultural evolution is not easy to study, but once discovered can reveal many interesting facts of our old times and thus help reveal preserve the values that might have been forgotten. Such findings like this on Hanoi old architectures should be promoted. Great work.
  • Trả lời Vũ Phương Thảo (11/12/2019 9:20 PM): Very interestinggggg
  • Trả lời Hoàng Bích Hường (11/12/2019 9:19 PM): I've been interested in architectural elements in Hanoi old houses for a long time. This article is such a helpful one, thank you so much! ❤
  • Trả lời Thuy Tran (11/12/2019 8:59 PM): Besides Hanoi Old Quarter, there are a lot of ancient constructions in Vietnam helping us to study more about historical contexts such as Hue Imperial Citadel or Temple of Literature. They all stand for each remarkable period and the unique cultural styles of Vietnam. That you carry the research through visible building makes history become closer to students, who have always been considered history something really abstract. Thank you very much for your hard work.
  • Trả lời Nguyen Thi Thu Trang (11/12/2019 8:55 PM): I was sort of impressed by the way of collecting qualitative and quantitative data to tell about cultural- architectural evolution of Vietnam. We all know about the tradition way to get data such as personal interview, questionnaires, observations from lots of people. But the dataset collection in this study is so unique to me when it comes to also take the experiences and actually real images of the old HaNoi houses. Most importantly, the subjective feelings of the author are also considered as an important factor to generate input data in research model. The method is to begin from sense, perception and then feeling, which gives the readers not only a whole picture of the beauty of Franco-Chinese architecture in Hanoi Old Quarter house but also the appreciated behaviors of the authors towards the cultural-historical values of Hanoi Old Quarter. Thank you for all these information !
  • Trả lời Tra Trinh (11/12/2019 8:46 PM): Em rất thích bài viết khi đề cập đến những nét kiến trúc cổ kính của Hà Nội, em cảm ơn cô vì đã đưa đến cho bạn đọc những cái nhìn sâu sắc hơn về những giá trị lịch sử và giá trị văn hoá trong những kiến trúc xưa như thế này ạ!
  • Trả lời Nguyễn Phượng Anh (11/12/2019 5:28 PM): Wow amazing !!!
  • Trả lời Phạm Hải Anh (11/12/2019 4:57 PM): It is true that the spirit of Franco Chinese architecture still lingers here in Hanoi. It is clear evidence of an adapting and changing phase of our entire old culture. Regarding art and culture, it was such a great effort of researchers to conceptualize something that is originally so abstract. It is sad but true, that we witness the change everyday, and the time will soon come, when all the things reminding us of a faraway time will leave without a trace.
  • Trả lời Mai (11/12/2019 3:37 PM): Bài viết quá hay <3
  • Trả lời Nguyễn Xuân Khuê (11/12/2019 3:36 PM): This article led me to an extremely valuable study that remind me of the priceless asset of Vietnamese nation. Moreover, the article brings me a view to a method, which I have never heard about before, to analyse the information through a series of pictures of Hanoi Old Quarter houses.
  • Trả lời Vũ Hoàng Ngọc Anh (11/12/2019 3:35 PM): Trước giờ em không biết gì nhiều về khía cạnh này, bài viết hay quá ạ. Em cảm ơn cô vì đã chia sẻ với chúng em ạ.
  • Trả lời Bùi Đình Lợi (11/12/2019 3:28 PM): Bạn viết giúp cho mình có một cái nhìn mới về Hà Nội, rất độc đáo. Người viết chắc phải có một thời gian dài làm việc, tiếp xúc với thủ đô Hà Nội.
  • Trả lời Minh Tam Le (11/12/2019 3:21 PM): The French have been enemies of the Vietnamese for a long time in history, but there is no denying the great architectural and aesthetic values ​​that remain in Hanoi buildings, which are known as masterpieces that are reproduced into pictures by the talented artist Bui Xuan Phai as well as many famous photographers. If having the opportunity, a visit to Hanoi is extremely meaningful for you to experience the culture, learn the Hanoi Old Quarter here. It will surely surprise and remind you of Vietnamese national history pages that may have been gradually forgotten.
  • Trả lời Nguyễn Thị Hoài (11/12/2019 3:20 PM): Such a useful article.
  • Trả lời Nguyễn Thu Trang (11/12/2019 3:13 PM): Em cảm ơn cô vì bài viết thú vị này ạ!
  • Trả lời Hoàng Ngọc Anh (11/12/2019 2:57 PM): Bài viết rất hay và ý nghĩa!