Publisher: Heywood Press
Page Length: 349 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
When starting to write a novel, authors have an idea for a story – or at least, a pretty good idea of how it’ll begin and end. They also have an historical period, and a location for the novel, which in the case of Hanoi Spring was Vietnam.
In addition, I knew that the title would be a two-word title, the first word being the name of the town in which the novel was set. I knew this because Hanoi Spring was to be the third in the series The Colonials, the first two being Darjeeling Inheritance and Cochin Fall, and all three titles were to follow the same structure.
Having already set three novels in Asia – The Road Back, in which a large part is set in Ladakh, in the Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir, (a second edition of The Road Back is being published in August 2022); Darjeeling Inheritance, set in tea plantations in the north-east of India, and Cochin Fall, located in coastal South India in the State known today as Kerala – I was confident that I knew the sort of things I’d find when I went through my massive pile of books that dealt with the culture and history of Vietnam.
|The Mandarins guarding the Imperial City, in the walled Citadel in Hué.|
The first two novels in The Colonials were set in the 1930s, during the period of the British Raj, and the central characters were British. Vietnam, however, was colonised by the French. As a lover of France, who used to be fluent in French, and who still has some very good French friends, I was excited to be looking for the first time into French colonialism, and to be giving birth to central characters who were French, not British.
And even more so because I’d been to Vietnam. I’d seen for myself the houses and buildings built by the French, and walked the wide tree-lined boulevards where my characters were going to walk.
|A tree-lined boulevard in Saigon.|
I had a story in my head, and keen to begin writing it, I started on my research. Before long, I realised that I’d be writing a very different story from the one I’d originally had in mind. The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft astray, we’re told, and so they did with Hanoi Spring.
The unforeseen spanner in the works was the information I found when I started my research, information that took me by surprise. And I knew I couldn’t ignore it, not if I was going to be true to the period, which was 1932, and the location of the novel.
At the start of my research, I had expected that the lives and preoccupations of the French colonial administrators would be similar to those of the British colonials in India – but that they would wear slightly different clothes, eat different foods, and speak a different language.
I hadn’t yet understood the nature of French-controlled Vietnam, nor how much the daily life of both the French and the Vietnamese was affected by the situation around them, much of which resulted from the dictates of the Paris government. To give you one example of the way in which Paris was thinking.
|La Maison Centrale - the notorious French prison in Hanoi.|
French colonists were forbidden to refer to Vietnam in official documents or dialogue as Vietnam! During the French period, the country, which was long and narrow, was divided into three parts, each of which was administered independently: Tonkin in the north, its capital Hanoi; Annam in the centre, its capital Hué, and Cochinchina in the south, its capital Saigon.
Colonial administrators were ordered to refer to Tonkin, Annam or Cochinchina, whichever was relevant, but not to Vietnam, as using ‘Vietnam’ suggested that the country had a national identity, something Paris was determined to prevent.
The more I read, the more my initial ideas for a story changed shape, and I soon found that I was walking with Philippe Delon and Marc Bouvier, and their wives, Lucette and Simonne, down a very different path from the one I’d expected to take. It was a rather more suspenseful path than I’d originally anticipated, I would say.
The French colonial rule in Vietnam lasted from 1887 until 1954. After the French had left, it isn’t surprising that the Vietnamese government made a great effort to erase anything French from the now unified Vietnam. Equally, it isn’t surprising that the French legacy is still highly visible in Vietnam today, the French culture having long been woven into the fabric of the country.
Everywhere you look in cities such as Hanoi and Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, you see imposing French architecture, in tones of yellow ochre, with high arches, balconies and columns.
|The Grand Opera house, Hanoi, completed in 1911.|
You see the French legacy in the food the Vietnamese eat, such as omelettes, croissants, baguettes, cauliflower, courgettes, carrots, pâté and potatoes. All these and more were introduced by the French, and so was frying in butter.
The Vietnamese of today love their coffee, but that wasn’t always so. Tea used to be the choice of the Vietnamese. Like their Chinese neighbours, they had an affinity for tea, and this lasted until the French arrived, bringing coffee with them. Today, the Vietnamese punctuate their day with coffee, and Vietnam is second only to Brazil in the export of coffee. It’s more just part of their culture: it’s now central to their economy.
But the French legacy isn’t just that they now drink coffee – it’s where they drink it. The French colonists brought with them their café culture, and today, French café culture co-exists with the Vietnamese street food culture. Everywhere that one goes today, the terraces and sidewalks are filled with people gathered around fold-out aluminium tables.
Although the Vietnamese language owes more to Chinese than it does to French, the French influence nevertheless can be heard. Just as the English language, after the Norman Conquest, adopted French words, so, too, the Vietnamese language is full of words, such as the words for cheese, butter, bread, father and beer, which sound phonetically like their French equivalent.
Vietnamese infrastructure, too, owes a large debt to the French, who instigated, and supervised, the building of the railway line between Hanoi and Saigon, and who built many of the roads and bridges in Vietnam. They introduced, too, an advanced system for sanitation.
One of the most exciting things about opening your reference books and starting your research is that, even though you think that you know what you’re going to find, you could find something very different, which sends the creative juices down a hitherto undreamed-of channel.
I’m very grateful that my research for Hanoi Spring gave rise to a novel, which, although very different from my original conception, is one that I very much hope that readers will enjoy.