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October 22, 2021, 3:41 pm

Da Lat and the ‘iron will’ of the French

(11:37:44 AM 12/08/2014)
( - Within the first half of the 20th century, the French almost completed building Da Lat to become a ‘romantic French town’ on the Lang Biang Plateau with hallmark villas of European style.

The villa of South Vietnam governor Jean-Félix Krautheimer in Da Lat in 1930. It is now the office of the People's Committee of Lam Dong Province


At the time, Da Lat was an ‘up-to-date hotspot’ with both Vietnamese and Europeans in Indochina wishing to ‘experience the earthly paradise’ by owning a villa or visiting it at least once in their lives.

Da Lat was always given favors by the French government despite political changes in the world with two world wars and a global economic recession. In the first half of the 20th century, Indochina had 34 governor-generals from Paul Doumer to Jean Decoux and Da Lat had 10 mayors from Paul Champoudry and André Berjoan.
But they all shared the same target of building Da Lat, which was then referred to as the ‘son of romantic imagination and the iron ambition of the French’.
Restoring the face of a French town
In 1932, a road was built across the Blao mountain pass to link Da Lat and Saigon, the former name of Ho Chi Minh City, with a six-hour car drive. In 1937, there was a train everyday between Saigon and Da Lat.
The population of Da Lat shot up from 1,500 people in 1923 to 13,000 in 1940 and then 20,000 in 1942.
By 1940, the number of visitors to Da Lat in a year was about equal to the number of its regular residents.
Those who could not return home to France due to war chose to stay in Da Lat. The last governor-general of Indochina, Jean Decoux spent more time in Da Lat during the time when Japanese troops advanced in Indochina.
The French could not stand still to see the architectural face of Da Lat be spoiled day by day by the spreading ‘reproduction’ of villa models. They assigned French architect Jacques Lagisquet to restore it with a plan in 1942.
Not only was the mission of Lagisquet to restore the architecture of Da Lat, but also to ‘concretize’ Da Lat as a ‘summer town’ to strengthen the power of France and halt the influence of Japan in Indochina.
Lagisquet applied the techniques of Ernest Hébrard in 1923 with strict management of the construction of villas. The procedure met with much protest and was delayed.
Lagisquet monitored in person the construction of a new residential area named Cite-Jardin Amiral Decoux, which is now the area of Yersin University.
The area with 50 new villas was meant to serve the French who were not rich enough to buy a Da Lat villa but could hire one in the picturesque hilly town.
Lagisquet planned another area for local ‘Annamites’ (a reference to Vietnamese in the past) in Da Thanh, which is now Ward 7 in Da Lat, and stopped their protests for being previously relocated. 2,000 locals came to settle in Da Thanh the following year.
By that time, more and more agencies of the French government in Indochina began moving to Da Lat, which was proving itself as a notable French summer town by 1944.
If Hébrard had planned Da Lat as a ‘French summer town’ in Indochina, his successors Louis-Georges Pineau and Lagisquet went even further to make it the capital of Indochina.
Da Lat could be a safer and more central city than even Hanoi, Pineau said in an article in the 49th edition of the magazine Vie Urbaine, published in 1939.
But maybe the French could not imagine that they would have to leave Indochina, and of course Da Lat, in 1945, and handed over the management rights to the Ngo Dinh Diem administration.

Whatever the case, the French had displayed their ‘iron will’ to make their dream come true by making efforts to build Da Lat into a poetic and convenient place to live regardless of the political ups and downs and budgetary changes.

It was an exceptional reality that people have had to learn around 100 years later.
French architects who had strong desires of creating cities at their will then preferred coming to Indochina because the peninsula had left empty land for them to build on.
They could not do that in Europe where cities had already been built.
Source: Tuoi Tre

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