OFFBEAT This coastal town’s link with Vietnam dates back to the 1800s
The term Chaiyo may not be popular outside Puducherry, but anyone who grew up here will be able to identify these crispy rice paper rolls filled with vegetables and meat. The dish itself is of Vietnamese origin, called Cha Gio, but it is now an integral part of Puducherry’s cuisine.
Although for several decades there was a strong link between the two, now it is only the chaiyo that connects them.
Both Puducherry and Vietnam (or Indo China as it was called) were under the French control and as a result, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Saigon was home to several people from Pondicherry who went there for business, administration and as part of the armed forces for the French. Once there, many of these Pondicherrians married Vietnamese locals, strengthening the relations between the two.
According to general secretary of the Dravida Peravai N. Nandivarman, who has written on the subject, even as the French were in the process of taking over Vietnam, people from Pondicherry were sent there to take care of the administration of the region.
“One of the first business settlers in Vietnam from Pondicherry was Dharmanathan Purushanthi, who left Pondicherry in 1870 and established a soda factory near the Saigon harbour. Soon, his nephew Savarikannu Purushanthi also went there and started a moneychanging and real estate business, made his money and returned to Pondicherry to buy property for himself. This was a common trend,” says Nandivarman.
Another important link between the two countries is the Bank of Indo China, where UCO bank is presently housed. The building itself is one of the rare examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture in Puducherry. The Bank of Indo China was started in 1875 in Paris in order to promote business in South Asian countries, including Pondicherry. The bank in Pondicherry was closed down in 1955. There are a few people who still retain a connection with Vietnam.
According to Ejilane Souprayen, an 85-year old army veteran who was posted in Vietnam during Ho Chi Minh’s struggle for freedom in 1953, there were around 50 people who went to Vietnam along with him. “Our only job was to ensure that the people were safe. We also had to ensure that supplies of food and water reached the village we were posted in,” he recalls.
Lieutenant Colonel (Hon.) of the French army, Mouhamad Moustaph, however, has a much stronger connection to Vietnam even though he has never been there himself. Moustaph’s grandfather, Abdoul Vahid, went to Vietnam and leased out space in the market for shopkeepers in Saigon and Tanan. He also married a Vietnamese woman. Abdoul Vahid’s brother, Mouhamed Said, who was a real estate agent also married a Vietnamese woman.
When the Communist regime took over Vietnam, Mouhamed Said’s son’s property was seized and he returned to Pondicherry.
“Since my father had pronounced Vietnamese features, our shop in Puducherry was known as the “China shop,” says Moustaph.
Another major connection between the countries is that several people from Pondicherry went on to become judges in Vietnam. One such example is Marius Claud who lives in St. Therese Street.
Nowadays, however, most of the people of Vietnamese origin or those who married Vietnamese men or women have either gone to France or have moved back to Vietnam, mainly because of language issues.
Now only one or two restaurants still have Vietnamese-Puducherrians as owners and even the Chaiyo is slowly becoming rare.