Letter from Hanoi: Vietnam old, new and ever

When I was a boy growing up in Canada, Hanoi was the enemy. In those days most foreign visitors to Hanoi were American pilots who had taken a wrong turn over the Bay of Tonkin. Travelling on one-way tickets, they were accommodated at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, a notorious prison where room service consisted of a propaganda lecture and a bowl of maggoty rice. Sometimes they appeared on television, rather grim-faced, to say how much they liked the place.

Twenty years on and I was never sure if I should mention the war. It may be the great inescapable fact of the last fifty years of Vietnamese history but it seems to have sidled away with barely a trace. Doi moi, the Vietnamese perestroika, has made honored guests of the former enemy, and Vietnam has become one of Asia’s most fashionable destinations.

Peace becomes a country as beautiful as Vietnam. I came to Hanoi through a landscape of flooded paddies where buffaloes waded fetlock-deep through unimaginable greens, and young women in white silks cycled along the raised causeways in a pewter twilight.

The two old capitals — Saigon and Hanoi — are a country apart. The former is a city of the tropics, mercurial and corrupt. Few people bother with the post-war name, Ho Chi Minh City, too much of a mouthful even for the politically correct. Saigon may have lost the war but it is winning the peace. A former den of capitalists, it had something of a head start when it comes to market forces and is now busy rediscovering its old commercial hustle. Less brash, more conservative, Hanoi seems to belong to an older world. While Saigon is a city Americans would recognize, Hanoi retains strong echoes of its French colonial past.My guides in the two cities captured something of these differences. In Saigon I was escorted round the city by a young man in Nike trainers with a colloquial American drawl. In Hanoi my guide, a serious bespectacled sort, sounded like he had learned his English from a Russian correspondence course. Truc had an existentialist haircut, and the kind of clothes that might have been hand-me-downs from Jean-Paul Sartre. Over tea in the Metropole he discussed Confucianism, the poetry of Tu Duc, and girls. I liked him immediately.

War and communism have preserved Hanoi from fifty years of progress. There are moments when it seems like the lost city of Asia, the one you can never quite find, the great teeming, squalid, fascinating metropolis of Marlene Dietrich films and 1930’s novellas. The modern age has transformed Shanghai. Hong Kong and Bangkok are jammed with traffic and skyscrapers. The lanes of Old Peking have given way to boulevards wide enough for tanks. Hanoi alone has retained its street urchins, curbside gamblers, sing-song girls, street barbers, bicycle rickshaws and air of neglect.

The French quarter is a city of lakes and shaded boulevards, of colonial mansions and Beaux Arts villas set behind iron railings. Shoals of cyclists pass beneath the leafy arches of the city’s magnificent trees — teak, banyan, cassia, milkwood, and flame trees. On the shores of Hoam Kiem Lake, waiters, rude as Parisians, serve coffee at sidewalk cafes. In Nha Tho street the sound of Mass drifts out through the open doors of the Cathedral. The Metropole, where Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene used to stay, has the air of a colonial club with its reassuring doorman, its ceiling fans and its cocktail hour. Round the corner is the city’s architectural jewel, the Opera House modelled on the Paris Opera. Its program was rudely interrupted in 1945 by the Viet Minh who used its imposing balcony to declare that the revolution had begun. Now, in tune with the rapidly changing face of Vietnam, the Opera House has been renovated and Tosca is back in fashion.

The spacious character of the colonial city is the French answer to the congested lanes of the native quarter. In the medieval heart of Hanoi, an area known as 36 lanes, commercial life spills out of the shops to engulf you like a rising tide. For centuries this has been the district of serious shopping. Each lane is named after the trade in which it specialized — Hang Bang, cotton; Hang Bo, baskets, Hang Ca, fish; Hang Dieu, smoking pipes; Hang Quat, fans; Hang Khoai, sweet potatoes. In Silver Street, ancient grannies were buying earrings for tiny infants while round the corner in Undertaker Street stone masons were chiselling the names and dates of the newly dead on gravestones. Many of the lanes have retained their original identities though others have changed with the times. Lamp Oil Street is now Sunglass Alley while Drum Skin Street has moved upmarket into upholstery.

You seem to be able to do anything in these lanes. Open-air supermarkets operate from the panniers of trusty Flying Pigeon bicycles. There is everything from quail’s eggs to topside of beef to a dozen roses wrapped in a banana leaf. The chicken is so fresh it’s not dead yet, and customers are obliged to hold its wings while its throat is slit.

Old ladies have set up soup kitchens on the curbside ladling out bowls of pho, watery noodles, to eager punters perched on miniature stools. You can eat escargot the size of small dogs, and dogs the size of escargot. Boys materialise out of the crowds to shine your shoes and girls arrive with lottery tickets, tea towels and bunches of spring onions. After lunch you can settle down for a hand of cards, have your palm read, your feet massaged or your hair cut by chaps with sheep shears and a scrap of mirror. Should you want to pick up something for the weekend, drop by the corner condom stall.

The narrow streets of the old quarter are lined with traditional ‘tube houses’ which evolved originally from street stalls. Keen to avoid a tax on street frontages, the houses can be as little as two yards wide. They run back from the street like long corridors, slender rooms for slender people, interspersed with courtyards to admit air and light. You peer into their depths through layers of domestic existence — a kitchen where a girl in white silk was squatting over a cooking pot, a bedroom where a man snored on a rattan mat, a courtyard where a woman was flailing the life out of the family laundry.

On the edge of the old city I passed the offices of Cuu The, practitioner of traditional Vietnamese medicine. Installed in a tiny shop front, across the road from the Hoan Kiem Lake, Cuu looked like the lost twin of Confucius. His sign announced him as a specialist in ‘Maladies du poumon’, Illnesses of the lungs. I could believe this. Cuu’s long white beard was yellowed with nicotine, and his desk was empty save for an overflowing ash tray. He looked up from the cheering headlines about increased tractor production and gazed at me through a haze of blue smoke.

‘I have a bronchial condition, doctor,’ I lied, hoping for a prescription of snake wine or dried sea horse. ‘Shortness of breath.’ I panted at him encouragingly. Cuu was phlegmatic. A lifetime of listening to people’s pulses had made him a shrewd observer. ‘Don’t walk so fast,’ he shrugged, lighting another cigarette from the stub of the last one.

In need of tea and sympathy, I stopped off for a cuppa at a neat little establishment run by two ancient grannies. Their teahouse was a hole in the wall. A shutter folded down to create a shelf where the patrons, sitting on tiny stools on the pavement, took their tea. There were a variety of blends; the most exotic cost two cents. Granny Number One prepared a water pipe to go with my cup of Halong Green Dragon. The pipe was a formidable object, a three-foot section of bamboo that could have passed for a piece of Oriental scaffolding. Five puffs and I was reeling. I don’t know what the Grannys put in their bamboo but a little of it goes a long way. Truc helped me into a passing cyclo before I collapsed, and we set off to visit Ho Chi Minh.

The pipe was formidable, a three-foot section of bamboo that could have passed for a piece of Oriental scaffolding. Five puffs and I was reeling. I don’t know what they put in their bamboo but a little of it goes a long way.

Despite being dead for thirty years, Ho still receives hundreds of visitors a month. They file into the great marble mausoleum, modelled on Lenin’s, with their hats in their hands. The great man lies embalmed in the glass coffin, dressed in white. Despite a waxy pallor, he looks younger than he ever did in life.

For keeping up appearances in the hereafter, the Vietnamese leader was fortunate in his Russian alliances. Mao Zedong was foolish enough to die at a low point in Sino-Soviet relations, and the Chinese had to prepare his mummification without the aid of the Russian experts. The Great Helmsmen apparently is not the man he was, and those who know say his ears are falling off. Uncle Ho, however, benefited from a first-class Russian service available only to the closest of allies. He enjoys a state of preservation that many living people would envy. Every year the Russian embalmer still comes to Hanoi for Ho’s annual check-up.

Such survival couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Demonized by the West during the height of the Vietnam War, he was always a hero to his own people, and history will record him as one of the great figures of modern Indochinese history. He was a politician with a hinterland — poet, painter, sculptor, linguist, and a very fine pastry chef. During his years as a penniless globetrotter in the 1920’s, he worked for a time as the sous-chef at the Carlton House Hotel in London where his mince pies were fondly remembered.

I stopped by to visit his former home, an elegant two-roomed house perched on stilts above a fish pond, which he preferred to the grand chateau that had been the residence of the French governor. Visitors can peer in at his few possessions — his helmet, his telephone, some books, his typewriter — preserved like the great man himself in glass cases. Next door was the underground shelter where he took refuge when the American bombers arrived.

One of Truc’s earliest memories was of the 11-day Christmas bombing campaign in 1972. I commiserated. He shrugged. He was five, and thought it was all very exciting. He remembered the underground shelter with a child’s innocence as having the atmosphere of picnic outing. It was only later that he told me his father had died in one of the battles for Hue.

Vietnam was a war for so long, it was easy to forget it was a country as well. Its peace now seems so complete that it is just as easy to forget the wounds lingering in people’s hearts.

Stanley Stewart has written three award-winning travel books – Old Serpent Nile, Frontiers of Heaven, and In the Empire of Genghis Khan. He is also the recipient of numerous awards for his magazine and newspaper articles. He was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada, and now divides his time between Rome and Dorset.

[Photos: Flickr | Rosino; Rosino; Jorge Lascar; chacrebleu]