Letter from Hungary: soaking in the history in the bathhouses of Budapest

For two millennia the citizens of Budapest have nursed a passion for bathing. Far beneath them, in geological fault lines, is a watery cauldron, the source for over 120 thermal springs whose temperatures range from warm to scalding. These waters have produced an obsession. It began as a pursuit of health. It quickly became a pursuit of pleasure.

In Budapest the bathhouse is to the inhabitants what the pub is to the English or the coffee house is to inhabitants of American sitcoms. Stripped off and immersed in communal pools, they come to meet friends, to chat, to read the papers, to play chess, to catch up on the gossip. Rather than a couple of beers or a skinny latte and a blueberry muffin, there are steam chambers, hot pools and a vigorous masseur.

Some people kick-start their day in the bathhouse. Others come after work to unwind. For others still it is the mid-afternoon pick-me-up. I bought a swimming cap, a pair of flip-flops and bath towel, and set off into the city’s waterworld.

In the vaulted entry halls of the Rudas baths at the bottom of Buda hill, I passed through the turnstiles where a white-coated attendant handed me a key and small white apron. The key was for a locker where I left my clothes; the apron was to wear in the bath. It was a fetching garment which just covered one’s privates while leaving the buttocks exposed. Feeling a trifle self-conscious in what could be mistaken for a male stripper’s costume, I proceeded into the main baths, pausing first for the obligatory shower.In the central chamber I seemed to slip through a time warp, perhaps to Rome in the 1st century AD. Clouds of steam parted to reveal men strolling about in their toga-like aprons. An eerie mix of sounds — voices, water dripping and splashing, and flesh being slapped — echoed beneath the dome above us from where pinpoint shafts of light slanted through the steam. In the large central pool I stretched out in water that was blood temperature. It was deliciously soothing.

It was the Romans who began the tradition of medicinal thermal baths in Budapest. Arthritis sufferers from all over the empire came to bathe in Budapest. But the Romans soon realized there was more to bathing than medicinal cures. The slow rituals of hot and cold water, of massage rooms and steam chambers, were a pleasure in themselves, and that pleasure was deemed central to physical and mental well-being. The Romans built eleven bathhouses in the city they called Acquincum.

The Middle Ages was a time when Europeans and soap and water were strangers. Isabella of Castille only bathed twice in her life, once before her wedding night and again before her coronation.

When the Huns invaded they neglected the plumbing, and bathing in Budapest fell into one of its periodic declines. The Middle Ages was generally a time when Europeans and soap and water were strangers. Isabella of Castille was able to boast in her old age that she had only bathed twice in her life, once before her wedding night and again before her coronation.

It was the Turks who reintroduced serious bathing to Budapest. For them cleanliness really was next to godliness. They conquered the city in the 16th century and remained for over 150 years, plenty of time to build elaborate bathhouses and encourage the locals to join them for a hot soak. Three of Budapest’s most important bathhouses are Turkish buildings, and still in use: the Kiraly, the Racs, and the Rudas.

The following day I checked into the Gellert Baths, one of the city’s grandest creations. Opened in 1927, the building — there is an adjoining hotel — is an Art Nouveau masterpiece. The domes, the mosaics, the colored skylights, the statues of nymphs, the fountains trickling, the shafts of light slanting, the strange aqueous acoustics, all conspire to lull you into a kind of watery trance. There is the sense the world has slowed to half speed among the gentle murmur of voices and the soft lap of water. My thoughts drifted with the steam, going nowhere in particular. The Gellert was like one of those congenial cafes where you sit over your half empty cup watching the world go by. Except here the world was in bathing suits.

There were other things to see in Budapest — the Danube, the Royal Palace, the medieval streets of Buda, the crazed drinking habits of the descendants of the Huns — but an hour later, I had hardly stirred. The baths were becoming my drug, and I was becoming addicted.

It helped that the Gellert baths were mixed — the presence of women seemed to lighten the atmosphere — and I was happy to exchange the apron for a normal bathing suit. The next morning I set off for another mixed bathhouse, the Szechenyi Baths, perhaps the most famous, certainly the most photographed, in the city. I emerged from the Metro in the Varosliget, or the City Park. The grand yellow facade of the bathhouse loomed through the autumn trees, a palace of bathing, a multi-domed neo-baroque creation built at the beginning of the 20th century with the overblown architectural aspirations of the 19th.

In the two inside pools shafts of sunlight fell from high windows onto the bathers’ upturned faces. But most people were outside in the courtyard. Szerchenyi’s outdoor pools are to bathing what La Scala is to opera. This is bathing’s grandest setting, an amphitheatre of colonnades and statuary and terraces surrounding a central swimming pool and two large thermal pools. Here, even in the depths of winter, as snow settles in the crevices of the statues, ardent bathers are to be found in the steaming water.

I settled into the 100-degree pool, beneath the statue of a naked woman getting carried away with a swan, and felt the tension in my limbs uncoil. All around the pool other bathers lounged like hippos, only their head and shoulders protruding from the steaming water. Some read newspapers. One man was deep in a Russian novel. Another was smoking a pipe. A young couple lay entwined while at the far end an older couple seemed to be discussing their divorce. A group of men had gathered round two fellows playing chess on a floating board.

For the rest of us we gazed dreamily into the middle distance in the warm embrace of the waters. We might be strangers but we had found a curious communality. We were having a bath together, and it had come to seem the most natural thing in the world.

Travel Notes

Where to Stay: For location it is difficult to beat K+K Opera Hotel (+36 1 269 0222) — next to the opera house and one block from Andrassy utca, the centre of the best restaurant, bar and cafes district of Budapest. Two nights from $230. Or rent an apartment from $40 a night from one of many agencies; try www.budapestapartmentsincenter.com or call +36 30 830 6506.

Where to Eat: The best restaurant in town is Klassz almost opposite the opera house on 41 Andrassy utca. Try the duck breast with grilled foie gras, caramelised apple served with a delicate risotto at just over $10. They don’t take reservations.

Where to Drink: Budapest is full of grand central European coffee houses, all mirrors and gilt and aproned waiters. The Central (235 0599) in Karoly Mihaly utca and the Gerloczy (253 0953) in Gerloczy uta are both atmospheric places for a coffee and a pastry, or for a full meal. At the other end of the scale are the funky bars like Ellato at 2 Klauzal ter or the Siraly (957 2291) at 50 Kiraly utca, where the clientele is bohemian, friendly and young.

Getting Around: To rent a bike contact Budapest Bike at + 36 30 944 5533. You can also find them at the Szda cafe at 18 Wesselenyi Street. Standard bikes are about $15 a day. They also offer guided pub crawls, lasting about 4 hours, from about $30.

Further Information: Budapest, Eyewitness Travel (Dorling Kindersley, $25) is very good as is Budapest (Time Out Guides, $19.95)

The Bathhouses: Admission prices vary but are rarely more than $8. At most baths your ticket is usually checked as you leave and you are given a small refund if you have stayed less than a certain length of time. All offer a range of extra treatments, from massage to pedicure, for an extra fee. Visit www.spasbudapest.com for prices, hours and other info.

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 | Omar A.; schepop; schepop; awluter; Yuen-Ping aka YP]

Letter from Morocco: the mosque and a sock merchant in Fes

Fes is one of the great survivors. A medieval Muslim city, barely changed in a thousand years, it offers a vision of a world when the clash of civilisations involved Barbary pirates and white slave traders. Still enclosed within high walls, still threaded by a labyrinth of narrow alleys where mules jostle with robed figures, this ancient city rests on twin pillars — commerce and religion. And one man has managed to combine the two.

Lined with shops and stalls, the main street of Talaa Kabira is a river of people.

Mysterious figures in robes with pointed hoods gather at the tobacco stalls like extras from Lord of the Rings. Veiled women press into tiny underwear shops, checking out the frilly knickers. Families of pale Berbers from the Atlas, blue tattoos wrinkling on their cheeks, crowd round jewelers’ counters to finger the gold chains. Men in loin cloths hurry towards the tanneries. Dark Africans from the other side of the Sahara cast knowledgeable eyes over piles of dried fruit — figs, raisins and dates.

At a turn in the lane, where two oncoming mules have caused a traffic jam, the butchers’ stalls give way with unseemly abruptness to the stone-cutters, perched outside their workshops on low stools, chipping epitaphs into slabs of funerary marble. Beyond, a feverish baker is sliding rounds of dough into a fiery oven on a long-handled wooden paddle while across the lane a loquacious fellow dispenses fresh orange juice, sweet cakes and marital advice to his customers.The goods are almost as compelling and as various as the people — head scarves, turtle shells, sheet metal, slippers, sweets, camel saddles, brass pots, carved doors, ceramics, perfume, brocade, knives, carpets, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The crowds of shoppers part only for the muleteers and their laden mules, bearing fresh supplies to a merchant somewhere deep in the bazaar.

Aromas waft through these lanes defining invisible boundaries — fresh coffee, cloves, olive oil, rose water, mint, the scent of cedar shavings, the stench of tanning leather, the tang of onions frying, the sweet aroma of pastries baking, the acrid smoke of burning charcoal. Sounds waft too — the rhythmic clang of coppersmiths, the klaxon shouts of porters, the mantric cry of beggars, the bells of water vendors, the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, never quite in unison, from every minaret in the city as the sun slides off the rooftops.

The call to prayer is the one moment when commerce falters. On Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, the entire city closes up shop at midday to attend prayers. Suddenly the rivers of people shrink. Merchants pull down their shutters and the stall-holders pack up their tables as people begin to make their way towards the great Karaouiyne Mosque to which all lanes in Fes eventually lead. The Karaouiyne is one of the great mosques of Islam, said to have been founded in 857, long before most of Europe’s cathedrals.

In these regions it is customary that beauty be veiled. The Karaouiyne shows almost nothing to the outside world. You could pass it a dozen times without knowing it was there. In spite of its vast size — there is room inside for 20,000 worshippers — its exterior walls are blank and anonymous. On Fridays, when the sixteen gateways stand open for the faithful, you can see the illusive interior — the vast pillared courtyard, the great stretch of sun, the worshippers assembling for prayers.

Everyone leaves their shoes outside the gates, padding across the courtyard in their socks to wash their feet at the ablution fountains before taking a place at the end of one of the long rows of kneeling figures. Suddenly everyone stands, then bows, as the name of Allah reverberates down the aisles.

While the city prays one man is preparing for the commercial opportunity the prayers present. Opposite the main gateway he is setting up his makeshift stall. From his swollen bags he unpacks socks of every description and color and lays them carefully in long rows.

When the prayers end the crowds of worshippers emerge, their sins and the shortcomings of their old socks still fresh in their minds. In twenty minutes the sock merchant has sold out.

Travel Brief

Where to stay: Among the prime pleasures of Fes are its secluded riads, traditional courtyard houses. Many have been turned into small hotels. Riad Fes (212 35 947 610) with its three courtyards is one of the most luxurious; rooms from $205. Riad Laaroussa (212 74 187 639) is a spacious and gorgeous property; rooms from $200. Riad no 9 (212 35 634 045) is small but perfectly formed with just three suites, from $135; groups or families can hire the whole house for $600 a night. Dar Seffarine is a slightly cheaper option from $95 a night.

Where to eat: The restaurant in Riad Fes (212 35 741 012) is one of the best in the city. Non-guests will need to book; dinner from about $40. There is also a stylish courtyard bar. A good lunch restaurant, inevitably a tangine, is Restaurant Nejjarine (212 61 259 052); fixed price menu from $15. The Cafe Clock (212 35 637 855) has fab food and free wifi. The Moroccan restaurant in the Palais Jamai, Fes’s grand colonial hotel, offers a palatial room with palatial food and palatial belly dancers, from about $50.

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 | jfgornet; Steve & Jemma Copley; eliahoo; Martin Dougiamas]

Letter from Turkey: exploring Topkapi Palace, Istanbul’s pleasure palace

When Selim the Sot ascended the throne of the Ottoman Empire in 1566, he proposed a new theory of royal governance. Henceforth the greatness of an emperor was to be judged not by bravery or glory, but by indulgence in comfort and pleasure. In Selim’s case this meant two things — women and drink. It was the kind of wheeze that modern leaders can only dream about.

I blame the Topkapi Palace. It seemed to have this corrupting effect on all its inhabitants. Its fragrant luxuries did not exactly encourage effective government. Once Selim had moved himself and his harem of 150 women into the Topkapi, he never seemed to want to come out again. In 1573 the French ambassador noted that in three months Selim had only left the palace twice, and that was to nip next door for prayers. What was it about this palace above the Golden Horn that seemed to cast such a spell over its princes? I hurried along to find out.

For outsiders, entrance to the Topkapi Palace was never easy. In the old days European ambassadors, who were kept waiting for weeks, vied with one another for admittance to the reception halls of the Ottoman sultans. Little has changed. In the Court of the Janissaries, I found myself in an interminable ticket queue vying with a busload of Italians to whom queuing did not come naturally. After twenty minutes I realised I was going backwards. When I finally fought my way to the ticket window, I was surprised to find it was level with my shins, obliging me to kneel and genuflect slightly to ask for an adult single.

The Topkapi sits astride the best real estate in the city, overlooking the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. Walled and secluded, it is a city within a city where, for four centuries, the Ottoman Sultans were pampered and indulged in a series of salons and pavilions that came to be known as Dar-us-Saadet, or the House of Felicities. Once through the gates, I began to feel the Selim effect. Between the splashing fountains and the swirling tilework, it suddenly seemed a good day for doing nothing.The palace is onion layered, with a succession of gateways leading deeper into further courts, in a progression from public to private. From the Court of the Janissaries, I passed through the Gate of Salutations into the Court of the Divan. In the Imperial Council Chamber in the Second Court gilded bars were set into the wall. From behind these the Sultan watched government proceedings, more a prisoner than a ruler.

In the Treasury in the Third Court I examined the famous Topkapi Dagger with its emerald-studded handle, and the Kasikci Diamond, the world’s fifth largest, found on a rubbish tip and purchased by a lucky street peddler for three spoons. Across the courtyard I inspected the imperial portraits. They began with Mehmet the Conqueror, at the end of the 15th century, who looked like a conqueror, and ended with Abdul Hamid II at the beginning of the 20th, who looked like a dishevelled ship’s steward.

As if to emphasize its separateness, the harem involved another ticket queue. Prices seemed a trifle steep but I shouldn’t complain. A hundred years ago, entrance to the harem would have cost me my testicles so twenty bucks should probably be considered a bargain. Some remnant of Ottoman security was still attached to the place, and visitors are not allowed to wander at will in the complex. The guide, a man with a permanent smirk, herded us inside in a carefully marshalled group. Bringing up the rear were two burly guards, like latter-day eunuchs, to ensure that no one strayed.

There are 400 rooms in the harem. It is a vast and bewildering complex of labyrinthine passageways, domed chambers, galleried arcades, cloistered rooms, grand salons, and intimate courtyards. The outside world intrudes only as a view through screened windows, or as squares of sky above the courtyards.

The guide led us through the eunuch quarters — a mere 50 rooms — to the courtyard of the Sultan’s Mother, the nominal head of this female world. Passing through marbled bathhouses, we arrived in the domed Imperial Chamber where the Sultan held banquets and enjoyed evening entertainment, and then in the Chamber of Murat III, the son of Selim. Gorgeous Iznik tiles swarmed across the walls between a bronze fireplace to warm the room in winter and a marble fountain to cool it in summer.

While the rest of the group were examining the architectural details, the guide sidled up to me. He had noticed I was taking notes. He had the bug-eyed look of a family retainer keen to share a few royal secrets in exchange for envelopes of well-thumbed cash. Perhaps he thought I was from the National Enquirer.

“Murat’s wife,” the guide whispered. “She was jealous.’

I must have looked surprised. A jealous wife would have gone mad in the harem.

“Murat was not like Selim, his father. Murat had only one wife when he came to the throne,” the guide said. “Safiye. He loved her. But others were wanting to diminish her influence. So they were always presenting him with new womens for his harem. For a long time he was ignoring them.”

We had arrived in the Apartments of the Princes where the Sultan’s sons were confined until their mid or late teens. Theirs was a precarious existence. When one of their brothers ascended the throne, the rest were usually strangled with silk cords by deaf mutes, unable to hear their cries.

The guide was doggedly pursuing his story. “But finally Murat’s sister found a woman to tempt him, a slave girl.” He gripped my arm. “Once he has tasted her, pheettt”– he made a sound like a firecracker fizzing — “the floodgates opened. He could not get enough womens.”

Writing in the 1580s, the Venetian envoy described Murat’s conversion. “He tried out many beautiful young girls and his life changed. Every night he sleeps with two, and often three… They fear his health is in danger.” The Topkapi had won. Murat too became a slave to pleasure. During the last years of his life, he fathered 54 children. He died in 1595, worn out but happy at the age of 48.

Selim’s grandfather, Suleyman the Magnificent, was one of the rare exceptions to the usual Topkapian decline into decadence. To his subjects, his obsession with Roxelana, who had been bought as a slave in the Istanbul market, seemed so unnatural that they feared she had cast a spell on him. To later generations it was one of the great Ottoman romances, fuelled by the poetry that the two wrote to one another. Their tombs now stand side by side in the cemetery of the Suleymaniye, the mosque that is Suleyman’s great monument to the city.

Roxelana’s great monument is the baths that still bear her name, opposite Haghia Sophia. The hamam was the center of women’s social life in Ottoman times. It was an opportunity for them to get out of the house and to let their hair down in steamy luxuriance away from the eyes of men and eunuchs. For a husband to deny his wife access to the hamam was grounds for divorce.

For the women of the harem it was also an excuse for physical intimacy, a rare experience when you have scores, possibly hundreds, of rivals. Luigi Bassano da Zara, an Italian who served as a page in the Topkapi in the 16th century, reports that “as a result of familiarity in washing and massaging one another, women fall in love with each other… I have known women, seeing a lovely young girl, seek occasion to wash with her, just to see her naked and handle her…”

Eager to experience Istanbul undressed, I hurried along to the great Cemberlitas Hamam, hard by the Grand Bazaar. The baths are segregated, so sadly I wasn’t going to get to glimpse women “naked and handling one another.”

Prices seemed a trifle steep but I shouldn’t complain. A hundred years ago, entrance to the harem would have cost me my testicles so twenty bucks should probably be considered a bargain.

In the hararet, the central steam chamber, I stretched out on the gobektasi, the round marble platform, heated from below, where customers lie like eggs on a griddle. Everyone wore a pestemal, a checked cloth, round the waist. In the male section, at any rate, it is impolite to flash. Round the marble walls were basins with hot and cold running water to sluice over oneself. Above me the dome was pierced with small holes through which light streamed in steamy shafts.

I was roused from my reverie by the arrival of my masseur. Naked but for his pestemal, Mehmet had a moustache the size of a baseball bat, a shag pile chest and shoulders that would have made the Hulk seem elfin. He attacked me with a scrubbing flannel. His method was to massage what construction work was to ballet. After a thorough soaping, followed by buckets of hot and cold water, he began to twist my limbs into positions that neither God nor I ever intended.

Post-bath I collapsed in my private cabin with a glass of sweet tea. The harem must have been like this: a good seeing to, then a cushioned divan. Life in the Topkapi was obviously lived horizontally.

The newer Dolmabahce Palace was an attempt to sit up straight. The Sultan and his harem left the Topkapi and moved into the new palace on the Bosporus in 1855. Built in the most florid European manner, it was part of the modernizing and Westernizing instincts current among the Ottomans in the 19th century. But it was not without a degree of Oriental extravagance. The bill for the furniture, as well as for European frocks for his harem, equalled the annual expenditure on the entire Ottoman army in Thrace.

I trooped through reception rooms the size of football fields, across carpets of 100-square meters, beneath chandeliers that weighed over three tons, to the harem quarters which looked no more exciting than middle-class apartments in Paris. After the Topkapi it all seemed a bit tame. Where was the beautiful tilework, the wonderful courtyards, the elegant arcades, the gorgeous pavilions where Sultans drank wine and dallied with concubines while the empire went to hell? Selim the Sot would have been disappointed.

Where to Stay: The best hotel in Istanbul is the Four Seasons Sultan Ahmet (+90 212 402 3000), which is walking distance to the Tokapi; doubles from $575. A more affordable budget option is The Empress Zoe (212 518 2504; info@emzoe.com), also near the Topkapi, where double rooms are from about $92.

Food and drink: Istanbul has always been a fabulous place to eat, but its restaurant scene is booming at the moment. Try 5 Kat (212 293 3774) on the fifth floor at No 7 Soganci Sok in Beyoglu for great atmosphere and great views. There is a proper bar as well as a restaurant; dinner from $30. G by Karaf (212 327 0707; gbykaraf@superonline.com) at 44 Muallim Naci Caddesi in Ortakoy is the place for beautiful people and beautiful food; dinner from $45. The night club next door will make you wonder where you are. Zencefil (212 243 8234) at 3 Kurabiye Sokak near Taksim is a great place for lunch, from $15. Pandeli (212 522 5534) above the entrance to the Spice Market is a creaky institution, but full of atmosphere, from $15.

Palaces: The Topkapi (212 512 0480) is open daily, except Tuesdays, from 9am to 5pm; admission is $15. There is a further charge of $9 for the harem. The Dolmabahce Palace (212 236 9000) is open from 9am to 4pm every day except Mondays and Thursdays; admission $5.50.

Hamams: Cemberlitas (212 522 7974) is one of the best hamams for novice foreigners. Close to the Grand Bazaar, it is open from 6am to midnight daily; admission with massage is $17. Nearby the Cagaloglu (212 522 2424), 7am to 10pm daily, is architecturally stunning; $18.50 with massage.

Further reading: Istanbul, Time Out Guide ($19.95) is best for services as well as sights. Check out the English language versions of Istanbul’s Time Out monthly magazine for entertainment. At No 11 Divan Yolu Caddesi you will find the best English-language bookshop in the city, simply named Bookshop.

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 | girolame; Wolfiewolf; sl4mmy; laszlo-photo; Kıvanç Niş]

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]