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 where young women in white silks cycled along the raised causeways in a pewter twilight.
Saigon and Hanoi, the two former enemies, are a whole country apart – the former in the deep South, the latter in the far North. Saigon 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 is still a city Americans would recognise. Hanoi isn’t. It is an older, more complex entity. There are echoes of Paris, but there also the flavour of an old Orient, of architecture, culture and sensibility that has been lost elsewhere.
Truc, my guide in Hanoi, sounded like he had learned his English from a Russian correspondence course. He had an existentialist haircut, and 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.
There are times when Hanoi could be the lost city of Asia: the one you can never quite find, the great teeming, squalid, fascinating metropolis of Marlene Dietrich films and 1930s novellas. The modern age has sanitised 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, kerbside 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 small black coffees at cafés lining the pavements. On the Nha Tho street, the sound of mass drifts out through the open doors of the Cathedral. The Metropole, where Somerset Maughan 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 programme was rudely interrupted in 1945 when the Viet Minh used its imposing balcony to declare that the revolution had begun. Now, in tune with the rapidly changed face of Vietnam, the Opera House has been renovated and Tosca will soon be back.
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, 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 specialised: 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 gone upmarket and moved into upholstery.
You can do anything in the old quarter of Hanoi – the city is full of people who have invented a living where one did not exist before. In Vietnam the unemployed not only get on their bikes; they load them up with saleable goods. The contents of whole supermarkets are available from the panniers of trusty Flying Pigeon bicycles – everything from quails 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 kerbside ladling out bowls of pho, watery noodles, to eager punters perched on miniature stools. You can eat escargots the size of small dogs, and dogs the size of an escargot. Boys materialise out of the crowds to shine your shoes and girls arrive with lottery tickets, tea towels and bunches of spring onions. Should you have any laundry, leave it with the street corner laundress, who will spend the afternoon flailing the life out of your shirts. 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 in front of a scrap of mirror. Should you want to pick up something for the weekend, drop by the corner condom stall.
Feeling the need for some tea and sympathy after a hard day of sightseeing, Truc and 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 pavements, took their tea. There were a variety of blends. The most exotic cost a penny. Granny Number One prepared a water pipe to go with my cup of Halong Green Dragon. The pipe was 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 grannies put in their bamboo, but a little of it goes a long way. Truc helped me into a passing rickshaw before I collapsed, and we set off to visit Ho Chi Minh.
Despite being dead for almost 50 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. Those who know say his ears are falling off. Uncle Ho, however, benefitted 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. Demonised 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 1920s 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 abode perched on stilts above a fish pond – a home he preferred to the grand château that had been the residence of the French governor. Visitors can peer in at his few possession – 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 at war for so long, it is easy to forget it is 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 is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.