Vietnam 1: Hanoi
The curse of travel lies in selection; what do you fit in, what to leave out? I always want to shout at tourists in London; ‘Leave that, it’s not the real London, this is!’ And so, as I did in Delhi, I fall victim to bleary-eyed first impressions and mistake-making. Time is limited; my partner’s job means we forever travel under pressure. I start in style by staying at the Metropole, built 1901, brandy restored, and I have a butler I probably won’t use. Here everyone from Chaplin to Putin has stayed.
I’ve read up on Vietnamese history and have a fascination for its tragedies in the second half of the 20th century, including of course, the disastrous war wherein the USA was so roundly defeated by the Communists who remain in power today, although in greatly watered-down form. Still I make the first mistake of arriving on Chinese New Year, when everything is shut.
One great piece of advice yields an instant result; in the face of oncoming traffic from six directions, no crossings or lights (few bicycles, sadly, mostly mopeds now) the trick is to ‘walk like turtle’, very slowly so that bikes can slip either side of you, and don’t dash, as I saw other tourists do. The tourists stick out, of course – the country’s second largest economy after rice is tourism, an amazing turnaround from the famine-ridden decades after the war – because they are tall and dressed, as only tourists can dress when they lose their senses and travel, in toddler outfits, sleeveless tops and short trousers, everything ridiculously tight and pastel, while the locals pass in puffa jackets and even fur coats. It’s 23 degrees, muggy and pleasantly overcast.
We start at the Sunbeam Bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake, where a turtle bore a sword to General Le Loi to help him expel the Chinese. No pre-history tale this but early 15th century, and there is the giant turtle (or one very like it) in its glass case, money stuffed into the frame for good luck.
The tube houses, not unlike many Spanish apartments, start narrow and small on the street, extending back into hauntingly dark courtyards where women, despite emancipation, still ‘rule’ the home.
The curse of bad capitalism is striking hard here; too many shops selling identical tat from one source, nobody in their right mind buying. But there are rarities; a shop selling birdcage clocks, a street of books, delicate paper sculptures, art, bemused guards watching money change hands as if ready to pounce at any moment, and this persistent but enterprising young man, who pulled the shoes from my partner’s feet as he walked because their soles were frayed and hand-stitched them in two minutes, with the inevitable protracted argument about money ensuing.