Hanoi Last Minute

From the September 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

"Don't panic, don't run," a soft German voice says over my shoulder. “Above all, don’t change your mind.”

I hesitate. We are talking about crossing Dinh Tien Hoang Boulevard, a busy street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The city is humming with traffic. Country women wearing cone hats and shouldering poles strung with baskets of fruit crowd the sidewalks. In the roadway before us, a steady stream of motorbikes, rickshaws, and the occasional SUV bear down from both directions. Change your mind the way a deer does, the German meant, and you’ll be steamrollered. Walk carefully but purposefully into the flow, and you’ll be kayaking.

I step into the street.

I'D ARRIVED IN HANOI with my iPhone, a couple of changes of clothes, and little else. I was determined to see as much of the city in a week as possible, relying on serendipity rather than guidebooks to find my way. As I trolled the Internet back home in San Diego, my idea was to go soon, go far, go cheap, keep it exotic, and most of all get out of my skin. Try something new. Grab a break. Due to a roiling economy, I was in transition—like a lot of Americans I know.

I picked Hanoi for a number of reasons. Number one: It’s a destination that lives in my imagination somewhere between the first Rambo movie, about a Vietnam vet, and The Quiet American, the understated Graham Greene novel about the beginnings of the Vietnam War. That conflict, though it ended 36 years ago, and those strange and troubled times still inhabit memories of my youth. Other reasons: Recently, Hanoi marked its 1,000th anniversary. The city also has a warm climate. And it’s possible to find a decent hotel with swimming pool for $22 a night over the Internet.

These days the gods of travel favor those who make last-minute decisions. You no longer have to book a flight to Asia three weeks in advance; airfares can be just as cheap if you leave in a week—or even three days. True, you can’t buy a visa online and grab it at the departure gate—but you can come close. At Travelvisapro.com, I filled out a form, then paid an agent to get the visa at the Vietnamese consulate in San Francisco and overnight it to me. I was all set.

I MAKE MY WAY ACROSS Dinh Tien Hoang Boulevard with the helpful German beside me. Streams of vehicles part around us like changing currents. Strangely, nobody honks. We reach the far curb fronting Hoan Kiem park and lake. “Thanks, man,” I turn to say, but the German has disappeared.

Hoan Kiem lake anchors this city of 2.7 million in northern Vietnam the way Central Park anchors Manhattan. The name means “Lake of the Restored Sword,” referring to the weapon a legendary giant turtle gave Emperor Le Loi to drive out Chinese occupiers in the 14th century. In the middle of the dark green expanse of water, still populated by turtles, is an array of yellow paper flowers forming the number “1000” for the anniversary. It was in the year 1010 that the country’s ruler, Ly Thai To, moved the capital here. I watch crowds of morning tai-chi’ers moving on the shores and agile exercisers playing badminton, using their feet in place of rackets. Teenage girls pose for pictures before a frescoed tiger at the entrance to Ngoc Son Temple. Worshippers burn joss sticks in the rocks above.

I head back to my hotel, the Queen, along Hang Be street, where I find a canvas-canopied “wet market.” Fascinated, I discover a dozen species of shrimp, squid, clams, and eel kept alive in tanks lining the block. A woman in high heels rides up on her motor scooter. She points to the eels, says a few words, and watches as the long fish are splayed out as fillets and wrapped in butcher paper. She takes the package and putt-putts away.

“Buy it live! Cook it up!” yells the fishmonger in Vietnamese. At a bakeshop I scoop up some rolls. Fortified, I jump on the back seat of a moto-taxi by my hotel. This is the way to experience Hanoi—buzzing about like a wasp on a jacked-up Vespa. My driver drops me off at the Temple of Literature, a centuries-old teaching university. Now a tourist attraction, it was recommended by Luc, the manager at my hotel, for a taste of the ancient culture of Hanoi.The temple is a homage to Confucius, peaceful and otherworldly, arranged in a series of linked courtyards. I walk past stone stelae shaped like turtles and etched with the names of revered graduates dating to 1442, then by the Well of Heavenly Clarity. I continue through the Gate of Great Success, around the Great House of Ceremonies, and into Higher Education Hall, where students and visitors kneel, pray, and make small offerings to giant ironwood statues of three early kings and a bronze statue of a venerable rector. The temple, it seems, is a kind of church of learning.

I speak with a couple from New York, Charlotte and David Ackert, who are traveling through Southeast Asia with their teenage son. “Students come here to pray so they can do better on their exams,” Charlotte explains. “It’s very telling. The reverence for education is palpable. That’s why I think the Vietnamese will be highly successful. This is the Asian century. Asian cities, and countries, are rising.” Rising. I think about that. Hanoi’s original name, I find out later, was Thang Long, which means “ascending dragon.”

The Ackerts are staying at the classic French colonial Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel, which I decide to visit next. The room rates are well beyond my “go far, go cheap” budget, but the hotel’s Hanoi Street Buffet lunch, all you can eat, is a bargain. I begin with the crab asparagus soup and braised squid, move on to steamed prawns in cress leaf, then fill my plate with sea bass and skate on lemongrass with what my graceful server describes as passion-fruit sauce.

“Have you read The Quiet American?” I ask the server.

“Not all of it,” she says, smiling. “But I know it was written in the old wing of the hotel.”

I hold up the page I’m reading over a dessert of dragonfruit and mangosteen:

It was cold after dark in Hanoi and the lights were lower than those of Saigon, more suited to the darker clothes of the women and the fact of war. I walked up the rue Gambetta to the Pax Bar—I didn’t want to drink in the Metropole with the senior French officers, their wives and their girls, and as I reached the bar I was aware of the distant drumming of the guns out towards Hoa Binh.

I’d forgotten to bring my own copy of the book from California. No matter; each day an insistent student, working his way through tour-guide school, somehow finds me and proffers a basket of titles, including Greene’s classic, bootlegged via photocopier.

“You like Graham Greene? This very good, too, Catfish and Mandala,” about a Vietnamese American searching for his roots during an epic bicycle odyssey. I buy it. The following day: “Sir, best war novel ever written, The Sorrow of War,” which turns out to be a harrowing narrative that opens with the author collecting the body parts of his comrades after peace is declared.

NEXT MORNING, AFTER MY usual gringo breakfast of eggs and toast at the Queen, I head to Hoa Lo Prison. Built in the late 1800s by the French colonial government to hold Vietnamese prisoners, Hoa Lo would later house American POWs, who referred to it as the Hanoi Hilton. Part of the prison is now a museum. First thing you notice: The emphasis is on the French occupation. An entire room is filled with friezes of French jailers torturing patriots in barrels of water or with sticks and clubs, and mannequins depicting Vietnamese in slave shackles. Some exhibits cover the American War, as the locals call it, and include photos of shot-down naval aviator John McCain being captured and doctored for his injuries, a flier’s suit (possibly McCain’s), and a looping video of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara apologizing for the conflict.

At the Army Museum, my next stop, I watch young Vietnamese women posing for pictures on the landing skids of a war-era American Huey helicopter. When you consider that nearly three million Vietnamese died during the fighting, versus a still shocking 58,000 American deaths, it seems all the more remarkable that the locals have put the American War behind them. “Don’t look back” is a phrase that hangs in the air over this contested city.

Saving the most popular of these somber attractions for last, the following day I take in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Uncle Ho, as he is known, was the Marxist leader who became the president of North Vietnam and fought off the Japanese, French, and Americans. At 8 a.m., the line at the gate is hundreds strong, with buses of schoolchildren in white shirts and red kerchiefs unloading all around Ba Dinh Square. People want their picture taken with me. Frame after frame, guys in their 50s put their arms around my shoulder. Are we Americans really this exotic? The Vietnamese this friendly? Maybe both.

Inside, Ho Chi Minh lies in repose within a glass chamber. We all file by silently, glancing at his bloated, waxen corpse. It’s a little creepy, so I take my leave and repair to the Green Tangerine restaurant back in the Old Quarter. So far I’m pretty happy with my serendipitous approach to this charmingly contradictory city, where visitors can delve into both war and seafood, being careful to “don’t look back” yet “don’t forget.”

At the restaurant, I strike up a conversation with a fellow named Stephen Brooks. “I’ve been to Lenin’s Tomb, Kim Il Sung’s, and Ho’s,” says Brooks, 27, with a chuckle. “They’re all a little creepy.” Strange travels for one so young, I’m thinking, but then I learn he’s writing a business article about the coffee trade. He tells me that in the past decade or so, Vietnam has become the world’s second largest producer after Brazil. With Saturday night approaching, Brooks receives a text: expat party out at West Lake, place called the Block House Café.

We catch a cab in the center of Ba Dinh square. The cab winds us past the 11-story Tran Quoc pagoda and farther along West Lake’s long causeway, finally dropping us by the Daluva Bar in the Tay Ho (West Lake) District. Soon we’re lost on foot in the gathering rain.

A Chinese couple approaches.

“You speak a little Chinese?” I ask Brooks, who lives in Thailand and seems to speak a little of everything.

“Are you going to the party and do you know where it is?” Brooks asks the couple in English.

“No idea,” replies the man.

“No one invited us,” says his wife. “We’re from Toronto.”

We double back and soon hear strains of Smokey Robinson. Stars wink through shifting clouds over West Lake, which is much larger than Hoan Kiem. A birthday is being celebrated on top of the Block House Café, said to be a former antiaircraft battery built to defend the city. The guests are Vietnamese journalists, fashion designers, and various expats, including Americans, Canadians, French, Germans, Chinese, and Australians.

“I can’t help but think about the bad memories my father’s generation have of this country,” says David Stout of Hobbs, New Mexico, turning 24 at tonight’s party. Stout is an editor at the English-language daily, Viet Nam News. “We’re dancing on a former bunker,” he continues. “It’s a little surreal and ironic.”

“What do you like about life in Hanoi today?” I ask.

“There’s always time to socialize,” he says. “With the cafés, tea stands, and food stalls, you almost feel pressed to sit back with a friend and watch all the craziness on the streets go by.”

“What are young Vietnamese focused on these days?”

“Their careers and families,” Stout says. “Young people here have more opportunities—and earn more—than their parents.”

I WAKE LATE. There’s an e-mail from Hien, a woman who got my card at the Block House Café. I suggest we do lunch at Bobby Chinn’s. No, she e-mails back. Too expensive. “You meet me at Highway 4 Restaurant near your hotel.”

Highway 4 is the real deal, serving traditional cuisine with a modern twist, including cha de men (pork patties with crickets) and tiny river clams the size of pearl earrings, which my new friend orders along with a pitcher of fresh-squeezed lime juice. I’m still curious about youthful attitudes in the city. More than half of Vietnam’s 90.5 million people are under age 30. Hien is 24.

“All this bustle and shopping, you know, billboards for golf and eco-resorts,” I observe. “Do you think Hanoi is in danger of losing its heritage?”

“Buy! Buy! Buy!” she launches. “Consume! Consume! We just want to get rich. Everybody in this country work all the time!”

On my last full day in Hanoi, a city of small shops, I go on a buying spree, perhaps conforming to Hien’s judgment of me, a not-so-quiet American. I buy half a dozen exquisite striped silk pajama sets, $18 each. I buy lacquered art vases, buffalo horn jewelry, beautifully embroidered purses from the hill tribes, disturbingly retro propaganda posters (Nixon in the shape of a bomb falling on Vietnamese children)—so much made-in-Vietnam loot that I ask my hotel manager where to get luggage to carry it all.

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“I’ll call my friend,” he says.

I arrive after hours at the friend’s ground-floor shop. He opens the door, rubbing his eyes sleepily, and leads me upstairs to his storeroom filled with racks of soft packs and hardshell luggage set out in rows on the floor.

“I’d like several of these packs,” I say.

“Forty dollars each.”

“Fifteen,” I counter.

The door opens. It’s his wife in a dressing gown.

“Thirty dollars,” she says, taking over.

“Twenty-five,” I say.

The man punches keys on his calculator and shows his wife the total. Wife smiles. “Deal.”

Suddenly, a surprised scream. It’s their embarrassed 13-year-old daughter, her face plastered with thin slices of cucumber. We parents put aside our business deal and drop back our heads to laugh. The seemingly chagrined girl retreats to the bathroom then pivots and flashes a twin Nixonian V-sign.

It’s an innocent moment. “Innocence is a kind of insanity,” Graham Greene chided. My six days in Hanoi have been a bit of both, in a most rewarding way.

En route to the airport the next morning, we pass farmers on cycles toting pigs in wicker baskets and in turn are passed by clouds of women in pink helmets on their motor scooters.

When I reach Hong Kong, I check my e-mail messages. Too many, which is better than not enough. And I wonder what happened to the gentle German who helped me across the street that first night. I must have lost him in the swirl of rampant modernity.

Steve Chapple’s books include Confessions of an Eco-Redneck: Or How I Learned to Gut-Shoot Trout & Save the Wilderness at the Same Time. Taiwan-based contributing photographer Justin Guariglia shot “Buy, Buy Shanghai” for our March 2009 issue.

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