Hanoi - Soul of Vietnam
March 2006©Nigel Spiers
As we take our seats on Vietnam Airlines flight 219 from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
(Saigon) the public address system crackles into life. The captain, in cheery broken
English asks “Okay – is evelyone on board?” The Boeing 777-200 barely disturbs the
thick, warm, brown smog as we gently climb away from Noi Bai Airport.
Vietnam is a pretty big country. It is over 1300 miles from Hanoi in the North with
a population of 4 million to Saigon in the South with 5.4 million. In between we
fly over the many provinces, historic towns and spectacular coastline which are
home to the rest of the 85 million people of Vietnam. The country has only been
open to tourists for 11 years.
The flight gives me a chance to absorb my first visit to Vietnam’s capital city.
Hanoi dominated so much of the news during my youth and was home to one of my heroes
Ho Chi Minh. I’m sure it hasn’t changed much from his day.
Hanoi is one of the least westernized cities I have ever visited. No McDonald’s,
no English magazines or brand names on sale, no shopping malls or department stores
and no Gucci. They don’t speak much English, Chinese or French either – they just
speak Vietnamese. It’s no wonder the U.S. went home empty handed in 1972 – no one
would talk to them and for the life of them they couldn’t find that bloody Ho Chi
Minh Trail. It does make you wonder what would have happened if the U.S. had won
and what exactly they would have won. Each of the narrow dusty streets in Hanoi is
crowded with tiny shops packed with goods from floor to ceiling and each street
is dedicated to selling just one item. We walk down ladder street, into pots &
pans road and then along toilet paper street. This town is not designed for
tourist shopping and the locals just point at us, laugh and shake their heads as
we try to dodge the masses of cyclists and scooters.
The real problem starts outside our hotel when my large compatriot refuses to get
out of the taxi until the poor driver pays him the 15 cents change he owes for our
$1 taxi ride.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is like a naughty little boy who, like all Asian children
is pampered, spoilt and shows off. Hanoi is like the long suffering and aged
father who growls a lot but does nothing about it.
Its day 5 and cabin fever has set in from eating at the hotel restaurant each
night and playing it safe. Time for some action! We walk down the crowded Saigon
streets and stop at a likely looking street café. There’s a group of gorgeous
young things in impossibly short shorts lounging around the entrance. “Err –
are you sure this isn’t a knock shop?” I ask my companion. Too late – the big
fella has spotted the sweet and sour pork on the hoardings and has a very set
look on his face. Inside we are surrounded by another bevy of beauties who
cajole us into ordering a stack of exotic Vietnamese dishes. Meanwhile they
have a Brazilian club soccer match playing live on the big screen and we have
plenty of Tiger beer at hand. It’s just like watching a ballet. Every now and then
a beautiful creature from upstairs slowly descends the giant circular staircase
in the middle of the restaurant. Her eyes roam the restaurant looking for the
slightest weakness in the room. This is a very dangerous predator indeed and
most of the men keep their heads well down.
The glorious steamboat of bright pink giant prawns, lemon grass, watercress and
bean sprouts is so b..... hot it tears the skin off your lips and swells your
tongue. My friend has tears of frustration pouring down his cheeks.
There’s a sign in the hotel lobby – “Do Not Bring Durian Into This Hotel”. Durian
is Asia’s most popular fruit but according to the locals you are either addicted
for life on the very first taste or you cannot stand it. The problem is that if
the smell of Durian gets into your house or worse still into the air conditioning
system of a hotel then it takes a week for the terrible smell to go away and there’s
not a damned thing the hotel can do about it. Even Tigers love it and hence the
short life expectancy of Durian farmers in Vietnam.
A large alcove in our hotel is given over to wedding photographs and there is no
shortage of happy couples dressed to the nines and posing in front of exotic
backdrops. The young groom is expected to adopt a hatchet face like Lee Kuan Yew
on a bad day. However the bride drapes herself all over the groom in true
Hollywood style with a rather slutty look on her face.
They say here that if Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is the beating heart of Vietnam
then Hanoi is the soul.