This is not an altogether bad thing. As Old Vietnam recedes and the past assumes its rightful place in the past, New Vietnam retains an uncanny ability to beguile, confound, and delight. And it can still summon up Old Vietnam when you need it to. You can spend the afternoon hitting the racks at edgy Saigon fashion shop L’Usine (whose industrial space is decorated, cheekily, with old bikes)—then channel your gauzy Indochine fantasies over dinner at the gorgeously retro Cuc Gach Quan. You can gallery-hop through Hanoi’s boundary-pushing contemporary art scene, then play out your sepia-toned reveries among the crumbling godowns and vintage typewriter shops of the Old Quarter. Few cultures can evoke such a swoon-worthy vision of their history (“They mint nostalgia like money over here,” an expat friend jokes) and also embrace what’s next with equal vigor. And so this is what travel in Vietnam has become in 2011: forever moving between the past and future tense, never quite touching down in the present.
On pale, cool mornings in Hanoi, there are few things better than a walk around the lake, when mist hangs low over the water. Jet lag has me up before sunrise, so the shoreline is empty but for the old men and women silently practicing tai chi. I’ll make a few circuits, scanning the glassy surface for turtles, then return to the Metropole hotel for breakfast. With its collection of steamer trunks and antique telephones, the lobby looks much as it did in 1901, when Frenchwomen paraded through with parasols and petticoats.
One morning during a recent stay I awoke well before dawn, in the midst of the strangest dream. In the dream I was sitting in the Metropole lobby, sipping Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, when one of those decorative old phones actually began to ring. I picked up the brass-plated receiver.
“Allo?” said a distant, crackling voice.
“Oui?” I replied.
“It’s the past calling,” said the voice, in French. “Have you seen what’s become of me?”
“Only in glimpses,” I replied. And then I woke up.