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The Flip Side of Vietnam

Few locals pay such rents, but throughout Vietnam rates are far higher for expats. Furthermore, landlords need official permission to rent to foreigners; for most it's not worth the hassle, so a shortage of good-value rentals persists. Small one-bedroom flats can go for more than $1,000, while villas on West Lake--sort of the Brentwood of Hanoi--well, let's not even talk about those.

But there is money being made here, and expats in the right income bracket can live very comfortably. If you wished, you could create a reasonable facsimile of your Western home life. You could shop for imported cheeses and pastas at Le Beaulieu Gourmand--or get your maid to do it. You could work out on the StairMaster at the Clark Hatch gym. You could join the elite new Hanoi Club (membership: $3,080) and sip Cinzano on the shores of West Lake. You could live quite extravagantly in your brand-new Moorish-Californian-Rhineland-style hacienda, enjoying the spoils of life under, uh, Communism.

HANOI 90210

Hanoi's expatriate scene is certainly a sight in itself. One night I was invited to a big cocktail bash at the Press Club. I never did figure out who was throwing it--some foreign commerce group--but no one else seemed to know either. Several hundred twenty- to forty-somethingsmingled in neatly pressed suits, sipping Napa Valley wine. The room bubbled over with British and American and Australian voices. Young Vietnamese waiters circulated with trays of blini and caviar. A jazz band (also Vietnamese) played Benny Goodman tunes.

The Press Club opened last November. It is not, in fact, a press club, or even a club at all, but a three-story den of indulgence where local fat cats and Westerners go to eat lavish meals and smoke Cuban cigars. The place has a Trumpish opulence--lots of pink marble and gleaming brass. But the Mediterranean-Asian fusion food is surprisingly good.

Tonight, though, the place was rented out for the party. I stood in the jazz-soaked ballroom puffing on a Havana (only because I could). I'd been in town four days, and I already recognized many faces--there's the guy from the café this morning, and that woman from the bar last night. Hanoi's English-speaking expat community numbers in the low thousands, a small town in itself, with the requisite in-jokes and gossip. It's an emphatically social scene, complete with its own yearbook. Each December the magazineTime Out runs its Best and Worst Awards--your basic roundup of restaurants, shops, nightclubs. Honors are also given for Nicest Smile, Best Dressed, Sexiest Lawyer. It's like high school with exit visas.

ME AND VUONG LAO DOWN BY THE BIA HOI

Vuong Lao wanted to speak some English. He was riding his bicycle and saw me walking, so he asked me to join him for a beer. We went to a local bia hoi--literally "draft beer"--a sidewalk stall serving jars of flat lager and tasty snacks. These are places every tourist notices but few visit, perhaps because they rarely offer menus, perhaps because the tiny plastic stools are better suited to a dollhouse than a bar.

Vuong Lao is 23 and grew up just outside Hanoi. But he really wants to go to Saigon. When I told him I was living there, his eyes grew wide. Hearing that I actually kind of prefer Hanoi, he was both flattered and disappointed. He speaks English quite well, but talks to tourists to learn new words. So we spent some time exploring the parts of his bicycle. He enjoyed the word spoke.

I said I liked his bike; it was an old Chinese model with graceful handlebars. Vuong wasn't having any of that, though. He failed to see the beauty in such a relic.

When he asked about America, I described places I'd lived and said Hanoi reminded me a little of Boston, where I'd gone to school--especially Hoan Kiem Lake, its willow-draped banks not unlike the Public Garden pond. I told him I like the oases of calm you can find by Hanoi's lakes, in the parks and pagodas and at the 11th-century Temple of Literature, the city's most revered Confucian monument.

Vuong wondered if I'd seen the Army Museum, a few blocks away. I hadn't, so after finishing our beers we rode over on his bike.

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