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The Flip Side of Vietnam

"Actually it's livening up. and beautiful, besides."

"Uh-huh."

"Great food too."

"Hmm. Well, it's not exactly Saigon."

I've had this conversation more than once with people in Saigon. They'll tell you Hanoi, the capital,is too small (actual population: 1.2 million). Too old-fashioned. And, in winter, rather chilly, to boot.

Hanoians, for their part, say Saigon's too hot.

"Too cold!" "Too hot!"

"Too small!" "Too big!"

"Too old!" "Too new!"

Mercy. The historic rivalry between Hanoi and Saigon (which only northerners insist on calling Ho Chi Minh City) has even taken hold among expatriates living in Vietnam. Many in Hanoi describe Saigon as a sea of sharks, both local and foreign, hell-bent on money and sex. Saigon's expats tend to see Hanoi as a quiet town where, as one friend put it, "you can't even get a pizza after ten."

But even long-term Saigoners relish an escape up north--to lower the blood pressure and remember the Vietnam they knew back when. Hanoi, afterall, is where Saigon was six years ago, just after the gold rush began. And yet there's a buzz on the streets now, a sense that the future's around the corner.

In some respects it's already here: in the billboards showing artists' renderings of sky-blue office towers, soon to rise on empty lots; in the Land Cruisers rolling down streets that until recently had no traffic lights; in family-run enterprises like Café Internet (the fact that there's not yet a single terminal at the place doesn't bother anyone).

Still, tree-shaded boulevards lead past colonial villas and Belle Époque government buildings; tile-roofed shacks and pagodas fill the old neighborhoods. And Hanoi's lakes lend a tranquillity to the newly charged city, especially on cool mornings when a mist hangs over everything. Take a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake at dawn and it could be 1898: old men in woven sandals practice tai chi on the banks; uniformed schoolboys bide time before class with a badminton game.

It was here at Hoan Kiem Lake one morning that I saw an American woman, mid-thirties, giving a tour to a group of Vietnamese teenagers. In fluid Vietnamese she pointed out landmarks: the Tortoise Pagoda on its tiny island, Ngoc Son Temple, with its pretty red footbridge. The kids nodded politely and took notes.

By the time my eyes adjusted they were gone, back on the tour bus. It was the strangest thing I'd noticed yet. But only the first of many strange things.

AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON HANG QUAT STREET!

The Old Quarter is Hanoi's most cherished neighborhood--a mad collective of 36 streets and numerous alleys, each historically associated with a guild of artisans. Hang means "merchandise," and there's Hang Bac (Silver) Street, where the jewelers still work; there's Hang Gai(Silk) Street, for the tailors; there's Hang Thiec, meaning "tin goods," where you find, well, tin goods.

It's a thrill to walk (and dodge and leap and pivot) through these crowded corridors, inhaling the aroma of grilled meats, the smoke trails of joss sticks, the scent of cut flowers used for elaborate funeral shields, the remnants scattered by the curb. Some three- and four-story buildings are only six feet wide, their façades convex, as if squished by their neighbors. These are the famous "tube" houses, built when residents were taxed according to frontage. Some are dumps, but many are quite elegant, with wrought-iron flourishes that call New Orleans to mind. Shoppers caught up in the street life often don't notice the upper stories, where old men sit on balconies amid clotheslines and potted kumquat trees, and a level of calm prevails.

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