The Flip Side of Vietnam
Published: December 2011
By Peter Jon Lindberg
If Saigon is the nation's wild heart, then Hanoi is its calm, cool, colorful soul
"Actually it's livening up. and beautiful, besides."
"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.
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.
Seen in the Old Quarter on a Thursday morning:
- At least 20 species of exotic birds chirping away in beautiful cages hanging from ironwood and tamarind trees.
- A man nibbling on a half-formed chick, boiled in its shell. This is a popular street snack, which foreigners often assume is just a regular boiled egg. Also popular: chicken gizzards, beaks, and deep-fried feet.
- Framed photos of Baby Spice. (But none of the other Spice Girls.)
- Two backpackers' cafés facing each other, both with notices in their windows saying the other is a FAKE and will RIP YOU OFF DON'T GO THERE DON'T LET THEM DO IT!!!
- Little boys tending shops filled with cognac, pig snouts, durians, jars of Tang, and cartons upon cartons of cigarettes.
- A girl in the window of a ground-floor apartment, sitting alone on a couch with a microphone, quietly singing to her karaoke machine.
- A block of shops dealing in headstones and caskets, on Hang Hom (Coffin) Street. Revealingly, few caskets are longer than three feet. Engravers carve impressive likenesses on the headstones. (A street nearby is lined with portrait artists, but you'd probably get a better portrait done by the headstone guys, if it wouldn't freak you out too much.)
- A very old woman with at least 50 dozen eggs stacked atop her bicycle.
- A Westerner on a motorbike smashing headlong into a sidewalk lottery stall, shattering the table and knocking all the tickets into the gutter. The Westerner was actually me--I use the third person because I basically watched this transpire as though it were happening to some other schmuck. I'd swerved to avoid the egg woman, who'd stopped in the middle of the road. Seconds later,I was in a heap of splintered wood. The stall keeper was incredibly forgiving, especially after I bought all the soaked lottery tickets. No idea if I won.
So says the sign outside Hanoi's most famous landmark, the tomb of Uncle Ho, freedom fighter, revolutionary, and ultimate icon. Every few minutes a guard escorts a dozen visitors through the door of the mausoleum. You're led upstairs, single file, to a refrigerator-cool chamber where Ho lies in a spotlighted glass case--hands folded across his tunic, surrounded by soldiers about as animated as the body they guard.
Ho's shiny plasticine face is eerie to behold, particularly after you've seen it on everything from cigarette lighters to dinner plates. The underwhelmingness of the sight is overwhelming, or vice versa; I can't decide which. In any case you're given only seconds to look, before the wordless guard swiftly leads you out.
Apparently Ho's wish was to be cremated, but that wouldn't do for an icon. After his death in 1969, his body was embalmed; it went on display only in 1975. The mausoleum overlooks Ba Dinh Square, where Ho read the Declaration of Independence in 1945. The tomb is an immensely popular sight, particularly with school groups, though it closes for a few months each fall when the body goes to Moscow "for maintenance." (I don't want to know.)
As if in deliberate contrast to the somber mausoleum, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, 200 yards away, is the craziest-looking place in town. You may not understand a thing about what you're seeing, but the experience is all the more surreal for it. Opened in 1990--and seemingly designed by Antoni Gaudí, Salvador Dalí, and some Russian Constructivists--the museum takes a metaphorical approach to the history of the Great Cause. Allegorical exhibits are arranged chronologically, though even after you've read the labels their meaning is never entirely clear. For example: "Cat Bo cave, presented here in the form of a human brain, served as Ho's headquarters in 1945." (Eh?)
Allusions are also drawn to events outside Vietnam. There's a sculptural take on Picasso's Guernica (pretty cool, actually) next to a wall bearing the signatures of Chagall, Miró, and Kandinsky. All of which puts Ho in context as a thoroughly modern(e) hero. The best installation, however, has a 1958 Edsel smashing through a brick wall--a witty dig at one American blunder.
Hanoi is a veritable palimpsest of architectural history, layering era upon era, style upon style, without diluting or degrading the city's essential character. A patina of decay unites colonial mansions and ancient pagodas; tree-lined boulevards connect socialist monuments with shimmering glass banks--and it all somehow coheres. The sights around Ba Dinh Square alone are a motley mix: beyond the stark mausoleum and the high-modern museum sits the glorious Belle Époque Presidential Palace, built by the French in 1908 and later occupied by Ho, while next door is Ho's final residence, the spartan House on Stilts, all teak and tatami, fronted by a tranquil carp pond.
Walk a few blocks southeast and you're on the edge of the French Quarter, where humble, blocky concrete houses mingle with the cracked and mossy villas of a century ago. Ornamented eaves and louvered shutters, once brilliant green or crimson, have been left to peel and fade. Wall colors have grown more evocative with age: soft ochers, saffrons, and creams cloak the neighborhood in a dreamy aura.
Yes, notices like this are common in the English dailies here, though the average monthly income is $150. (That's merely reported earnings, of course. A recent Vietnam Business Journal speculated that "dollars under the mattresses" add greatly to this figure.)
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'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.
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.
The mangled remains of a B-52 and two fighter jets are piled against a tree in the courtyard, looking like a Cubist sculpture. Nearby are examples of the guns that brought them down. At the museum's entrance stands a vintage Soviet MiG, conveniently intact and polished.
Hanoi's Army Museum covers military history from the 1930's to the present, although, interestingly, there's almost nothing on the late-seventies conflicts with Cambodia and China. The full treatment is reserved for Western invaders and their "wicked puppet regimes." The displays are compelling--photos and dioramas; helmets, dog tags, and other captured enemysupplies--and the English labels intriguing, if not entirely reliable.
Vuong and I followed along behind an American couple, who provided commentary. Each time the husband read a placard describing a certain battle or campaign he gave a little pff and told his wife what had really happened.
"Bullshit," he'd say. "Khe Sanh took only five hundred of our guys, not ten thousand. They lost ten thousand, and they call it a 'total success'?Pff. That's a goddamn lie."
He wasn't having a good time at all. But for me, the inflated language and the unvarying accounts of "decisive victories" made the Army Museum fascinating. Certainly the exhibits elide a great deal. Yet if you ignore the most glaring errors, you find a completeness in the differing histories--a filling in of gaps, if not always with facts then at least with perceptions. ("PFFFF!" my compatriot might add.)
Vuong, meanwhile, quietly read descriptions in Vietnamese that were three times longer than the English. I wondered aloud what I was missing. Not much, he told me, just a few more place-names and dates, and some lines about the glory of liberation. At my request he translated some pumped-up patriotic bits and I was surprised to hear a slightly sarcastic tone in his reading, an offhand irony that I'd naïvely believed was unique to Americans.
Everyone in Hanoi has a motorbike, and every motorbike is right now honking its horn.
This is usually a newcomer's first impression. Five years ago, longtimers will tell you, it was all bicycles--bells ringing like antique telephones--and three years ago it was 50cc scooters. Then came the motorbikes, and, now, the roaring choppers big as water buffalo.
You see a few Suzukis, a few Vespas, and a lot of $3,000 Honda Dreams. In a country where cash doesn't hold its value nearly as well as a 27-inch Trinitron, urban Vietnamese are buying up imports as much for investment as forindulgence. Today nearly three-quarters of Hanoians own color TV's, up from 10 percent in 1992.
Still, the disparity between city and country is striking: 74 percent of Hanoi residents have refrigerators, compared with 1 percent of the rural population. Four out of five city dwellers own motorbikes. In the country only one in seven do. But I guarantee you that every motorbike has a functioning horn.
The horn, as all visitors to Asia learn, is the most important working part of any vehicle--because horn-blowing sheathes you like a prophylactic from harm. At least that's the mind-set of most drivers here. Blow your magic horn and nothing bad can happen. Cutting across three lanes of traffic?Lay on the horn and no one will hit you. Go ahead, speed down a crowded one-lane street: if you make enough noise, you'll be fine. A vigorous horn renders moot those bothersome laws of physics--which, let's face it, only slow you down anyway.
Sometimes another driver will challenge you with his horn. In such a case the relative size of the opposing vehicle (and the volume of its horn) determines the outcome. However, the system has its flaws, as when a cyclo (rickshaw) driver installs an 80-decibel bus horn on the handlebars of his puny carriage. This is something I've seen, and, more to the point, something I've heard, and it's a terrifying sound. Taxis, vans, dump trucks will swerve to avoid the madman and his horn. And the whole hierarchy of the road is turned on its head.
It sounds absurd, but this is the way of things here, and visitors would do well to learn the rules, such as they are. A locally published Vietnamese phrase book offers the following lines for travelers in case of a traffic accident:
"You were on the wrong side!"
"I was trying to avoid that bicycle/truck/infant/ox!"
"I was blowing my horn!"
And my personal favorite: "It was my road!!!"
Tried it. Kind of liked it.
You can try it yourself, up in Nhat Tan, five miles north of town. A whole strip of roadside cafés serve canine treats: roasted, boiled, curried. But you don't want to go there in the first half of the lunar month. It's unlucky to eat dog while the moon's waxing. On the wane, however, dog is what you want, and the Nhat Tan cafés are jammed.
I had a craving for authentic Vietnamese food of the non-dog variety, so I set up a lunch date with a friend who'd lived in Hanoi for several years. We met at Quan Hué, a hole-in-the-wallserving Hué-style dishes (read: delicious) on flimsy folding tables. The restaurant is as casual as casual gets, though like most local places it's run with pride: when we pulled up on our Honda motorbikes, a smiling valet-of-sorts parked them and laid a straw sun cover on each seat.
First up was a filling round of banh khoai(also known as banh xeo),crispy rice pancakes stuffed with shrimp and bean sprouts, to which we added sliced star fruit, mint leaves, and lettuce, then dipped it all in a peanut-curry sauce. Next was a platter of smoky grilled pork, which we rolled in rice paper; and finally some spicy sautéed crabmeat and vermicelli--a heaping platter of hearty id-food. The bill came to something like 70,000 dong, or five bucks for two, including drinks. I went back three times that week.
Hanoi has become a great eating town, rivaling Saigon in quality and variety of restaurants. These range from modest street stalls and bia hois (where, as at Quan Hué, the food far outshines the atmosphere) to chic 90's-style bistros straight out of Islington or TriBeCa, from reborn villas serving haute Vietnamese to classic Continental dining rooms where Europeans feast on rack of lamb and the pianist plays "As Time Goes By."
It was a Friday night, still early, and already Ronnie Milsap was telling us there ain't no gettin' over him. Two Vietnamese guys in Calvin Klein T-shirts were playing pool with two Americans in Ho Chi Minh T-shirts. (I swear to God I'm not making this up.)
We were at the Gold Cock Bar--delightful name--just west of Hoan Kiem Lake. The beer flows freely, the pool table's always lit, and the "french frise" are very good. Behind the bar is an odd CD collection: you've got your Tom Waits, your Judds, your Huey Lewis, Charlie Parker, En Vogue, Nirvana, Dan Fogelberg, and a cool Dolly Parton album that gets a lot of play.
The sound track may be American, but the crowd is mostly Vietnamese. That's a change, locals say, from earlier days, when bars like the G.C. catered mainly to Westerners. "Four years ago the streets were empty after dinner," says expat Justin Wheatcroft. "Vietnamese rarely went out late on weekdays. Now you see them at clubs most nights." It's true: Go to Vortex or Apocalypse Now on a Friday and it's teeming with expats and locals. Go on a Tuesday and you're the only foreigner on a crowded floor.
On my final day in town I had the pleasure of being pulled over by the cops. Apparently I'd made an illegal left turn on my motorbike. Apparently I also have blond hair and look bone-gullible, so they chose me out of the 40-odd drivers who made the same turn.
Still, this was kind of exciting to me. For one thing, they pulled up in a motorcycle with an actual sidecar. I tried to remember the last time I saw someone on a bike with a sidecar and decided it was probably Indiana Jones fleeing the Nazis.
In their khakis and epaulets, Vietnamese cops have the quaint look of soldiers in a Tintin comic, and I have to admit I love 'em for it. Plus, I'd read about the bribes.
"I know all about you guys," I said brightly to the sidecar cop. "I'm supposed to bribe you now, right?"
He laughed and beamed some seriously white teeth. His partner laughed. I laughed. We all laughed together.
"You help me, I help you, boss," smiley cop said. "Twenty dollar."
"I can offer you five."
"Ten dollar, boss."
"Eight is my upper limit."
He laughed, his partner laughed, we all laughed. I gave him eight dollars. Smiley cop smiled and hopped back into the sidecar. What a pleasant shakedown, I thought as they honked their way out of sight.
The city is at its best from October to December: warm and sunny, mild at night. Winter is mainly cloudy, and summer brings the monsoon. March and April can be nice, when the countryside glows green.
Tourist visas, generally issued for one month, cost about $65 through the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C.; allow two to three weeks for delivery. Some private agencies offer 48-hour turnaround for $150. Two to consider: Magnolia Travel in Fountain Valley, California (800/543-3481 or 714/963-2121, fax 714/964-7970), or South Sea Tour & Travel in Palo Alto (800/546-7890 or 650/493-6299, fax 650/813-1101).
International flights go to Hanoi or Saigon, though more airlines serve Saigon. Flights between Hanoi and Saigon on Vietnam Airlines are currently fixed at $170 each way.
Should you visit only one city?I'd hate to choose. The pair make a good composite portrait, and they're great antidotes to each other. Living in Saigon, I think of Hanoi the way I think of a cool drink.
Hotels are going up like mad in Hanoi. Eight high-rises are set to open sooner or later--probably later, given the tourism slump and the current glut in lodgings. The two below will do nicely in the meantime.
Hotel Sofitel Metropole15 Ngo Quyen; 84-4/826-6919, fax 84-4/826-6920; doubles from $259. Still the most romantic hotel in town; built in 1901 and very well updated. Rooms in the old wing are especially atmospheric. Open your balcony doors, look out over the frangipani, pretend you're Graham Greene.
Daewoo Hotel 360 Kim Ma; 84-4/831-5000, fax 84-4/831-5010; doubles from $199. The new millennium's first arrival--out on the city's western edge, but the top choice for businessmen and those seeking premium service. You'll need a cab to get into town.
Restaurants & Cafés
Seasons of Hanoi 95B Quan Thanh; 84-4/843-5444; dinner for two $30. Nouvelle Vietnamese in a gorgeous old villa; a favorite of expats, because it's owned by an Englishman. Luonxaoxa ot (sautéed eel in a ginger chili sauce) is terrific, and so is the tempura-style soft-shell crab.
Indochine 16 Nam Ngu; 84-4/824-6097; dinner for two $30. Set in a pretty French Quarter villa, with a very refined Vietnamese kitchen. Sit on the patio under the sweet-scented orange tree.
Miró 3 Nguyen Khac Can; 84-4/826-9080; dinner for two $40. Ambitious California cuisine and a very good sushi bar. Chef Bryce Lamb was previously at Seattle's Blowfish Café.
Le Beaulieu Sofitel Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen; 84-4/826-6919; dinner for two $100. Hanoi's grandest dining room serves French and New American food to a rather sleepy European and American clientele.
Press Club 59A Ly Thai To; 84-4/934-0888; lunch for two in the Deli $15, dinner for two $80. The ground-floor Deli is a casual pizzas-and-panini lunch spot; upstairs is the power dining room.
Soho 57 Ba Trieu; 84-4/826-6555; lunch for two $16. One of the top casual Western restaurants in Hanoi, serving fresh salads and great sandwiches and pasta. Come for lunch on the second-story terrace.
Quan Hué 6 Ly Thuong Kiet; 84-4/826-4062; dinnerfor two $6. Excellent Hué-style dishes served in a very casual street-side café. No atmosphere at all, but locals love this place.
Au Lac Café 57 Ly Thai To; 84-4/825-7807; breakfastfor two $8. The best café in town, on an open-air patio. Delicious cappuccino and omelettes.
Hoa Sua 81 Tho Nhuom; 84-4/824-0448; lunch for two $8. A French-style bakery, brasserie, and courtyard café, all in one. Pastries and croissants draw locals and foreigners alike.
On the Web
The VietNam Pictures Archive at SunSite --An extensive photo and audio gallery of life in contemporary Vietnam. A variety of useful links provide access to tourist information, magazine articles, and radio-station home
Interknowledge Introduction to Vietnam-- For basic encyclopedia info on Vietnamese culture and history
The Center for Disease Control's Southeast Asia Travel Information-- Don't let it scare you away, but maybe