VIETNAM: RED FLAGS AND PINK SUNSETS

DAILY MAIL An ethereal, ghostly mist shrouds Hanoi before sun-up and the city’s early morning traffic is nothing but a quiet hum.  Yet there’s more life on the street than you might expect at this ungodly hour.  Dozens of locals gather beside the shores of West Lake in the Tay Ho area to gently practise tai chi and insomniac fishermen wobble precariously on stepping stones as they cast their lines into the grey waters.

But it’s not all tradition in this part.  Tay Ho – in the north of the city – is a fashionable hot-spot.  That surprised me; could an old-style communist suburb be described as such?  I was put right by a man who told me there was at least one Ferrari being driven in town now, that Western Opera is popular and that a decent house near West Lake would set me back a million US dollars.  He was, unsurprisingly, an estate agent.  Yet all he said – and especially his shiny new profession – shows how times have changed in this once red and revolutionary place.

Apart from expensive houses, Tay Ho is home to the Fraser Suites, another un-Socialist addition.  I stayed in a luxurious serviced apartment with giddying views of the city; it’s an economic, stylish alternative to staying in one of the larger international hotels.  I also found new restaurants and bars mushrooming here.

Bobby Chinn (Hanoi has succumbed to celebrity-chef plague) recently relocated his eponymous eatery around the corner.  The red lantern-clad restaurant is so atmospheric (read dark) that magnifying glasses and torches are brought to the table with the menus.  Luckily excellent eating is still a bargain in Hanoi.  £15 a head – plus booze – should cover it in a trendy restaurant; double that for a sumptuous feast.  And if you brave one of the street vendors then budget for a few thousand dong.

The local currency takes getting used to – the numbers involved are huge.  Currently there’s about 32,000 dong to the pound, so changing a hundred quid in pin money (sterling is easily exchanged) makes you an instant multi-millionaire.  Even so, it took a while for the penny to drop that the half million dong I forked out for a silk shirt was well shy of twenty quid.

Of course shopping is a prime reason to visit this fascinating place – and there’s lots of it.  In Tay Ho you’ll find Dome, a top-drawer interiors boutique (great for lacquer-ware, soft furnishings and furniture).  Although I loved the old quarter, Hoan Kiem district.  It’s a twenty minute cab ride to the city centre from Tay Ho and oriental retail nirvana.

Rich embroideries, spices, clothing and shoes, ceramics, teas, fake sun glasses, exotic lamp shades, bundles of silk, ornamental birdcages and musical instruments vie for attention alongside T-shirts, antique shops, incense stalls and contemporary art galleries.  The choice is mesmeric and every last trinket covetable.  Street florists are everywhere; I guessed Elton John had unexpectedly arrived in town.  I took my time, soaked up the atmosphere, browsed and honed my bargaining skills; it’s all part of the fun.

But this industrious show of capitalism intrigued me; overt entrepreneurship isn’t exactly hard-core utilitarian socialist.  I asked my guide if the government’s grip on the country had relaxed.  Judging from his nervous reaction to political questions I assumed some aspects of living under one party remain firmly unchanged.

Afternoons rapidly fill with shopping and dodging traffic, yet nothing prepared me for the anarchy on Hanoi’s streets.  The roads throng with a never ending stream of bicycles and mopeds – and crossing them was hair-raising.  I needed refreshment to calm my shattered nerves.

My yin and yang were restored in Wild Lotus, one of Hanoi’s most glamorous restaurants in the adjacent French quarter.  Situated in a colonial Art Deco mansion with gilded walls and discreetly lit art works, it’s a buzzy place that Carrie Bradshaw and the girls would feel at home in.  Cua bay sot me (deep fried soft shell crab in tamarind sauce) is delicious, and as none of the main dishes cost much more than a fiver you can experiment without blowing the budget.

But only a philistine would come to Hanoi without visiting some of the many ancient pagodas, temples and cultural sites.  I found bundles of fake US 100 dollar bills for sale at the entrance to some temples – a chance for me to literally burn money in a fiery offering to my ancestors.  And no visitor to Hanoi should miss out on paying their respects to Ho Chi Minh himself.

The granite mausoleum – it looks like a huge 1930’s drinks cabinet – housing his mortal remains has imbued a cult of personality around him.  Uncle Ho, as he’s affectionately known, lies permanently in state like a communist Snow White in a crystal casket.  He’s benefited in no small way from the dab hands of Russian embalmers and, I’d hazard a guess, industrial quantities of Botox.  Whatever; although the queues look daunting, they move quickly, it’s a chance to witness a blink of history.

I reckon four days in the city should be enough for the casual visitor, then you’ll need to explore further afield…  I headed to Ha Long Bay, a three and a half hour drive to the north east coast.  Finding a boat on which to stay for a few nights is easy.  There are plenty of travel agents in Hanoi with all sorts of deals.  I opted for a larger luxury boat (it had about thirty cabins), but on reflection wished I’d gone for a smaller traditional and more personal junk that has 6 berths.

The jostling crowds of tourists around the wharf are, quite frankly, overwhelming.  Only when my boat (the Ha Long Emotion) set sail into the bay did the beauty of the place begin to emerge.  Strange shaped islands – there are 2000 exquisite limestone karsts – rise from the flat calm waters of the Gulf of Tonkin; they look like they’ve been created especially for a video game or were the inspiration for James Cameron’s Avatar.

Happily there were no crowds on the islands of Cat Ba national park and the beauty of the place is awesome.  I got into a kayak and paddled around isolated lagoons accessed through mysterious and atmospheric watery grottoes.  Fortunately you don’t have to be a budding Sir Steve Redgrave to enjoy the supervised adventure.  I didn’t think I could row for toffee, but took to it like a duck to hosin sauce…  Nearby is Fairy Story Lake Cave.  Squeezing through narrow tunnels in the pitch dark was a great escapade.  We eventually popped out into a stupendous cavern riddled with stalactites and stalagmites – and, I should warn you, a resident spider the size of my hand.

But it was the small water villages that really entranced me.  Like brightly coloured garden sheds floating on blue oil drums they house whole communities of fishermen and pearl fishers, they even have schools and floating shops.  Apparently the entire village is towed into a sheltered lagoon during the typhoon season until the danger has passed.

Back on board my infinitely more comfortable floating home I settled down, local beer in hand, and watched the sunset.  Deep red dramatically faded to pink… just like the politics of Vietnam…

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