Savoir-faire in Vietnam

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 October, 1999, 12:00am

Crossing Hanoi's broad, tree-lined boulevards can be a daunting experience for a visitor. Just about everyone gets around the Vietnamese capital on mopeds these days and hundreds of them swarm from every direction.

But this is as traumatic as life gets in Hanoi, a remarkably calm city which must rank as one of the most charming in Asia. As the favoured form of transport indicates, Vietnam's legacy of war has left it far behind the so-called 'Asian Miracle'.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) has embraced the race for modernisation and high-rise development, but in Hanoi, even cars are a rare sight. Because the government can't afford to knock old buildings down and build new ones, they renovate instead.

The result is an architectural gem, a unique time-capsule from the turn of the century when Hanoi was France's capital of Indochina, modelled by its overlords after a French provincial town.

There are dozens of French colonial mansions, painted in soft yellow-ochre with green shutters, now mostly occupied by embassies and government offices.

The French Quarter is a picture of elegance, with its boulevards now adorned by terracotta pavements and antique street-lamps. Some mansions have been converted to chic French restaurants serving espresso and freshly baked baguettes, a tradition beloved to this day by Vietnamese.

Also enjoying a new lease of life are the quaint 'tube' houses, built almost in miniature in the days when owners were taxed according to the size of their street-frontages.

Many are now cafes and bars. One is even a duplicate of Al Fresco's restaurant in Sai Kung. In fact, it was opened by the same owner, as was a nearby English-style pub popular with expatriates, The Spotted Dog.

The jewel of this colonial legacy, however, is the Hanoi Opera House, which, to be frank, is an absurd testament to colonial decadence.

Even when completed in 1911 it was branded as a 'pretentious caricature' of the Paris Opera and 'la folie des grandeurs'.

Yet today, four decades after Ho Chi Minh's revolutionaries drove the French out of Vietnam, the city's most visible symbol of colonialism has just been restored and is now regarded as a national treasure. You can't help wondering why? Few performances of any kind, never mind operas, are ever staged there, though it cost US$14 million (about HK$108 million) to renovate. But step inside and you begin to understand.

In the grandiose drawing room, which is now a favourite venue for diplomatic functions, are two bullet-riddled, gilded mirrors. They were damaged on December 12, 1946, when nationalist forces who had seized Hanoi were facing a counter-attack by French troops bent on restoring colonial rule.

In front of the mirrors they fired their last shots - and the bullet-holes have not been repaired as a testament to the day the Opera was transformed into a landmark of nationalism.

The same spirit of 'forgive and forget' is evident in Hanoi's newest architectural gem next door, the Hilton Hanoi Opera hotel. Though now British-owned, the Hilton name is not only an American icon, but also the nickname of Vietnam's most infamous jail, the 'Hanoi Hilton'.

Like many Vietnamese monuments haunted by war, the 'Hanoi Hilton' where downed American pilots spent the Vietnam War is now a tourist-trail relic.

The most gruesome section is a reconstruction of the original, French-built 'Maison Centrale' where Vietnamese revolutionaries were shackled in tiny cells before being tortured and guillotined.

Conditions contrast starkly with the area where US pilots (including the current US ambassador in Hanoi, Pete Petersen) were confined in spartan but comparative luxury.

As the prison guide pointed out: 'They even ate chicken for dinner! During the war we never had chicken!' The 'Hanoi Hilton' is not the only tourist attraction which focuses on the morbid chapters of history.

Hanoi's Army Museum, with the mangled remains of a B-52 bomber and two fighter jets in the courtyard, offers a compelling (if, perhaps, slightly one-sided) view of the 'decisive victories' against the French and the Americans.

Hanoi's most famous landmark, meanwhile, is the tomb of Vietnam's liberation hero, 'Uncle' Ho Chi Minh. Inside a glass case in a refrigerator-cool chamber, he lies eerily to this day. But you can only take so much of this sort of itinerary and the most leisurely way to explore the city is to simply sit back in a 'cyclo' rickshaw and be pedalled around the Old Quarter.

Dating back to the 15th century, this is the true heart of Hanoi and its most cherished neighbourhood - a collection of 36 streets and numerous alleys called 'hangs' which are historically associated with a guild of artisans.

Hang Bac (Silver Street) is for jewellers, Hang Gai (Silk Street) for tailors. There's Hemp Street, Spice Street, Cotton Street, Bowl Street, Tin Street and even Coffin Street. In these crowded corridors you catch the aroma of grilled meats, the smoke trails of joss sticks and the scent of cut flowers. Look hard enough, and in some shops you may even find Russian caviar.

In the Old Quarter you also find that classic relic of the Vietnam War, the 'Zippo' lighter. The origins of these 'antiques' are debatable, but they look authentic enough. For all the sufferings of war, however, Vietnam has always had a magnificent ethnic cuisine to fall back on and no visitor to Hanoi should miss the 'food trip'.

At street stalls and local hole-in-the-wall 'bia hois' restaurants you will find spring rolls stuffed with shrimp and bean sprouts, smoky grilled pork and spicy crabmeat, served with vermicelli and bowls of mint, coriander and lettuce.

Vietnam Airlines has direct flights daily to Hanoi