At the end of the day, families and friends gathered around the small lake – one of many scattered through the city. They were drawn to the water, sitting under the trees, enjoying the cooler temperatures, and relaxing after a hard day’s work. The trees lining most of the lake are a green curtain from the rest of the city. There is a small temple in the middle of the lake, and it receives visitors for prayers for their ancestors, and no doubt for the tranquility.
Beyond the trees, the bustling city of Hanoi slows and stills after the busy day. Shops close for the evening, restaurants and street stalls get busy. Hanoi was full of restaurants, numbered not named. Restaurant No. 11, housed upstairs in a shop house, offers French onion soup and baguettes, omelettes and crème caramel. No.7 had the most delicate and freshest spring rolls, and the spicy pho soup, so beloved now in the cities of the west.
With all the publicity of the Vietnam War and the subsequent communist years when the only foreigners the Vietnamese saw were Russians or Eastern Europeans, we forget the strong influence of the French in Indochina. But go to Hanoi, and you are instantly reminded. The beautiful old villas line the broad avenues, faded, paint peeling, the green shutters sometimes askew and in need of maintenance. They sit in Indochina, but are reminiscent of St Remy de Provence.
Visiting isolated Hanoi from busy Bangkok in 1990, I am in awe of this town. It is a beautiful city, with a faded slightly chaotic charm. Men still wear the occasional pith helmet and the women in their ao dais make most western men weak at the knees. Vietnam has only recently withdrawn from Cambodia, opening dialogue with the west. It will be a few more years before the US can bring itself to lift the trade embargo, but we know it is coming. There is a sense of such opportunity here. And yet, as I sit by the lake, I fear for Hanoi. I fear it might turn into Bangkok or Manila.
I listen to the sound of the tyres of hundreds of bicycles and cyclos (bicycle taxis) so softly on the tarmac, the occasional bicycle bell ringing to warn a wayward pedestrian not to cross. It is a gentle sound, though admittedly also a sound of poverty. But a sound of grace, and cohesion. There are so many cyclists, and with no sign of road rules, to cross the road initially seems a daunting task. But there is a way. A pedestrian must step out confidently, and walk calmly, smoothly. The bicycles swarm around you, enveloping you, anticipating your next step. You feel part of them, part of Hanoi. They never collide with each other, but work smoothly together. As always, foreigners are the danger. To stop or to hesitate is to disrupt the pattern, to confuse the cyclist. Pileups can result.
I returned to Hanoi many times over the next couple of years. The country and city began to develop economically, whilst maintaining a communist government system. The tomb of Ho Chi Minh and the last remaining statues in the world of Lenin sat alongside developments such as the renovation of the Metropole Hotel. It was restored to its former splendour and elegance of colonial days. A drink in the bar a few years after that first visit, listening to an enthusiastic and accomplished jazz band of home grown Vietnamese musicians, was so incongruous it seemed an out-of-body experience.
I met many Vietnamese and was simply amazed at their talent, and willingness for hard work.The Foreign Affairs staffer who calmly informed me he had learned English in the jungle.He was of course Viet Cong.The tiny, bird-like Madame Hong, who ran the local Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi, was charming but formidable, determined to see trade and development that helped her city, her country.And the new generation who were embracing change were simply dazzling.As ever, English became the language of choice.I met one young man who was near fluent, and was stunned to hear that he had been studying English at night school for just 18 months.Such dedication.Such talent!
Returning 6 years later, businesspeople and tourists had arrived.There really was a Hanoi Hilton now, a 5 star hotel not an infamous prison.With tourists had come touts.I was amused by a young boy offering a shoeshine to all and sundry along the lake, whether they wore business shoes, Nike trainers, or open sandals.
The lakes however were less peaceful.I could no longer hear my favourite sound – those bicycle tyres on the pavement.The bicycles and cyclos had been replaced by motorcycles and cars.There was still no sign of road rules, and so the calm and beautiful dance of the cyclists had become simply the chaos of too much traffic battling for space on the roads.The peace was broken with a cacophony of motors and horns.
I was only ever a diplomat or business visitor to Vietnam, and I often consider returning as a tourist.But I think it would be too sad.I fell in love with Hanoi in 1990.That’s how I want to remember it.
But whilst I can understand the desire, I deplore the arrogance of the Lonely Planet backpacker/do-gooder foreigners who complain about progress and wish that their favourite places could be the way they were when they were first discovered.Yes, simple poverty-stricken lives might be more photogenic and provide more interesting backpacker experiences.But that’s not what we want for ourselves.Why should we impose it on others?The Vietnamese people I met wanted education and prosperity and were prepared to work hard for it. In just a few short years, Vietnam has reduced the numbers of people living in deep poverty to less than that of the Philippines.
Those talented people I met are thriving. I am just hopeful that they can find a balance between full throttle headlong economic development and unfettered construction, and manage to preserve the beauty of the old Hanoi.