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Memories of Hanoi twenty two years ago – and the woman with the robin redbreast face

I received an e-mail today from a friend who is in Vietnam for business. She is staying at a 6 star resort near Hoi An, south of Da Nang.

“I did a double take in Hanoi,” she wrote, “when I saw the brand new, enormous and heavily branded Hanoi Hilton near the main square.”

Apparently the new Hanoi Hilton hotel is opposite the Opera House. I was in Hanoi in November 1989 and the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ I passed was the original one – the notorious Hoa Lo PrisonI recognised its crumbling colonial front from photos. I asked my guide: “What’s that building?”

“I don’t know,” he said, straight-faced, but with a twinkle in his eye which meant we both knew we were playing a game. I kept a diary when I was in Hanoi in 1989. This is an extract:

THURSDAY 30th NOVEMBER – HANOI

Out of my window, there’s the constant sounds of car and moped horns tooting intermingled with the sounds of cheap engines.

The hotel is a simultaneous mountaineering and orienteering expedition… along endless corridors, up endless stairs, through a darkened room with a hidden comedy step to trip the unwary and finally through a half-darkened fire escape landing. The room is small but just about OK (no wardrobe or drawers) and the shower room looks like it’s seen better days at Auschwitz. But I call it home and it’s interesting to see what East Germans consider an international hotel. (There is a big East German group here.)

Nightlife in Hanoi is quite something. Bright white lightbulbs and shops are open everywhere in what I think is the main shopping street. It’s a bit like a cross between Earls Court Road on a Saturday night and a 1950s American Graffiti street with cruising. I did see three little old wrinkled ladies curling up inside blankets in a shop doorway. One cafe was doing a roaring trade because it was showing Thai rock videos. And children were playing everywhere. Children of all sizes. This was at about 8.45pm.

Teenagers listen to American rock music everywhere. It must be strange for their fathers and grandfathers.

They fought the French in the 1940s and 1950s and defeated them.

They fought the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s and defeated them.

But they lost the peace.

Now their children listen to US rock music.

FRIDAY 1st DECEMBER – HANOI

I now have a new hotel room with television (my first in Vietnam). This is probably a result of changing money with the driver and an excessively expensive $50 trip to Halong Bay. The guide is now paranoid about me telling anyone:

“This is still a Socialist country – like Russia, da?”

He keeps absent-mindedly saying “da” instead of “yes”.

People are mostly ignoring me in the street. I think I have now worked out the economics. Beggars ask locals for money but don’t ask me. They think I am a Russian. Everyone thinks I am a Russian. The Vietnamese have no time for Russians because (a) they don’t smile and (b) they have no money. No-one wants roubles only dollars and, even if they did want roubles, the Russians don’t have spare cash.

The problem with using travellers cheques is the US economic embargo on Vietnam – US companies can’t trade with the Vietnamese. My Hanoi guide tells me credit cards are “many many years” away because there are very few computers in Vietnam.

When we passed the very flash Opera House, he told me it was intended for the people, but only the very rich can afford it. This implies there is a group of very rich (as opposed to just very privileged) people.

At lunchtime, I took a walk and met Hanoi’s equivalent of a bag lady in ragged-sleeved jacket. The bottom half of her face was entirely red. Her face looked like a robin redbreast. Brown top half. Red bottom half. I think she must have been knocking-back some particularly brutal local equivalent of meths. She muttered (and probably cursed) at me, then staggered away.

I missed a photo opportunity this afternoon: two Russians buying blue jeans in the Hanoi equivalent of Oxford Street/Petticoat Lane. Further on, another Russian was toying with the idea of buying a Sony Walkman, insisting the shopkeeper put a cassette in it to test the sound quality.

I’m getting obsessed by the Russians. One TV channel at teatime had three particularly dreary Russian cartoons followed by their equivalent of Tomorrow’s World – Programme 2 – The Wonderful World of Computers. The Vietnamese channel carried a programme about a factory.

I had dinner tonight with the two Hong Kong Brits I met in Da Nang plus a couple of Canadians. When he was in Da Nang, one of the Canadians had a T-shirt printed saying in Vietnamese:

I AM NOT A RUSSIAN

He lives in an apartment in Calgary with a one-metre long iguana which, he says, craps in a sandbox behind the television set. He feeds it on cat food and says it can sense when he is about to go away because it pines and goes off its food. The iguana has its own dead tree in the apartment, so it can climb occasionally. It normally sleeps on its own heated pad although once the Canadian found it curled inside his pillowcase. The only problem is it likes to climb up the Canadian’s leg and has sharp claws. In the same apartment block, a neighbour keeps a pet boa constrictor.

I must remember to avoid Calgary.

The Hong Kong Brit told me he used to keep a pet monkey in Lagos; one of their neighbours in Hong Kong keeps a baboon which has a habit of flushing his toilet in the middle of the night.

I think I am beginning to hallucinate.

All I want is to find someone who can juggle cooked spaghetti on television for one minute.

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