When I was a boy growing up in Canada, Hanoi
was the enemy. In those days most foreign visitors to Hanoi were American pilots who had taken a wrong turn over the Bay of Tonkin. Travelling on one-way tickets, they were accommodated at the 'Hanoi Hilton', a notorious prison where room service consisted of a propaganda lecture and a bowl of maggoty rice. Sometimes they appeared on television, rather grim-faced, to say how much they liked the place.
Twenty years on and I was never sure if I should mention the war. It may be the great inescapable fact of the last fifty years of Vietnamese history but it seems to have sidled away with barely a trace. Doi moi
, the Vietnamese perestroika
, has made honored guests of the former enemy, and Vietnam has become one of Asia's most fashionable destinations.
Peace becomes a country as beautiful as Vietnam
. I came to Hanoi through a landscape of flooded paddies where buffaloes waded fetlock-deep through unimaginable greens, and young women in white silks cycled along the raised causeways in a pewter twilight.
The two old capitals -- Saigon and Hanoi -- are a country apart. The former is a city of the tropics, mercurial and corrupt. Few people bother with the post-war name, Ho Chi Minh City, too much of a mouthful even for the politically correct. Saigon may have lost the war but it is winning the peace. A former den of capitalists, it had something of a head start when it comes to market forces and is now busy rediscovering its old commercial hustle. Less brash, more conservative, Hanoi seems to belong to an older world. While Saigon is a city Americans would recognize, Hanoi retains strong echoes of its French colonial past.