Leonardo de Caprio has researched, written up, copied and distributed a “suggested walk” round the narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Town, so K and I give it a whirl. It’s a revelation – especially the street markets, which are so easy to miss otherwise. Everywhere you go, families are sitting on the pavement on those dinky little kindergarten chairs, tucking into the freshest looking, most exotic, most delicious food you’ve ever seen. It’s a nation of food lovers. It’s our kind of place.
Before the holiday, I read an article about Hanoi titled A Day in the Life of Hang Bo Street, which perfectly sums up the experience of walking through the Old Town. In particular, I am struck by the way that entire streets are given over to shops which all sell the same merchandise: paper lanterns, Chinese medicinal herbs, cooking implements, motorcycle seats. It must have been the same in medieval England.
For although the country now appears to be largely Communist in name only (they have had their own glasnost/perestroika), and although the spirit of free enterprise clearly prevails, there is still a strongly overriding spirit of co-operation to be found. No-one seems to have thought of opening a paper lantern shop on a different street, to corner the market in a new part of town. It just wouldn’t be fair play. What’s more: if a storekeeper has run out of a certain stock item, it is more than likely that a neighbouring storekeeper will lend him some of his own stock to sell, until the next delivery. How strange and wonderful is that to a Western sensibility?
Vietnam is also a country of artists. There are art galleries everywhere we go. To our surprise, most of the paintings are heavily influenced by the old French school – Gauguin, Chagall, the Impressionists. The period of French colonial rule has clearly left an impact – and of course, a French street scene must seem as exotic to a Vietnamese sensibility as the Far East does to the likes of us. However, these influences are generally a little too heavy-handed for our liking (although we do eventually start to “get our eye in”).
Therefore, we seize upon the works of Le Thiet Cuong (hanging in a chic little galley on To Tich street) with particular delight. He is part of a new generation of Vietnamese artists, who are at last finding their own visual voice (if you, er, see what I’m saying). True, there is a marked Paul Klee influence, but there is also something identifiably Vietnamese about Cuong’s work (this becomes more apparent as the trip progresses). We buy a canvas, which is taken off its frame and stretcher, and securely rolled up for us, as well as his monograph.
In the afternoon, a long coach drive up to Halong Bay, and our first real experience of Vietnamese road etiquette. Of which more later, but suffice it to say for now that, if you have ever been in a car in Malawi, then nothing that Vietnamese traffic can throw at you can make you so much as flinch. While the rest of our group gasp and cover their eyes at each fresh potential “incident”, we sit there stoically, keeping faith.
I am going to have to learn how to eat fresh crab better than this. Meat is flying everywhere, except into my mouth. My fingers are stinging with the juices, and from repeated jabs from stray fragments of claw. I am getting stressed out with the effort, while next to me, K is doing a superbly professional job. Smug bastard!
I also appear to be back on the cigs. Oh well, it’s a holiday. Over here, Marlboro Lights are anything but light. In fact, they’re delicious. Long, stong and pure, with none of that horrible rancid chemical aftertaste. Could this have anything to do with the multinational tobacco firms seeking to penetrate new markets by first getting them all hooked on the decent stuff, before downgrading it to the shit that the rest of the world smokes? I really couldn’t say.