Hanoi: History, horror and heavenly spa treatments on a journey into Vietnam (Part 1)

It is said that Vietnam is like Thailand twenty years ago. And that you should go now, because it’s easier than ever, thanks to Vietnam Airlines’ new direct routes to Hanoi and Saigon, which knock the journey down to 12 hours and save the faff of changing in Bangkok.

Hanoi: History, horror and heavenly spa treatments on a journey into Vietnam (Part 1)

Vietnam is exotic, but austere in some parts and playful in others, so it could not be described shortly. And it is impossible to ignore the war that has left an indelible mark on American history. War tourism is part of the experience, and Americans make up the greatest proportion of western tourists. But the country has been re-built, the trees re-planted and the Vietnamese look to the future, not the past.

Whenever I ask locals how they feel towards their American visitors and ex-pats, the answer is the same. They WELCOME them. They are hardly likely to say anything different, but moving on is part of the culture.  The slim Vietnam has a coastline groaning with inviting sandy stretches and tropical islands off the south west and southern tip, catering for budget travelers to luxury seekers and superstars. Brangelina are fans – their adopted son Pax was born in Vietnam.
And particularly, the Lunar New Year was celebrated over when I was there. This takes place in January or February (depending on the moon), and it is as light-filled and glittery as our Christmas. Families get together, bury arguments, remember their ancestors, thank their teachers and give out ‘lucky’ brand new 1000 dong notes to children. I bring two crisp notes back to London, hoping to secure my fortune.

In Hanoi, capital city in North Vietnam, where my trip begins, the foggy city is chilly, grey and just a little oppressive – but brightened by sprays of peach blossom and kumquat trees. There is plenty to see – and not nearly enough time to take it all in. Walking solemnly past Ho Chi Minh’s body, in a glass box guarded by four uniformed men, is strange. Visiting the Hanoi Melia prison (Hoa Lo prison), where communists and then GIs were interned, is horrifying.
Senator John McCain’s jump suit, kit and parachute are on show. He was shot down flying a Skyhawk in 1967 and imprisoned in Vietnam until 1973. There are pictures of GIs eating thanksgiving dinner, playing pool or cards, smiling. When I speak to a former POW, who was held here for nearly 6 years, he tells me these photographs were set ups. This was no holiday camp. GIs were tortured, starved and kept in solitary confinement. He received only 7, 6-line, clipped letters from home during that long, dreadful stay. He has no wish to return – but plenty of others do, perhaps to lay those ghosts to rest.

In that evening, I was back at the Metropol hotel bar and I am amazed to see John McCain in person. He comes back every year and, according to staff, even stays in the same room. This wonderful colonial hotel, with its prettily lit outdoor pool is just a short walk away from his former prison. Hanoi is the place to try street food – and it is cheap. The “36 streets and 36 wares” in the Old Quarter, which dates from the 11th century, brim with markets and delicious smelling brews.

I kept wondering how the people remain so impossibly delicate is a mystery. No one is fat and yet the Vietnamese seem to do nothing but eat. Pop-up food stalls line the pavements. People sit on tiny plastic stools guzzling from brothy bowls filled from steaming canisters. Trip up here and you could find yourself in a bother of boiling hot phở (noodle soup).

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