Thursday, February 16, 2012

Return to Hanoi and friends

HANOI, Vietnam — It was pleasant to return to Hanoi. My friend Dinh Ngoc Truc was waiting for me at baggage claims in the airport.

Because of my late arrival, the streets of Hanoi were relatively clear of bicycles, motorcycles, cars and trucks on the 45-minute drive to the Old Quarter.

The hotel where I am staying, the Maison d'Hanoi in the Hoan Kiem District, was familiar. My wife Renee and I stayed in the hotel several years ago. When you step out the front door onto Hang Trong Street, you are immediately in the foot and street traffic of the Old Quarter.

It's difficult to believe Hanoi was the enemy capital when I flew helicopters for the U.S. Army in 1967-68.

But it was 44 years ago when I left South Vietnam for home just after the Tet Offensive of 1968.

The changes are staggering. They shouldn't be, but they are. I have to remind myself coming back to Vietnam 44 years after I left the war in Southeast Asia behind is like visiting Germany or Japan in 1989 — 44 years after World War II ended in Europe and the Pacific.

On my walk through the Old Quarter this morning, I stopped in the Highlands Coffee Shop around the corner. Highlands Coffee is Vietnam's Starbucks. It's where affluent, young Vietnamese spend time. There is a free WiFi connection. The shops are well furnished. The menu and signs are printed in English, as well as in Vietnamese.

There are some differences. A waiter or waitress serves your drink. This morning I had an "icy latte." But I could have had a beer or a glass of wine. Hot food is available. The special advertised on the table placard was Italian pasta with shrimp. I have found Italian restaurants, Vespa motorbikes, and Italian clothing are popular in Hanoi.

The Highlands Coffee Shop I visited today was inside a bank building. Others are outdoors. Friends in Vietnam police took Renee and me to one next to the Opera House after dinner one night. There is another adjacent to the Military Museum on Dien Bien Phu Boulevard. Across the street is Lenin Park, with a towering statue of the Bolshevik Revolution leader. Down the boulevard several blocks is the entrance to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Presidential Residence, and the House on Stilts, the home Uncle Ho preferred over the executive mansion.

Coffee shops, in general, are popular in Hanoi. This afternoon Truc's son, Thinh, and his friend and neighbor, Trang, picked me up at the hotel and gave me a walking tour of the Old Quarter. At the end of our walk, Thinh took us to the rooftop garden at the Avalon Restaurant. The view of Hoan Kiem Lake was spectacular. Thinh told me the Avalon is a popular place for young people to go for coffee.

During our walk, we visited the Cho Dong Xuan market, the largest covered market in Hanoi. The market originally was built in the 1889 by the French. In 1994, nearly fire destroyed the market. It was rebuilt in its present form. Thinh and Trang told me the market is popular with tourists. In the market you can buy items ranging from fruit to custom-tailored suits.

As we neared the hotel, Trang stopped at a street peddler and bought a bag of white, peeled vegetables. "Do you have these in the United States?" she asked. I bit into one. It tasted like a sweet jicama, which is popular in Mexico and my home state of New Mexico. Trang said the vegetable is called "ma thay" in Hanoi. I ate about a dozen.

Later, I looked up the vegetable. It is a water chestnut, known as "cu ma tay" in northern Vietnam. In the southern part of the country, it is known as "cu nang."

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