My return to Vietnam in 1997 came twenty-nine years to the week of my first landing at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport. Back then a sign in the terminal had warned: “In case of mortar attack don’t panic, don’t run. Lay on the floor and cover your head with your hands.” Now the walls of Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport were covered with posters advertising a new casino and serviced lakeside luxury apartments. A Hong Kong research company had ranked Vietnam as the most economically secure (low- crime) and politically stable of the fourteen Asian countries it had studied.
As before, this time I arrived during the heat of summer. Puddles of rainwater sizzled on the tarmac. I recognized, from long ago, the sweet fragrance that drifted out of the rice paddies. A pig the size of a Volkswa¬gen ambled across the runway. My wife, Sandy, and I went to claim our two cats that had traveled with us, and a passenger confided in a hushed voice, “They eat cats here, you know.” The customs man seemed bored. He sat at an empty desk with no phone or paperwork and was in no hurry to release our jet-lagged cats. He wanted to know what we intended to do with them. Sandy said we were just going to let them hang out in the apartment and keep us company. The man looked puzzled. We negoti¬ated at length. Some money changed hands. An hour later, baggage and pets in hand, we were crammed into an old taxi. We bumped along the road that leads from Noi Bai Airport, creeping through villages clogged with bicycles and past fields where peasants stood knee-deep in muck, tossing buckets of water onto their crops. Forty-five minutes ahead lay Hanoi, where we had no office, no home, no telephone, and no friends. Together we stood at the threshold of a new fife.
EVERY YEAR A MAGAZINE called Asiaweek rates the livability of Asia’s top forty cities; Hanoi tied for seventeenth place, but I think it deserves a better ranking. One criterion the publication uses is TV sets per 1,000 residents. Hanoi ranks number two in all of Asia on that score, with 765 (three times more than Tokyo). I’m not sure the saturation of television has much to do with quality of life, but it does indicate how dramatically living standards in Vietnam have risen in recent years—and that most Vietnamese don’t have a lot of free-time diversions other than to turn up their TVs full blast and sit mesmerized by a soccer game or romantic soap opera. In another Asiaweek category, hospital beds per 1,000 people, Hanoi ranks near the bottom with 1.6. The magazine left blank the rank¬ing for vehicles per kilometer of city road because, I presume, it doesn’t count motor scooters as vehicles and Hanoi’s narrow streets are still rela¬tively empty of cars. Many of the motorcycles are smuggled in from China, anyway, and there wouldn’t be any accurate way to count them.
If Asiaweek had a category for likability of people—surely a legitimate measure of a city’s livability—Hanoi would have topped the survey hands down. Within a week of our arrival, Sandy and I had been invited to dine at the home of a former North Vietnamese soldier, taken by a journalist to a sidewalk stall for a fifty-cent bowl of pho, a noodle soup the Viet¬namese eat as regularly as Americans do hamburgers, and befriended by a miniplatoon of college students who wanted to practice English and learn more about the world. During my first peacetime encounters with the Vietnamese, what struck me was the smile. Faces aglow, their smiles seemed natural and spontaneous, not a forced, mechanical flash of politeness but rather an expression straight from the heart. A European busi¬nessman told me he had rejected a posting in China for one in Vietnam because “in China people arc distant and somber. They frown all the time. In Vietnam, I walk out my door in the morning, and people are smiling. They make you feel welcome. They’re approachable. They act as though life’s pretty good. That’s a big plus at the end of the day.”
Sandy and I found an apartment overlooking True Bach (White Bam¬boo), the smallest of Hanoi’s eleven lakes, in a neighborhood called Ngu Xa. The neighborhood felt like a village, built on a small peninsula that jutted into the water. Starting in the sixteenth century, bronze casters from five villages northeast of Hanoi started making their way to Ngu Xa, and for the next 300 years the finest bells, Buddha statues, and’in¬cense urns adorning the pagodas and royal palaces were made in the al¬leyways outside my doorstep. “Even fireflies have to enjoy the kindling fire of the bronze-casting furnaces,” the poet Nguyen Huy Lyong wrote in 1801 in a salute to Ngu Xa’s bustling activity.
Over the years the lanes became streets that crisscrossed like rows on a checkerboard, and most of the bronze-casting families turned their atten¬tion to working in silver and making aluminum pots and pans and plaster busts of Ho Chi Minh. But Ngu Xa never lost its Vietnamese flavor or became, even during French colonial times, home to more than a handful of foreigners. Only a few families still cast bronze Buddhas in Ngu Xa to¬day, and the tap, tap, tap of their tools is a reassuring sound, reminding me that much remains as it was even though Hanoi is gripped by great change.
Although the banks of the Red River have been inhabited for thou¬sands of years, Hanoi’s history dates back only to 1010, when the emperor Ly Thai To moved the capital sixty miles from Hoa Lu to a site not far from our apartment. He named the town Thang Long (Soaring Dragon) and ordered the building of dikes and artificial hills to protect his dynasty from invading Chinese. The dikes held the floods at bay but not the Mongols, who sacked the city in the late thirteenth century. Emperor Le Loi pushed the Chinese out in 1428 and renamed the capital Dong Kinh, which the French later corrupted to Tonkin.