HANOI 6

By the time Mann returned in 1998 as Australia’s ambassador to Viet¬nam, Hanoi was a different city, tingling with activity and entrepreneurial spirit. Its renaissance was rooted in a single government decision: to fol¬low China’s lead and gradually open up Vietnam’s economy to make room for private enterprise. The decision gave birth to a tourist industry and foreign investment. Western and Asian businessmen began arriving, first with only their suitcases, then later with their families. Ground was broken for a half-dozen five-star hotels. Hoa Lo—the dark, French-built prison that became known as the Hanoi Hilton, housing American POWs in squalor and terror—was razed to make way for a high-rise res¬idential-commercial complex. One small section of the prison was re¬tained as a museum. In it authorities posted a shamefully untrue sign: “American pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and de¬tained. Instead, they were well-treated, with adequate food, clothing, and shelter.” Construction started on a real Hilton Hotel next to the refur¬bished Opera House. Ford Motors opened a plant to manufacture cars, Compaq an office to sell computers. Construction began on Western- style homes and apartments for stratospheric rents—-$7,000 per month, two years’ payment in advance.
On block after block, the industrious Hanoians transformed their street-front living rooms into tiny shops, from which they stitched dresses and suits, sold food, peddled electrical and plumbing wares, served tea and noodles, hung vast arrays of sneakers and shoes for sale. Art galleries and restaurants offering Australian beef and Japanese sushi soon fol¬lowed. Prosperity grew. The luckier Hanoians bought Honda Dream mo¬tor scooters and TVs, and electric appliances were piled in the storefronts along Hai Ba Trung Street. The Thong Nhat—which in an earlier era had counted among its guests Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Bertrand Russell, and Charlie Chaplin—became the Metropole again and, after a $40 million renovation, glistened with restored elegance.
People spoke of Vietnam as an emerging “tiger” during the economic boom that blossomed throughout Southeast Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. But Hanoi stood its ground. While other capitals fell to wrecking balls and bulldozer shovels, Hanoi’s historic charm lingered. The boulevards were still wide and tree-lined. The catacombs of narrow, bustling lanes in H anoi’s Old Quarter seemed unscathed by modernity, still ringing with the voices of artisans and merchants who for 400 years had worked on thirty-six streets bearing names that reflected their businesses: Silk Street, Gold Street, Broiled Fish Street, Jewelers Street, Paper Street. Along the shores of downtown Hoan Kiem Lake—where legend has it that a golden turtle returned to heaven the magical sword that Emperor Le Loi used in driving out the Chinese in the fifteenth century—elderly Hanoians by the hundreds still gathered at dawn to exercise and play badminton. Sometimes I’d stop my bike to watch a spirited game. Ripples would glide across the lake, and I’d wonder if the golden turtle was about to emerge.
In the village of Bat Trang, just across the Red River from Hanoi, I met Le Van Cam, one of Vietnam’s most admired ceramic artists. Nearly seventy years old, he wore a black beret and a hearing aid; a cane helped him rise from a big stuffed armchair in greeting. “Please don’t get up,” I said. But he struggled and eventually stood upright. He had lost his left leg fighting the French in 1954 and had seen his two sons go off to war— one as a teenager to fight the Americans in 1968, the other to fight the Chinese in 1979.
“So long ago,” he said. “And that is just as well. There is so much lost time to make up for.” He spoke in Vietnamese and sprinkled his conver¬sation with an occasional French phrase. He said all the village’s 3,000 in¬habitants worked in the ceramics trade, as had their ancestors for six cen¬turies. “For me it really doesn’t matter any more. I am old. But for my sons, this is a new time of opportunity. For the first time in my life, ordi¬nary people have the chance to prosper.”
Cam had been the chairman of the local pottery cooperative in the postwar years. 1 hat system had been dismantled by the government’s de¬cision to open its economy, and now the potters of Bat Trang were on their own and business was thriving. Cam’s shelves displayed rows of pot¬tery that he and his sons had made, and outside his door, on a dirt street, a bicycle was being piled so high and wide with brightly colored ceramic vases, pots, cups, plates, and figurines that the owner would have to walk the bike into Hanoi, balancing it by clutching a long pole that rose from what had been the seat.
“You give people incentives and they are going to produce more,” said Cam, whose heart belonged to communism but whose wallet carried the rewards of capitalism. “There’s not much doubt about that. As a coopera¬tive we were very poor. We cared about surviving, not prospering. We did not make good decisions because people’s interests and abilities were not always the same.” He compared life today: “Now I have ten people work¬ing for me. I have this new house. I just bought the television and the re¬frigerator. I may even get a Honda Dream, although I am not sure I could ride it well with one leg.” He hobbled to the door to give instructions to his bicycle-walker, who set off down the road to Hanoi. “I’m not saying we’ve made up for the lost war years when we didn’t have the time or the resources to develop, but I am saying this is just the beginning. Every¬thing is changing.”

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