Apocalypse Now, reads the red sign outside Ho Chi Minh City’s most famous nightclub. It’s a long time since the fall of Saigon, so long that a club of that name is allowed to stay open to cater to American tourists until 2 am, well after all others which close down at midnight.
Inside, it’s a toned-down version of Bangkok — young white backpackers, old white men with young local girls, some very Americanised locals playing pool and drinking beer, and a sprinkling of Asian tourists like us. The lighting is a surreal red, but the music is incredibly bad, and we decide to run when they put on Las Ketchup for the third time.
Our guide, a 51-year-old former schoolteacher named Kanh, is waiting patiently outside. Kanh was a young man when the war ended, and today he makes his living mostly from showing American tourists around the famous Co Chi tunnels.
<b1>A lazy breeze makes the 27 degrees feel cooler, and the town centre is milling with youngsters cruising on two-wheelers. The city, indeed the entire country, feels so incredibly young. And it is — 70 per cent of the population is under 30, fuelling economic growth, while rapidly westernising the society. Living with families means it’s difficult to find a place to get intimate, but social taboos have been relaxed enough for youngsters to be snuggling in parks together.
The architecture is very French, and the French-speaking tourists walking behind us obviously approve. “C’est magnifique!” we hear as they click pictures of Rex Hotel, the famous site of the writing of Vietnam’s war history.
“Madame,” someone yells at me, “one dollar only!” I turn around to find a heavy-set woman selling coconut water.
There’s another next to her selling waffles with custard sauce. I wonder what all the men are doing, and I am edified to find that the shoulder poles these women carry around weigh anywhere between 20 and 50 kg!
The next day, I treat myself to a $2 pedicure on a sidewalk, and head out to shop for curios. Lacquer, lanterns, silk, but also posters from another era bearing hammers and sickles and proclaiming ‘Death to America’!
Hanoi, the Capital, is more crowded, but not less beautiful. One evening we watch a delightful water-puppet show that takes us into a different time and place — a king’s wedding procession, fishermen out at sea, children playing in water, girls dancing... We leave the theatre with little puppets — very cute, very kitsch.
Crossing the street can be a very exasperating experience for an Indian. The Vietnamese drive on the right and I find myself always looking at the wrong side of the road while crossing. But it’s very amusing to see women bikers all wrapped up against the sun — with their conical hats and masks, they look like an Eta army on two wheels.
The old town of Hanoi, with its 36 streets, each named after a particular product it sells, is a delight.
Some say there are actually more than 36 streets, but the Silk Street and the Kite Street suffice for us. You can visit workshops here, and actually watch craftspeople making lacquer-ware or silk articles.
Like much of South-East Asia, Vietnam is a seafood lover’s paradise. One night, we’re treated to dinner at a fabulous resort.
As the carnivores among us dig shamelessly into the deep-fried soft-shelled crab, grilled black tiger prawn, steamed white bass with ginger, and seafood hotpot, the vegetarians have to make do with the dessert — “Fruit-sweet”, it is called.
The next day, lunch is at — you’d never guess it — an Uzbek restaurant.
The owner, Ahmad doesn’t speak a word of English or Vietnamese, but our host and his friend speak Russian. So he translates for us that we’re all welcome. Suddenly Ahmad bursts out with emotion, gesticulating with both hands: “India, Uzbekistan, I love you!” We smile politely and look down into our soup bowls.
A bit of India
By far the loveliest part of Hanoi is Lovers’ Lane, a beautiful tree-lined avenue flanked by two lakes and an 11th century Buddhist temple. It’s warm and humid, and the breeze is lulling the anglers to sleep. Every now and then, one of them wakes up with a start as he feels a tug on the line, and begins to roll in rapidly.
I decide to leave my comfortable perch under a tree by the lake and visit the temple. It’s small but calm, but my hope of a spiritual odyssey is cut short as a teenaged boy approaches me and tells me I must buy the postcards he’s selling so he can go to school. We do the mandatory haggling, and he lets me have the postcards in exchange for 50 cents and clicking a picture of me against the pagoda.We wrap up our trip with a visit to the resort town of Phan Thiet. My friends spoil themselves at a mud bath, while I spend a day at the beach, soaking in the calm and the feeling of timelessness.
And there, in a small village in southern Vietnam, we chance upon a ninth century Hindu temple, where the locals still worship the Shiva linga! It’s a relic of the Hindu Champa dynasty, our guide says. It’s a small world, indeed.