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+ Pico Iyer

In his latest book, The Open Road, Pico Iyer covers 34 years of travels with the Dalai Lama. Here, he tells PAUL EHRLICH why Hanoi fits his mood

Published on Aug 16, 2010

Motorbikes throng in Hanoi's Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem Lake

SLOW-MO TAXIS AND cyclo drivers in berets making their way past tiny shops adorned with coasters showing Che Guevara. Elegant boutiques with names like “Seduire” bringing the sensual languor of an idealized France into the same sentence as Uncle Ho’s austerity. How can I not turn to Hanoi when I’m looking for a mixture of softness and rigor, a sense of romance blended with an unbending and sharp-eyed sense of real life?

Whenever I return to the misty and rusty old capital of Vietnam, what hits me is its steely sweetness, its mix of invigoration and calm; the streets of the Old Quarter are famously buzzing with life. The lake at the center of town, Hoan Kiem, is gray and rainy every time I’ve visited, but that is what draws to it poets and painters who traffic in textures and all that’s lost in tropical glare.

Along the tamarind-lined streets, the French colonial villas speak for a tempo contradicted at every turn by the swerving, rushing motorbikes. Hanoi seems somehow to be looking backwards and forwards at the same time, as it injects sleek cool into dusty traditions.

The finest food I’ve ever tasted; a proud and indomitable sense of its own dignity and history; an industrious, quick and determined people who (thanks to the centuries) exude weathered chic without even trying. Hanoi is a monument to inner resources.

Ho Chi Minh City to the south is too driven by pell-mell energy and restlessness. The countries all around have exceptional charm, but not always a sense of the struggles behind them. Hanoi is the cultured matron who invites you into her house for a concert on an ancient stringed instrument—and then stays up all night to take care of her accounts.


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