Extract from Your Man in the Orient
I decided I would celebrate my first evening in Hanoi in style, by staying alone in my hotel room. I had been surrounded by millions of people on airplanes and in airports for two days and needed some peace.
So I made a plan to procure and bottle of local whiskey, for research reasons, obviously, and a bottle of Jameson as a sort of safety net. Whiskey drinkers will understand this precaution.
In the early afternoon I had ventured out to take a long walk around my new home town in search of lunch, which I found ten seconds later in the shape of a clean looking restaurant three doors along from my hotel.
I was quite pleased with the outcome. Chicken and noodles with chilli sauce and a cold beer for one-hundred and thirty thousand Dong, which is about four quid.
I thought this was great, until I wandered out again in the early evening and noticed many people sitting around tables on the street, ten yards further along the path, eating a big chicken, pork and shrimp broth, just dished out of a pot around two minutes after they ordered.
So I thought I would give street food a go and it was fantastic. And a full meal too. All for thirty-thousand Dong, or ninety-two of Her Majesty’s new pennies. I realized then that I had taken lunch in the most expensive place on the street, possibly in the the whole of The Old Quarter.
Street eating will take some getting used to though. The smartly dressed businessman on my left simply spat the gristle out on the floor at his feet and the truly beautiful, classy girl opposite me delicately extracted any with her chopsticks and then tossed it over her shoulder, most of it landing on the seat of a scooter parked behind that she hadn’t noticed.
Or maybe she had… Maybe it was even her own. My next and most important task of the evening was to find a bottle store for the whiskey, which turns out to be next door to the hotel. I didn’t get too far on that first day.
I am happy to report that a decent local whiskey, called Wall Street, costs around £4 and ten packets of smokes is about the same.
have just worked out that with the money I have already saved I can drink four bottles a day, smoke six packs and still live in this fashion until I am a one-hundred and forty-four years old. I did the math….! (Trovato, what are you waiting for?)
Mind you, these city street stores are known locally for their…. let’s call it inventiveness. Apparently a little known method they have adopted, to stretch out their supplies, is to drill a minute hole in the bottom of a decent bottle of spirits and drain around twenty-five percent of it.
They then inject water back in, super glue over the hole and sell the watered down version for the same price. The advice, I was reading, is to make sure the store owner knows you are buying it for yourself to drink that day, and not taking it back west as a gift.
This will worry him that you may notice the difference and then have him sent to jail for the rest of his life, so he will make sure you get one of his undiluted bottles. I don’t know if this is true or not but I had already drunk half of mine when I decided to check the bottom for glue bumps.
This was when I realized I had left the cap off, which accounted for the second half. I suppose, in the end, if it tastes the same and there is less alcohol going through your liver then it could be regarded as a good thing, by some people. Such as my doctor.
Later on and back in the hotel I was reading War of the Worlds when, at around 9pm, it became a three dimensional experience as the mother and father of all thunderstorms rolled in. From my eleventh floor balcony I was treated to something of a show.
The flashing and the hammering and the cracking, vibrating and rattling was a real experience. One of my fillings was shaken loose.
Now I know, I thought, exactly what it must have been like to be in Hanoi during the infamous Operation Linebacker II, better known as the Christmas Bombings, in the December of 1972 during the American War (as it is known in these parts).
Even though they were only supposed to be defending the democratic South, the Americans sent B52 bombers to try and flatten strategic parts of the northern capital, although they missed most of the strategic parts, if there were any in the first place.
They did hit the Bach Mai Hospital though, instead of a nearby airfield, killing twenty-eight members of staff. (To be fair, the hospital was later re-built thanks to private donations funded by American citizens)
All in all seven-hundred and forty-one sorties dropped around sixteen thousand tons of high explosive in and around this little place between the 18th and 29th of December.
It has been recorded that Jane Fonda (Hanoi Jane) was in town at the time and had to take shelter in a hotel cellar.
But, during my research, which is something I don’t often bother with, I noticed she was actually here six months earlier and staying at the opulent French colonial hotel called The Metropole.
I’ve been there, seen her picture on the wall and paid four quid for an iced coffee in their terrace bar, which is about ten times as much as the same coffee would cost anywhere else in town.
I’m not going there again. And not because all the staff will only speak to you in French either, which is bloody annoying.
Ahh, I have just realized why the head receptionist downstairs is taking French lessons three times a week, whilst her English is still so poor. But don’t tell anyone. There is no harm in her aspiring to work in a classier place than I can afford to stay at.
I could explain to her that the whole world will be speaking English as a first language by the time she is forty-years old.
Then again, probably not in hotels like The Metropole. By the way, did you know that there are now more people in China who speak fluent English than there are in America?
I heard that on a radio program last year. Actually, I was on the same radio program and the other guest, who pointed that out, was a real English language expert, unlike myself who has a great editor, usually.
Back to the bombing of Hanoi. Joan Baez on the other hand, who is apparently another American activist from the same era as Jane Fonda, but whom I have never heard of, was staying at the Metropole at the time and did have to take shelter in the basement. Serves her right.
So anyway, now I know exactly how she must have felt in Hanoi over Christmas 1972. Well, alright I wasn’t hiding in the cellar.
Nor was shivering in the sewers like many of the local folk. Oh, and there were no B52 Bombers screaming overhead or anything exploding.
There was no shrapnel cutting people to ribbons and no anti-aircraft guns either. What else.
Yes, of course, there wasn’t over two-thousand homes destroyed or one-thousand six-hundred and twenty-four bodies to bury in the morning.
Now that I think about it I haven’t really got a clue what is was like in 1972 have I. It was only a thunderstorm. – Albert Jack