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POSTCARD FROM VIETNAM

Half a day in Hanoi

A city that lives up to its stereotypes.


The Vietnamese version of vegetarianism involves `Fried Rice with Vegetarian Squid' and `Vegetarian Prawn with Lemon Grass'.



That familiar feeling: The streets of Hanoi. Photo: AP

"VIETNAM? They only have paddy fields and peasants there," sniggered friends and colleagues when I told them I was going to Hanoi. "Rice fields," I corrected with dignity. "Besides, that's just the Hollywood directors' idea of Vietnam. Hanoi is a city, the capital." But, for once, Hollywood has got it down pat. From the moment the plane comes in sight of land, all I could see were rice fields. The runway is flanked by those fabled, lush, emerald-green rice fields. With peasants bent over, ankle-deep in water and working hard. And wearing conical straw hats that everyone demands you bring them back as a gift.

Since the organisers of the conference had "missed out" on sending a car to pick up the "two Indian journalists" from the airport, we went in search of a phone. Under the lovely sign that said "Telephones", all we found were ATM machines. At the information desk, we only got sight-seeing brochures. So where did we finally find the telephone? In the post office.

Right at home

Ignore the architecture and the incomprehensible signs and Hanoi roads are a lot like Indian ones. Our cab driver didn't once take his palm off the horn during the 40-minute drive from the airport to the hotel. The roads are filled with non-geared two-wheelers — mostly lightweight Yamahas and Hondas — and are used to transport everything from children and potatoes to laptops and ladders.

Occasionally, you can also see the trusty two-wheeler being used as a ladder to change a light bulb. Plenty of young women, muffled up to the eyes — against the cold here, unlike in India where its against the heat and dust — whiz past daintily. And people aren't terribly particular about which side of the road they use. The roads are clean, but like the Chennai Corporation, the sweepers lovingly pile the dirt into tiny mounds by the kerb so that it can scatter right back when an obligingly huffy wind comes along. The average official cavalcade consists of about 12 motorcycle guards and seven pilot cars per Bigwig.

Options

If you're vegetarian and recovering from jaundice, Vietnam is a great place to go. There is absolutely no chance of giving into temptation and breaking the idly-toast-orange juice diet. In fact, giving up food is a fabulous option since the Vietnamese version of vegetarianism involves "Fried Rice with Vegetarian Squid" and "Vegetarian Prawn with Lemon Grass". Maybe the seafood is raised on seaweed.

Plenty to see

There is plenty to see in Hanoi if you have the time. The city is surrounded by lakes, which are beautifully maintained and incredibly picturesque. There is the ancient Temple of Literature that pays tribute to Confucius, his disciples and other scholars, and the One Pillar Pagoda, which resembles a lotus blossom. The Vietnam Fine Arts Museum has displays detailing the evolution of the arts in the country.

There's the old district to see, where entire streets were dedicated to specific crafts. Apparently, you can buy DVDs for the equivalent of Rs. 25 — a lovely story, which, sadly, there was no time to confirm (one Indian rupee fetches about 360 Vietnamese Dong).

And, of course, Uncle Ho's residence and gardens, and much more that I'm sure I missed entirely. Just make sure you have more than half a day in Hanoi.

SHALINI UMACHANDRAN

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