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‘This is how modern Vietnam exists, with life and death in parallel’

Hanoi is one of the busiest cities in Vietnam
Hanoi is one of the busiest cities in Vietnam - Getty

I am in a modern art gallery by a lake. A chic gallery owner is showing me the work of a young contemporary artist: squares of earth, found objects and huge paintings made of thumbprints. The exhibition title is something Google Translate terms “Been-Continued”. It’s all rather mystifying. Then the artist herself, Lâm Na, appears, pressing into my hand a coin she has dug out of the ground. This feels significant, as I understand the work to be about the past within the present, what is sown and what is reaped, but really I have very little idea of where I am. It could be Mayfair. It is in fact Hanoi.

This is my first day in Vietnam, in a ritzy part of the city where many expats choose to live, beside Hoan Kiem lake. There are taco places and cocktail bars. Whatever I expected, it wasn’t this. To confound me further the charming Nguyen Anh Tuan, an artist and curator tells me I am in luck. We had bonded over a shared love of Leonard Cohen and now he takes me to the vast disused Gia Lam train factory. It has been taken over by artists from the Hanoi Creative Design Festival. The theme is “flow” – and I am going with it.

Writer Suzanne making friends in Vietnam
Writer Suzanne making friends in Vietnam - Suzanne Moore

In taking over this old industrial space, artists are connecting their heritage to contemporary life. There is so much work to see here: Cornelia Parker-type dismantled cars on strings, huge hanging ribbons of fabric, tunnels of small  photographs that you need a candle to see. I am overloaded.

The truth is that if your first day in Hanoi doesn’t overwhelm you, then you don’t have a pulse. It is one of the most exciting cities I have ever visited, a frenzy of traffic, markets, lights, street food, colonial-era architecture and huge monuments. I brave the shoals of scooters and the intense criss-crossing traffic to get around, determined not to be like a friend of mine who was trapped in her hotel for two days before she dared venture out.

When I meet my guide, he offers to teach me how to cross the road and is surprised I have already done it. The explanation is not bravery but jetlag. One must not hesitate and must not look at the traffic, he says. Just go for it and don’t stop. My guide is wearing a sweatshirt with “Barmy” written on it and he asks me what it means while we sample the street food. Barmy means “nuts but in a nice way,” I tell him.

'A frenzy of traffic, markets, lights and street food': the Old Quarter in Hanoi
'A frenzy of traffic, markets, lights and street food': the Old Quarter in Hanoi - Getty

You may have had Vietnamese food at home but there is nothing like sitting on little plastic stools next to girls wearing fake Gucci and eating what has become known as the “Obama Combo” (after the meal Barack Obama ate with the late, great Anthony Bourdain here, back in 2016). Grilled pork, noodles, bundles of herbs, dipping sauce. Bun Cha and two beers.

The ripped martial arts guys slurp it down nearby; the backpackers queue for their Banh Mi. Later, at a dazzling rooftop bar, young fashionable Vietnamese couples arrive with flowers for innumerable selfies as the DJ remixes the Pet Shop Boys and the moon rises high over the lake.

The famous caramelised pork meatballs Bun Cha are a Vietnamese staple
The famous caramelised pork meatballs Bun Cha are a Vietnamese staple - Alamy Stock Photo

First thing in the morning, large groups exercise next to the Lenin statue, while the queues for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum begin to form. Here you may see the embalmed body of “Uncle Ho”. (He didn’t want this; he had asked for a cremation but instead got the full Soviet treatment.) Communist flags and slogans are everywhere.

Vietnam is a one-party state, though the official reality is that it is “a market economy with a socialist orientation”. Ordinary people pay for health care and education and driving out of Hanoi, one can feel the economic boom. Luxury developments are everywhere. I come to realise that the hard times referred to in conversation are not just the “American War”, but the famine that took place between the end of the war in 1975 and the lifting of the trade embargo in the mid-1990s.

Guards in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Guards in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum - Alamy

Sure there are war tourists here rehearsing their Apocalypse Now speeches but the most hostility I hear openly expressed is towards the French, rather than the Americans. One man tells me that the country’s former colonial masters gouged his father’s eyes out.

A few hours drive to the south-west of Hanoi, mountains rise up: black vertical jags of limestone jutting out of the earth, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’m staying at the Pu Luong Retreat between two such mountains overlooking rice terraces. The view is spectacular, although the steep inclines to get to the room are not quite so alluring. This is no country for old knees. Thankfully there is a pool and a spa and a great restaurant.

It’s the sort of place that lures trekkers, but my guide clearly understands I am more of a trudger. We go down into the valley where houses are raised on stilts and impossibly pretty village girls take selfies with us.

Farmers planting rice in Pu Luong, Vietnam
Farmers planting rice in Pu Luong, Vietnam - Alamy

I cannot help but think of Graham Greene’s A Quiet American where Fowler describes Phuong, his mistress, as looking “so small and breakable” but not in any way being an ornament. These villagers are ethnic White Thais, and have their own language and style of dress. They are still using scythes in the fields.

We see papayas, starfruit, guava, cassava all growing and the Muscovy ducks that I have only seen hanging in markets. At a betel nut tree I hear about the Vietnamese fashion of women making their teeth completely black – mind-blowing – which was once considered beautiful.

I fly south to take a cruise along the Mekong. It is hot and rainy, with a different vibe altogether. There are fish in the river that eat dogs, the boatman says, as we sip from coconuts. But I only see mudskippers. At night in my resort you can sit by the river and watch as the junks go up and down. I don’t stay long, because I am heading to Can Tho, to catch a small propeller plane to Con Son island.

Con Son Island is a tiny island in the Con Dau archipelago
Con Son Island is a tiny island in the Con Dau archipelago - Alamy Stock Photo

In the airport I wave at a baby and I sense this makes everyone uncomfortable. Babies, I am told later, are to be ignored, for one does not want to make the spirits jealous and the baby ill. Each day in Vietnam, I become more aware that the spirits are ever-present: ancestor-worship prevails; death sits alongside life and is everywhere celebrated. The dead must be kept happy with votive money, gifts and food on the family shrines. I even see expensive pairs of trainers left as offerings.

Con Son is a tiny island in the Con Dau archipelago.  It is heavenly, stuffed with pristine beaches, jungle, black squirrels and macaques. Brad, Angelina and their troop stayed here back in 2011 at the extremely luxurious Six Senses, but I really don’t think anywhere could be nicer than the Poulo Condor resort, where I stay.

My room is actually a sage green villa  with two balconies. There is an outside shower and lotus ponds everywhere. You can trip down to the empty beach or have a massage. There are kayaks to paddle around in. It is totally lush, with a pool above which rises Chau mountain. The staff are lovely, WhatApping to ask if you want breakfast brought to you. These islands are surrounded by the best diving waters in Vietnam and yet remain undeveloped.

Vietnam has a dark past, and is home to many old prisons and cemeteries
Vietnam has a dark past, and is home to many old prisons and cemeteries - Suzanne Moore

However, this seemingly untouched paradise has its heart of darkness. This was a prison island. In town there is the museum, and the old prisons and cemeteries are dotted about. More than 20,000 political prisoners died here. The French built the prisons in 1863 to house those they considered dangerous. The Americans then used them till the 70s. It’s here that you find the infamous “tiger cages”, where prisoners were shackled and quicklime poured onto them.

A few hours of visiting these places was enough for me. It was clear that many of the Vietnamese people visiting had relatives who had died there, so this is a place of pilgrimage. When I went back to my hotel, I found out the museum had been set up by the son of a political prisoner and this was a way of giving thanks to the island.

This is how modern Vietnam exists, with life and death parallel. There are always hungry ghosts to appease but right here, right now, there is beauty and wealth to create. And always another selfie to be taken. It is dizzying. I learnt during a cooking lesson how to tie summer rolls using steamed spring onions as tiny ribbons. I saw girls on Vespas applying make-up as they manoeuvred in dense traffic. I glimpsed the ultra-modern city of Ho Chi Minh City and chatted to octogenarians working in the paddy fields.

All of it draws you in, one way or another. You can feel the future surging, yet what truly seeps into your heart is the remarkable and unbreakable soul of the place.

Essentials

InsideAsia (0117 244 3380; InsideAsiaTours.com) has a 12-night Vietnam Landscapes cultural adventure which heads from Hanoi to Pu Luong, Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta and costs from £2,275pp including all accommodation, several meals, transport across the country, private guiding and a range of cultural experiences, but excluding international flights. Vietnam Airlines (vietnamairlines.com) operates daily services between London and Vietnam from £754 return.