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Now is the time for travel to an unspoiled Hanoi


HANOI -- Vietnam's year of the tourist may soon be upon us.

With progress being made on the emotional issue of Americans missing in action, we may soon see a lifting of the economic embargo that the United States imposed after the Vietnam War, and, within the next 12 months, the opening of an American embassy in this beautiful capital of tree-lined avenues and temples rising from limpid lakes.

And with a Cambodian peace settlement in the making, the wars that have racked Indochina for the past half-century may be finally coming to a close.

Once the embargo is lifted, tour operators will be free to book Americans into what will be one of the most exotic and beautiful travel bargains left to mankind.

The economic boom that has swept other Southeast Asian cities into the high-rise and traffic-jam age has bypassed Hanoi. This is still a town where bicycles prevail over cars and where a couple of dollars buys a delicious, if simple, Vietnamese meal.

The twisting streets of the old-town market are like a film set from the 1930s. Indeed, the architecture of Hanoi is frozen in the '20s and '30s -- the last time there was enough peace and prosperity to build.

Singapore and Bangkok like to put out their "Somerset Maugham slept here" signs, but there is little of the old Asia left amid the jack-hammer boom of modern urban blight.

Here in Hanoi, you can still find echoes of a gentler age of travel and the wildly romantic French colonial architecture still stands intact. Mercifully, despite all the wars, downtown Hanoi was never seriously attacked and was spared the destruction that befell Hue, Quang Tri and Xuan Loc. The famous "Christmas bombing" that Richard Nixon called down on Hanoi was limited to the outskirts.

Despite the war, Americans will find the Vietnamese impeccably polite and friendly, without the surliness tourists complain of in China.

English is rapidly becoming the second language, to the despair of Francophones and Francophiles. Whereas 10 years ago, you really had to be able to speak some French if you didn't speak Vietnamese, today most restaurants and hotels have English speakers, and the lights burn late at English-language night schools throughout town.

The French changed written Vietnamese from Chinese characters to Roman letters, which means that Americans can read the well-marked street signs and find their way around with a map. Foreign words are spelled phonetically. If you see the words Ca Phe, it means you can go in and have a cup of tea or a glass of beer.

Plumbing and first-class hotels are still a problem in Hanoi. But later this year or next, the graceful old pre-World War II Metropole will be reopened after a top-to-bottom refurbishing by France's Pullman company. It promises to be the premier hotel of Indochina.

With economic reforms, the gloomy old capital of what was once North Vietnam is blossoming with consumer merchandise from China, Taiwan and Singapore. Cafes have sprung up like toadstools after a summer rain, and there are restaurants catering to foreigners.

There are more and more foreigners these days. More countries are opening embassies -- the Canadians have recently opened theirs -- and businessmen from Singapore, Japan, Australia and especially Taiwan are coming in with joint ventures and development money.

But if Hanoi is still a comparatively quiet, strolling city like Boston, wicked old Saigon is Vietnam's New York -- all bustle and go-go with far more crime than you find in the north. Its official name, Ho Chi Minh City, is almost never used conversationally, and with the motorbikes swarming around the city and everyone out to make a buck, one wonders who really won the war.

Saigon hotels are more than adequate, and foreign businessmen are even more in evidence than in Hanoi. Bars and prostitution are back big time in Saigon, and, to cater to Taiwanese lechers who pay premiums for virgins, an operation has been devised to restore at least the semblance of innocence.

Because of the grip that "Nam" still holds on the American psyche, Saigon is destined to become a must for American tourists on the Southeast Asian circuit. And while beach resorts in Thailand are being spoiled and polluted by badly planned development, Vietnam has a thousand miles of the best and least spoiled beaches in Asia -- perhaps the world -- between Saigon and Hanoi, with airport runways that can take any size jet spaced every 300 or 400 miles along the way -- the legacy of the American presence.

Da Nang has a first-class air base, used by the Americans and then the Soviets, just waiting to become a tourist's gateway with the famous China Beach 15 minutes away.

Other coastal towns, such as Nha Trang, with its monuments of ancient civilizations, and the imperial capital of Hue with its old walled city, the tombs of kings and pagodas on the banks of the Perfume River, will impress even the most jaded tourists. The interior of Vietnam is filled with the spectacular mountains of the Annimite Cordillera and the old French hill station of Dalat, where big-game hunters used to come to shoot tigers and forest oxen and which is cool even in the worst of the hot season.

But you better come quickly. There is not much chance that the Vietnamese are going to handle tourism and development any better than the Thais have, and the bicycle rickshaws of today are quickly giving way to the full-throated roar of the motorbike. Phnom Penh and Saigon have already succumbed. The humid air of Hanoi will soon be mixed with the choking fumes of badly burned gasoline that redden the eyes and coat the skin in Bangkok and Manila. The graceful trees that line every street will soon die or be chopped down to allow for more traffic, and airless cinder-block boxes are already beginning to replace the high-ceilinged rooms that the French left behind. As with Bangkok in the 1960s, there will hardly be time to say bonjour before it is time to say Hanoi adieu.

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