Long Bien Bridge - Gustave Eiffel's Bridge in Hanoi took a direct hit in May 1972,

Previously – Moving to Hanoi

Hanoi – First impressions

I decided I would celebrate my first evening in Hanoi with 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. Whisky drinkers will understand this.

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 130,000 Dong, which is about £4.

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 30,000 dong, or ninety-two of Her Majesty’s new pence. 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. That explains why I was the only person in there.

Street eating will take some getting used to though.

The smartly dressed businessman on my left simply spat any gristle out on the floor, at his polished shoes, and the truly beautiful, classy girl opposite me delicately extracted any small bones with her chopsticks and then tossed them 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 hers…

Albert Jack in Hanoi
Albert Jack in Hanoi

My next and most important task of the evening was to find a bottle store for the whisky, which also turns out to be next door to the hotel. I didn’t go far on that day. I am happy to report that a decent local whisky, called Wall Street, costs around £4.50 and ten packets of smokes is about the same.

I 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 144-years-old. I did the math.

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 25% 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 on 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 three dimensional as the Mother and Father of all thunderstorms rolled in. From my 11th floor balcony I was treated to something of a show.

The flashing and the hammering and the cracking, vibrating and rattling was some 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’s 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 rebuilt thanks to private donations funded by American citizens.

All in all 741 sorties dropped around 16,000 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 an 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.

AhhH, I have just realized why the head receptionist downstairs is taking French lessons three times a week, whilst her English is 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 was another American activist in the same mould as Jane Fonda, actually was the one staying at the Metropole at the time and did have to take shelter in the basement.

So I now know exactly how she must have felt. Well, ok, I wasn’t hiding in the cellar. Nor was I shivering in the sewers like the many of the local folk. Oh, and there weren’t any B52 Bombers screaming overhead either, or anything exploding. And no shrapnel cutting people to ribbons, or any anti aircraft fire either.

What else? Oh, of course, there weren’t over 2000 homes destroyed or 1624 bodies to bury the following morning. I didn’t feel any fear, see anything on fire or hear any screaming.

Now that I think about it I haven’t got a clue what it was really like in 1972 have I? It was only a thunderstorm last night.

Part three next week

by Albert Jack in Hanoi.