"To anyone who visits here, I always say you need to come to the north to see what Vietnam is all about," says Swiss-born Kurt Walter, general manager of The Press Club restaurant. "Now is the time to visit if you want to see the way it used to be."
Hanoi reveals itself through the things it chooses to preserve from those 1,000 years. Foremost is the yellowing, eerie-looking body of Ho Chi Minh, preserved in a glass sarcophagus inside a stately mausoleum guarded by stern soldiers. Beloved "Uncle Ho," who headed the communist government until his death in 1969, enjoys holier-than-Elvis status, and every year thousands of pilgrims visit the sprawling complex that houses the mausoleum, his former stilt-house residence, a museum and the presidential palace.
Equally evocative for Americans are the remnants of the Vietnam War, here called the American War. Hoa Lo Prison, built by the French in 1896 and later nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton when it housed American prisoners of war, was mostly demolished to make way for two residential high-rises. But a small area is preserved as a gloomy museum where one of the "highlights" is a display of Navy pilot John McCain's parachute and flight suit, worn when he was captured in 1967 after his plane was shot down and crashed into Truc Bach Lake. Thoughtfully, the plaque has been updated to reflect the now-senator's 2008 presidential bid.
A few blocks away, nearly hidden behind some houses in a non-descript neighborhood, is an even more bizarre memorial: an abstract white sculpture and a chunk of the wreckage of a B-52 bomber, arising from the middle of tiny Huu Tiep Lake. Reminders of the 100 years of hated French colonial rule that began in the mid-19th century live on in the grand Parisian-style boulevards and Hanoi Opera house, in the lavish cuisine of restaurants such as La Verticale and Le Beaulieu, and most notably at the posh Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Built in 1901 as one of Asia's most luxurious lodgings, it became a favorite of writers and diplomats before falling on hard times. Now, thanks to recent restorations, it's possible to sit by the pool under a bamboo canopy, sip a proper gin and tonic, and imagine that it's 1952 and Graham Greene is at the bar across the way.
Paradoxically, time seems most jumbled in the Old Quarter, whose chaotic maze of 13th-century streets still serves as a vital center for commerce, as well as dining and beer-drinking. Here it's common to see old women in conical straw hats balancing buckets of produce that hang from a wooden pole propped across their shoulders. Defiantly they claim their share of the narrow streets, walking determinedly against the onslaught of motorized traffic.
At Highway4, an Old Quarter gastropub that specializes in the traditional Chinese-influenced cuisine of northern Vietnam, modernization takes a curious form. The restaurant owners have phased out the moonshine infused with crow, bees and silkworms and replaced it with their own brand of elegant rice and fruit liqueurs that carry the slogan "the future of a tradition." (Gecko shots remain on the menu for now, however.)