The perfect trip: Vietnam
‘Hanoi is a place that runs in your blood,’ Hien says thoughtfully, sitting cross-legged among stubs of incense sticks and paintbrushes strewn across his studio floor. ‘Had I not lived in this city I might not be able to paint like I do.’
There are reminders of darker chapters in Hanoi’s past among Hien’s collection. He began his career as a Viet Cong propaganda artist – applying brushstrokes in between dashing off to fight the Americans during the Vietnam War – and witnessed the bombing of his home town during Christmas 1972. He shows me propaganda prints of anti-aircraft guns firing into skies above the city, and a giant Vietnamese soldier grabbing an American B-52 bomber from the air with his bare hands, King Kong style. Today, posters like these are in much demand among collectors – yet Hien struggles to paint with the ferocity of his younger years.
‘I can copy these posters technically, but I don’t have the right kind of spirit,’ he says. ‘I try to remember what I was feeling, but I don’t have the same anger any more.’ Like Hien’s artwork, Hanoi too has moved on. Hanging beside his front door is an oil painting of Long Bien Bridge – to many locals, the enduring symbol of Hanoi’s resilience. Blown to pieces by American bombs forty years ago, the bridge has long since been patched up and repaired. It now creaks under the weight of so many scooters passing through.
Where to eat
Little Hanoi offers good-value noodle and rice dishes in an atmospheric dining room where birdcages dangle from the ceiling (main courses from £3; 9 Ta Hien Street).
Where to stay
The Metropole, now owned by Sofitel, dates back to French colonial rule over Vietnam, with interiors that feature smoky wooden floors, glittering chandeliers and whirring ceiling fans. Guests can also explore a rediscovered bunker, where staff and residents sheltered during the bombing of Hanoi in 1972 (from £139).
Sapa: Best for walking
An evening fog hangs over Sapa – a dense, B-movie fog, mingling with smoke rising from bonfires on the valley floor. The clouds sporadically open up a bit to reveal a village, a chunk of a mountain, a patch of jungle, before obscuring them from view again, like stage scenery sliding into the wings.
Eventually the clouds lift, and the Hoang Lien mountain range emerges. It is a landscape of extraordinary beauty – the Asian highlands half-remembered from childhood picture books and martial-arts films. Above are peaks thick to their summits with greenery. Below, rice terraces run down the hillsides at right angles, as neatly as the folds in origami paper. Here and there, water buffalo stumble about rice paddies, chomping on foliage and occasionally looking up to offer gormless looks to passers by.
Sapa is a town where the weather seems to operate on random rotation – switching between brilliant sunshine, thick fog, driving rain and occasionally a dusting of snow, before coming full circle to brilliant sunshine, often all within the space of a few minutes. A hill station settled by Vietnam’s French colonists, Sapa now serves as a trailhead for hikers happy to run the meteorological lottery of a walk in these mountains.
‘We have four seasons in one day here,’ explains Giang Thi Mo, my guide, shimmying along the edge of a rice paddy as a rain cloud approaches. ‘There’s no way to predict the weather – just be lucky!’