Red wine, olive oil, chop-sticks

Hanoi is one of the great cultural melting-pots of the world. Graham Greene is everywhere. And so is French cuisine
  • @lucygillmore
Luca Famiglietti sliced the enormous black fig into juicy segments with a flourish. "Fresh from the market in France this very morning," he beamed, full of joie de vivre, an Italian restaurateur proffering French delicacies in the capital of Vietnam.

Nothing was too much trouble. Earlier that day, my friends Andy and Annelise and I had called Il Grillo to ask for a bottle of champagne to be put on ice as we were celebrating a friend's wedding in England. Luca had contacted his supplier, and a few hours later we were relaxing with a bottle of chilled Nicolas Feuillatte Brut - and a French fig, as he regaled us with stories of expat life in Hanoi.

"We just beat the latest blockade on European imports," he confided gleefully, wiping fig juice from the corner of his mouth. "The plane landed at 10.20 and the order came into effect at 11am. The German Ambassador is furious. He was expecting a food package from the UK but Customs sent it straight back!"

Luca and his partner, Attilia Merzari, also run Il Padrino, an Italian bar and delicatessen, which supplies the top hotels in Hanoi with meats, cheeses and coffee, so they rely on their regular monthly delivery from Europe.

Originating from Verona, they were travelling through Hanoi three years ago and liked it so much they decided to stay.

With tartan tablecloths, exposed beams, lamps with crocheted borders, giant cowbells and pictures of cavorting cupids, witches bobbing on broomsticks, a Venetian mask and a cuckoo-clock by the door, Il Grillo is not so much a typical Italian restaurant as an eclectic mix of European memorabilia.

The European expat scene is particularly strong in Hanoi, a city once subject to French colonial rule. The French influence is not only visible in its architecture, but is audible in the cries of "Madame" from the street hawkers who follow you along wide tree-lined boulevards, touting postcards, guide books and copies of The Quiet American by Graham Greene.

Hanoi's tourism is also booming, with reports of 597,800 visitors to the capital in the first half of 1999, an increase of almost 10 per cent on the same period last year. Some now claim that Vietnam has become the "new Thailand" and regard Laos as the "new Vietnam", implying both Vietnam's increasing popularity and accessibility and, as a result, its lessening appeal to more "adventurous" travellers.

However, Hanoi has a very individual appeal and, with an interesting anthropological mix - rather like oil and water - it deserves not to be side-lined.

Hanoi is a city where, in the smart French Quarter, you can be woken by the sound of a cock crowing at 4am, where sophisticated cafe culture mingles with street-kitchen, and where, on the wide stone-flagged pavements, you kick your way through fallen leaves and clumps of thick black hair - left by the street barbers.

From the shaded garden of Au Lac, a cafe opposite the famous Metropole hotel, you can just sit and contemplate the scene. Masked Bandits speed by on their Honda Dreams with long evening gloves pulled high above the elbow, and handkerchiefs tied Lone Ranger-style across their faces to protect them from the sun; cyclo drivers in khaki pith helmets snooze, totally unconcerned about the sun's rays; and women in conical hats sit chatting over baskets of rosy apples.

Down at Hoan Kiem lake, where the French and Old Quarters collide, old men playing chess draw a crowd as benches beneath the trees fill with courting couples. The streets of the Old Quarter are lined with narrow tube-houses, originally old market stalls. Some are only 2m wide due to taxes levied on street frontage, and wares are piled high in teetering pyramids. Large jars of snake wine, a cure for rheumatism apparently, are stocked in grocery stores called Bich & Son, while tailors offering traditional ao dais display reams of brightly coloured silk. Bustling and frenetic, the Old Quarter provides a stark contrast to the more genteel French sector.

Hidden down one of the many tiny backstreets is The Furniture Gallery, situated in the old 19th-century "Quang Lac" theatre. Renowned in its day for traditional folk-dance performances, the theatre was more recently home to the Roxy Disco. The nightclub burned down a year ago but reopened last October as a veritable Aladdin's Cave.

It's a cavernous, eerily majestic setting, lit by large Chinese lanterns with haunting music in the background. The stage is packed with inlaid tables and chairs, ancient stone statues and bronze Buddhas. The owner, Ms Hien, scoured the country for two years to find a unique array of antiques, including a turn-of-the-century French colonial bed and a 200- year-old Chinese wardrobe.

From traditional Vietnamese to expat interior design, Deltadeco is run by Valentina Bottari, a Sicilian who came to Hanoi seven years ago to work for the embassy, and who now considers Vietnam her home. Images of oil and water are evident in her impressions of the city.

"Even in expat society there is the French group and the Italian group. There is no real integration, but it is the differences and mix of cultures that creates the atmosphere."

A small shop on Nha Tho, St Joseph's Cathedral at one end, the Ba Da Pagoda at the other, Deltadeco offers a kind of fusion - a western take on eastern design, with everything from rosewood and buffalo-horn chop- sticks to inlaid photograph frames.

Hanoi is, above all, a city to wander around at your leisure, absorbing the mix of east and west, old and new as a spirit of free enterprise and a relaxed laissez-faire attitude continues to evolve. However, to begin to understand the underlying disparity, a visit to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum is essential.

Depositing bags and cameras at the gate, we were marched silently through the grounds by severe goose-stepping guards. The immense reverence that the Vietnamese hold for their most famous revolutionary is obvious.

Hardly daring to breathe, we were prodded towards the back of a Vietnamese crocodile waiting to pay their respects and ushered in twos through the chilly vault to gaze upon a man who's been dead since 1969. A million miles in attitude from the capitalist scrum around Hoan Kiem Lake, it is a vital component in a society still emerging from its chrysalis.

We were staying in the De Syloia, a boutique-hotel run, not surprisingly, by a charming Frenchman, Jean-Marie Bertrand. However, I was travelling with a couple who were intent on taking the art of backpacking to new heights. For their final night in Vietnam they decamped to the Graham Greene Suite at the Metropole.

Established in 1901, this historic site has played host to many visiting dignitaries but seems destined to be remembered as Greene's favourite haunt. The Metropole retains a certain fading glamour despite the conversion by Sofitel in the early 1990s. The rooms in the old wing are still peppered with antiques, but there is a blandness creeping in and a whiff of anonymity.

Having ensconced themselves in their suite, Andy and Annelise were loathe to leave it even for a second.

They sniffed at my suggestion to return to the Press Club - we had been thrown out at 11pm the night before. Restaurants in Hanoi close early and those that flout the custom have a tendency to burn down. After a trip to Il Padrino to procure a couple of bottles of Luca's finest Italian wine, they proposed instead a private dinner party. French windows opened on to the balcony, the Vietnamese flag fluttering over the General of Tonkin's stately residence across the park, it was an exercise in decadence - not just sunflower but extra virgin olive oil.