Cool at the Cape and hip in Hanoi for Western youth

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The Independent Online
AMERICAN novelist James Michener called them The Drifters when he wrote his 1972 classic. After being chased from their latest capital, Prague, by rising prices and westernisation, the world's young idealists have chosen three cities on different continents as the places to be for the mid-1990s.

Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, is attracting thousands of young migrants from the US and Britain; Cape Town is becoming a haven for black westerners and Tallinn, the Estonian capital, is taking over from Prague as the Bohemian capital of Europe.

All over Hanoi, young westerners, sweating in the sweltering summer heat, can be seen drinking and exchanging pleasantries in basic Vietnamese with local people, delighted to meet foreigners after years of isolation.

Although some westerners may arrive intending just to "hang out" and smoke marijuana, they quickly adapt to the dynamic enterprise-led scene - or move on. In a city where restaurants and bars are still scarce, and where wages are minimal by western standards, there is no casual labour.

Young entrepreneurs speak highly of the enthusiasm of the local people to make money, and of their willingness to cooperate with the newcomers.

"What I like about it is the rawness: there are no big businessmen in ties drinking beer. It's just the local people and us," said Nicky Friedlein, a 25-year-old British fashion designer who emigrated earlier this month.

The city's allure is particularly tempting for a community of more than 1,000 young Americans who had been brought up to believe that Vietnam, where more than 39,000 US troops lost their lives between 1962 and 1973, was a place of evil.

The Vietnamese capital is still a difficult place to live, with primitive medical facilities, undrinkable tap water and few creature comforts. Many new arrivals quickly become acquainted with the "extras' they have to pay.

"On my first day here," a 26-year-old British ex-pat said, "I was in a friend's apartment when a policeman walked in, took a beer out of the fridge and sat down and started watching TV." Regular payments to the police ensured there was no repeat performance.

Five years ago, the idea of black Americans flocking to apartheid South Africa would have sounded even more unlikely than Americans going to Hanoi. But Cape Town, the country's most beautiful (and most liberal) city is proving a magnet for African Americans determined to "rediscover their roots".

Kosi Mbuse, 25, an electronics engineer from Los Angeles, went to visit Cape Town after the country's first free elections last year, and decided to stay. He quickly got a job with a local management consultancy keen to employ blacks as part of its affirmative action policy.

"It's truly amazing," he said, from his apartment in the opulent suburb of Rondsbosch, with its views of Table Mountain. "As an African-American you get a special welcome. It's easy to find a job."

Nathaniel Viney, 27, emigrated from Reading, Berkshire, last year, and is earning a living working as a waiter in the Hard Rock Cafe in the beachside suburb of Sea Point. "It was great to see white people's faces drop when they heard this black man talking English better than they do," he said. "The atmosphere is so relaxed here."

But Cape Town's attractions - the culture, the developed infrastructure, the sophisticated nightlife - mean visitors have little to do with the poverty of the "real" Africa. The small community of western blacks is earning the resentment of some of the local black population, already angered by the immigration of tens of thousands of people from the rest of Africa.

"They say they're coming home to their `roots', but they're as American as John Wayne. Anyway, their ancestors came from West Africa, 5,000 miles away," said Mohammed Fouad, a saxophonist from a "coloured" (mixed-race) township.

Back in Europe, the streets of Tallinn are buzzing this summer with young westerners. Many of then have moved to Estonia in the last few months and earn a living giving English 1essons.

"There are teaching opportunities, business opportunities, and a great pub and music scene," said Laine Koiva, cultural assistant at the US embassy in Tallinn. She said the first wave of American emigres were Estonian- Americans like herself, visiting their parents' country for the first time. Now the old town is buzzing with recently-graduated Americans looking for part-time jobs.

Sharon Wood, 22, who graduated from an English university last year, moved over after "being told to piss off by every bloody employer in Britain", and found jobs teaching English and giving electric guitar lessons.

"Everybody loves you here if you're English, which makes itfun," she shouted over the blare of music in an Irish pub in the city centre.

But already there are dark clouds on the horizon for the Bohemian community in this Baltic state; although the general cost of living is cheap, rents for flats, as in the capitals of many other former Eastern-bloc countries, are soaring.

It now costs more than pounds 150 a month for a flat in a decent area of town, and may new arrivals are finding they can only afford to live in the drab high-rise suburb of Lasnamae, a concrete jungle which is a long way from the vision of a fairy-tale Baltic city.

Already, feelers are moving out for the next nirvana. Traders in Kabul, Tehran and Pyongyang should stock up on spare guitar strings and Diet Coke.