I'm in Hanoi for the weekend. I know North Vietnam is a fairly unusual destination for a short break but I'd already done Bruges, and Barcelona is so last year. Actually, the real reason I'm out here is that I needed a bolthole. I was on Anita Anand's Radio Five show a couple of weeks back and was randomly very rude about Swindon.
Some of the town's inhabitants appear to believe it's some sort of Venice in waiting and there was a minor outcry in the local press. Radio Five then thought it would be a bit of a wheeze to do a "Boris Johnson" by hosting a follow-up show "live from Swindon" with me as principal guest/sacrificial pig.
It was pitiful. Spoddy Tory councillors backed by a team of what looked like professional trainspotters turned up to give me an earful and read childish poems they'd written in their garden sheds. It was like being savaged by dead sheep. The following morning, to avoid repercussions, I flew to Hanoi - a city bombed to bits by the US but still 20 times more beautiful than Swindon will ever be.
North Vietnam is one of the last surviving one-party communist states. You realise how much the world has changed in the past 15 years when you feel how weird it is to be in a city where the hammer and sickle still flies over a huge statue of Lenin. Vietnam is slowly liberalising with her own version of glasnost, called doi moi, but still keeps a fairly tight leash over her citizens. It's the Tet festival here at the moment, which marks the Lunar New Year and, in honour of this, the president - Nguyen Minh Triet, but you knew that - gave an interview to the local English-language paper, The Vietnam News. When I say an interview, it's actually a toady piece called "The President Reflects" in which he says things such as: "The capability of our cadres has been improved to a new level, quickly meeting the demands of new tasks and launching the economy to an overall high for the first quarter of this year." Thrilling! I bet our PM longs for the chance to "reflect" without being yelled at by John Humphrys.
I know it's wrong, but I love going to totalitarian countries. The "free" world is so homogenised that wandering through these "rogue" states with their idiosyncratic cultures and general weirdness is the closest we can still get to true travel. In fact, I think my three favourite cities that I've visited in the last 20 years are probably Hanoi, Damascus and Prague. They all have a connection: beautiful cities in differing states of political flux.
Living in Prague in 1991 I probably had the best of both worlds: the odious communist regime had just been ousted, but there was no sign of the impending corporate invasion that would turn that fabulous city into a beery medieval theme park for stag parties.
The Damascus I visited a couple of years ago had just witnessed the death of the wily Hafez al-Assad and there was a hope that his Western-educated son Bashar would let go of the reins a touch. I wandered the tight, winding alleys of this, one of the capitals of the "Axis of Evil", sucking in the atmosphere and energy. Beautiful old Arab houses concealed huge interior courtyards with hidden restaurants and coffee shops. Despite the political situation between Syria and the West, I never encountered a moment's aggression or unpleasantness (Swindon, take note).
And now I'm in central Hanoi, sitting on a café balcony overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake and all is right with the world. It's their New Year's Eve, fireworks are starting to light up the cityscape to welcome in the Year of the Golden Pig, the air is thick with the smell of incense. Below me, the beautiful chaos of the city-centre traffic pulsates with an energy and passion never seen in the UK, save for the odd football riot.
Maybe we're missing something. Maybe some all-powerful but economically liberal dictatorship is what a town like Swindon needs. If so, then all that's required is an enigmatic, charismatic leader to appear from the East... That's decided then. The revolution starts the moment I get home. People of Swindon unite: you have nothing to lose but your chain stores.Reuse content