As a business owner I sometimes have to travel. The fact is that I love travelling, but during the average business trip there is unfortunately never quite enough time to really get to know your destination. I try to make the best of the situation though and spend every free minute sightseeing and savouring the food of the city where I find myself.
Recently I had to fly to Hanoi in Vietnam for a few days for an important business meeting. I must admit that I knew very little about the city and its people before I left. I had heard horror stories about the communist regime, so at the back of my mind I expected a dull, grey city with citizens sombrely going about their daily activities.
What I found was completely the opposite. Hanoi is a bustling (and apparently thriving) city with more signs of being a free market economy than one sees in London. Everywhere, and I mean everywhere, people are selling things. On the streets, at traffic lights and even while you’re sitting at a pavement café, hawkers will approach you with a kaleidoscopic variety of products.
To me the most interesting part of the city was the area called the ’36 streets’. Here every street is dedicated to the manufacture of some or other specific type of product. On one street you will find small businesses making kitchen products; on another street it will be silver jewellery and yet another street will specialise in bamboo curtains.
The Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of the city is a beehive of activity at any time of the day or night. There are lots of restaurants and food vendors and every morning a lot of fitness-conscious Vietnamese can be found jogging around the lake.
I had time for a brief visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the embalmed body of the famous North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh can be viewed. The long queues clearly show how popular he really was.
The tour leader told us to leave our cameras on the bus, but I had no intention of having my rather expensive palm-sized camera stolen, so I slipped it into my shirt pocket. And that’s where the trouble started, because one of the security guards found it and I was summarily taken to a back room to be questioned by the police. It took them two hours to find an English-speaking officer who then proceeded to bombard me with different variations of the same questions. Eventually they got bored and let me go, but not before I started seeing images of myself being locked up in a communist jail for attempted spying.
I have to add, that despite this experience, the average Vietnamese person was wonderfully friendly and warm. I would go back without the slightest hesitation and if the deal I went to negotiate comes through it might happen sooner rather than later.