Good morning Vietnam: A weekend in Hanoi, the rising city of bars, bikes, buzz and bucks
An ethereal, ghostly mist shrouds Hanoi before sun-up and the city's early morning traffic is nothing but a quiet hum. Yet there's more life on the street than you might expect at this hour. Dozens of locals gather beside the shores of West Lake in the Tay Ho area to gently practise tai chi. Fishermen wobble precariously on stepping stones as they cast their lines into the grey waters.
Street life: Hanoi is a busy, crowded city where life never seems to stop
But it's not all tradition in this part. Tay Ho - in the north of the city - is a fashionable hot-spot. Can an old-style communist suburb be described as such? Apparently so.
A local man tells me there is at least one Ferrari in town now, that Western opera is popular, and that a decent house near West Lake would set me back $1million dollars. He is, however, an estate agent. Yet everything he says shows how times have changed in this once red city.
Tay Ho is also home to the Fraser Suites, another un-Socialist addition. I am staying in a luxurious serviced apartment with giddying views of the city; it's an economic, stylish alternative to one of the larger international hotels. I also find new restaurants and bars mushrooming.
Bobby Chinn has relocated his eponymous eatery around the corner. The red lantern-clad restaurant is so atmospheric (read dark) that magnifying glasses and torches come with the menus.
Luckily, excellent eating is still a bargain in Hanoi - £15 a head, plus booze, should cover it in a trendy restaurant; double that for a sumptuous feast.
And if you brave one of the street vendors, then budget for a few thousand dong.
The local currency takes some getting used to - the numbers involved are so huge. There's about 31,000 dong to the pound, so changing a hundred quid (sterling is easily exchanged) makes you an instant multi-millionaire.
The half a million dong I pay for a silk shirt is well shy of £20.
Of course, shopping is a prime reason to visit this fascinating place. In Tay Ho you'll find Dome, a top-drawer interiors boutique (great for lacquer-ware, soft furnishings and furniture). But I love the old quarter, Hoan Kiem district.
It's a 20-minute cab ride from Tay Ho to the city centre and oriental retail nirvana. Rich embroideries, spices, clothing and shoes, ceramics, teas, fake sunglasses, exotic lampshades, bundles of silk, ornamental birdcages and musical instruments vie for attention alongside T-shirts, antique shops, incense stalls and contemporary art galleries.
Towering presence: Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum ensures that Vietnam's former leader 'lives' on
Street florists are everywhere. I take my time, soak up the atmosphere, browse and hone my bargaining skills.
This industrious show of capitalism intrigue me, and I ask my guide if the government's grip on the country has relaxed. Judging from his nervous reaction, I assume some aspects of living under one party remain firmly unchanged.
Nothing had prepared me for the anarchy on Hanoi's streets. The roads throng with bicycles and mopeds - and crossing them is hair-raising. I need refreshment to calm my nerves.
My yin and yang are restored in Wild Lotus, one of Hanoi's most glamorous restaurants in the adjacent French quarter. This is a buzzy place in a colonial art deco mansion with gilded walls and discreetly lit art works. Carrie Bradshaw and the girls would feel at home here.
Cua bay sot me (deep-fried soft shell crab in tamarind sauce) is delicious, and as none of the main dishes costs much more than a fiver, you can experiment.
But only a philistine would come to Hanoi without seeing some of the many ancient pagodas, temples and cultural sites. And no visitor should miss out on paying their respects to Ho Chi Minh.
The granite mausoleum - it looks like a huge Thirties drinks cabinet - housing his mortal remains has imbued a cult of personality around him.
Uncle Ho, as he's affectionately known, lies permanently in state like a communist Snow White in a crystal casket, preserved by the dab hands of Russian embalmers. Don't be put off by the long queues. They move quickly, and this is a chance to witness a blink of history.
Four days in the city should be enough for the casual visitor, then you'll need to explore farther afield. I head to Ha Long Bay, a three-and-a-half-hour drive to the north-east coast.
Finding a boat on which to stay for a few nights is easy - there are plenty of travel agents in Hanoi with deals. I opt for a larger luxury boat with about 30 cabins, but on reflection wish I had chosen a smaller junk.
The jostling crowds of tourists around the wharf are overwhelming. Only when my boat (the Ha Long Emotion) set sail into the bay did the beauty of the place begin to emerge. Strange-shaped islands - there are 2,000 exquisite limestone 'karsts' - rise from the flat calm waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.
Bay of plenty: Ha Long Bay, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Hanoi, is a must-see sight
Happily there are no crowds on the islands of Cat Ba national park, and the beauty of the place is dizzying. I paddle a kayak around isolated lagoons accessed through watery grottoes. You don't have to be super-fit - I take to it like a duck to hoisin sauce.
Nearby is Fairy Story Lake Cave. Squeezing through narrow tunnels in the pitch dark, we pop out into a stupendous cavern riddled with stalactites and stalagmites - and a resident spider the size of my hand.
But it's the small water villages that really entrance me. Like brightly coloured garden sheds floating on blue oil drums they house whole communities of fishermen and pearl fishers, and even have schools and floating shops. The entire village is towed into a sheltered lagoon during the typhoon season.
Back on my own floating home I settle down, beer in hand, and watch the sunset. Deep red dramatically fading to pink... just like the politics of Vietnam.