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Welcome to Hanoi, mind the motorcycles

A woman admires a new window display put up prior to this week's APEC summit in Hanoi.Photo by NBC's Ian Williams.

Hanoi has a far slower pace after Ho Chi Minh City, though no shortage of the dramatic contrasts that are such a feature of the new Vietnam. Take our hotel – a marvelous Soviet relic that seems somehow stuck in a time warp. Yet just down the road is a raucous new bar, based on the theme of the Wild West, complete with a seven-foot neon cowboy over the entrance.

First the hotel: It's called the Vietnam Trade Union Hotel, a squat eight-story building, close to Hanoi's crumbling colonial-era police headquarters. There are big APEC signs near the entrance, and like much of Hanoi, the place has been given a fresh coat of paint.

There's a gift shop near the Spartan reception area, selling Russian-style Matrushka nesting dolls and key rings with portraits of Russian president Vladimir Putin. There are many sales ladies behind the desk, though it proves enormously difficult to get their attention. A man from the Foreign Ministry tells me that the service culture of the south is still catching on up here.


The NBC team is staying on the fifth floor, which is overseen by two giggling floor ladies – not quite the old babushkas who once oversaw public morals in Russian hotels, but tenacious in their oversight, monitoring comings and goings from a small office near the lifts.

The receptionist tells me they have had WiFi installed in the lobby area, and he shows me a little box with lots of flashing lights, but my computer resolutely refuses to recognize it, and the somewhat deflated receptionist shrugs his shoulders and says the line must be down.

Just around the corner from our hotel there's a large neon hammer and sickle strung across the road – close to that other neon display, the cowboy with the lasso. This is the entrance to the Seventeen Saloon, and if ever there was a sign of the changes and contrasts of the new Vietnam, this is surely it.

When we enter the bar is full of young Vietnamese listening to a six-piece band playing the Eagles classic "Hotel California," followed by a rather garbled version of a song called "What's Going On?" It's a very good question.

The walls are lined with paraphernalia from the Wild West: cowboy boots, whips, images of native Americans and gunfights. Behind the band there's a huge painting of a pair of stagecoaches making their way through a small town, gunslingers lurking in the doorways. One of the many waitresses, dressed like cowgirls from an old B-movie western, asks if we'd like a Heineken and seems disappointed when we ask for the local brew.

The band strikes up a new song: "Baby, Baby, It's a Wild World."

Back on the street, a pavement cafe is packed with youngsters eating noodles, scores of motorcycles parked nearby. This is a city of motorcycles, millions of them. Crossing the street takes skill and experience. Our Vietnamese guide tells us: "Take it slowly, but keep moving and they will drive around you." They do, but it can be unnerving.

There were plenty of motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City, too, but more cars now – a sign of the growing prosperity.

Hanoi is a slower, more conservative city than Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon as most people still call it), though its French-colonial buildings give it an austere charm. Outside our hotel, street sweepers are busy keeping the roads spotless ahead of the arrival of government leaders at the end of the week.

Hanoi has never hosted anything like this, and there is a great deal of pride at stake. The country is in the global spotlight like never before, and they want to present a modernizing, progressive face to the world. They are expecting a flood of visitors – 10,000 of them by the weekend, when leaders of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Summit, among them President Bush, sit down in a new convention center on the outskirts of Hanoi.

Hotels have been booked out for months, with prices going through the roof. The city now has its fair share of top-end places – from the majestic old Metropol, to most of the big western chains. But the VIPs have bagged the best rooms. We don't expect to see President Bush at the Vietnam Trade Union Hotel.

The roads are lined with banners and posters welcoming visitors to APEC, many sponsored by some of the foreign investors now pouring in, who have also painted their logos over new billboards – Microsoft, HSBC, Canon, General Motors, Samsung are all represented.

Yes, things are changing, though you do need a sense of perspective. My reality check comes when the Vietnam Trade Union Hotel's cleaning troupe enter my room. At broom-point I'm ordered off the bed with my files and computer. Can't I see they have a job to do? I sheepishly comply. I'll have to finish this post later.