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AT dawn, the capital of Vietnam looks and smells much like the rice-paddy villages that lie across the Red River.

On the Cau Long Bien bridge, thousands of peasants pedal into Hanoi each day on old bicycles - some without brakes - bringing cabbages, ducks, or smuggled Chinese goods for the city's street markets. Rickshaws carry everything from pigs for slaughter to young women heading for hair salons.

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Other farmers, most of them in the black pajama-like pants of the rural northern Vietnamese, walk with a weighty gait under a balanced yoke of rice-laden baskets.

They head past city shops displaying the new wares of capitalism in this Communist-run country. Japanese motorcycles and American fashions were unavailable in Hanoi only a few years ago. This romantic relic of a city is only now waking up to the 20th century, after being sidelined over half a century by five wars.

What remains is a village-like coziness of people who all seem to know each other's business, combined with a gentle pace of a colonial-era city left largely untouched. The city retains a human touch with few of the ochre-colored French-era buildings reaching above their neighbors. Dotted with small lakes, Hanoi is a city for artists, writers, thinkers - and warriors. Vehicle traffic is so sparse that the few stoplights are almost unneeded.

The gentle ambience is probably much the same that Ho Chi Minh knew earlier in the century. The influence of French colonial rule is still strong. Older men walk about wearing red berets, as if at a convention of French poets. People sit curbside along broad tree-lined roads to read books, eat fresh baguettes, or watch the scene go by. A scarcity of cars keeps the dust and noise low.

Founded in 1010, the old Hanoi can be found in the ``36 streets'' quarter, a crisscross of small streets with goods spilling out onto narrow sidewalks. Each street is named for a type of product sold there. Baskets? Find Hang Bo. Fish? Hang Ca. Fans? Hang Quat. The lamp-oil street, Hang Dao, now sells such items as sunglasses.

The antique homes, some hundreds of years old, have been saved by poverty and the bad aim of United States bombers. Only a few monuments remain to the war with the US. The infamous ``Hanoi Hilton,'' where American prisoners-of-war were once kept, is becoming a commercial complex. Memories of the war are thin, brought to mind only by American tourists. Within a couple months, the US will open a diplomatic mission in Hanoi, nearly 20 years after North Vietnam took over the south.

Today, about a million people live in Hanoi, many of them intimately, because of a lack of housing. While the city retains its identity as an intellectual center, most Hanoians are country folk who often take dip baths on the street.

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Down dim alleys are old courtyards that give way to still Buddhist pagodas or small gardens of bamboo. In these ancient places, the Vietnamese built their civilization and still replenish their hearts. The soul of the city is seen in the works of its many painters and writers, who have thrived on war and now on the opening up of the economy.

French colonists, who captured Hanoi in 1882 and left it in defeat in 1954 (often commemorated in stamps, below left), built most of Hanoi's major buildings, such as an opera house, railroad station, and cathedral. The French regarded Hanoi as their cultural outpost in the Orient.

``At Singapore, at Saigon, one exists. At Hanoi, one lives,'' wrote a Frenchman in the last century.

Today, as then, Hanoi is filled with the colors of a gentler age, having been bypassed by much that is considered progress. The blues of old shutters, the patina of ancient tiles, the multihues of curving rooftops all speak vividly to visitors. The skyline from atop a building is a mosaic of roofs set against distant rice paddies.

One landmark building is the Beaux Arts-style opera house, renamed the Municipal Theater. Built by the French in 1911, it preserves an ambience for even the most ideological of modern performances. For many visitors, the old charm is found in the Metropole Hotel, once home to Somerset Maugham and other writers. The classic hotel has been restored by a French company into an expensive luxury hotel reminiscent of colonial days.

But with private enterprise now allowed, change is rapid and few residents care to keep, or keep up, the old buildings. Officials are trying hard to preserve the old buildings, hoping that Hanoi can become a mecca for tourists seeking ``old Asia.''

But amid the live ducks, songbirds, and snakes for sale at Hanoi's peasant market are the portents of things to come: cordless phones, posters of MTV rock stars, and videos of American sitcoms.

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