If Vietnam as a whole surprises with its beauty, Hanoi surprises even more. The capital retains the mood and architecture of French colonial rule, and its many lakes and cool weather make it even more attractive.

Hanoi was a city to which I brought no expectations, no prepainted mental pictures, not even leftover images from the war.It was a strange pleasure to arrive so ignorant. And it made Hanoi a traveler's dream: a place so remote, I'd never even dreamed of it, an unknown city in an undiscovered country.

In Saigon, every step touched off ripples of memory. In Hanoi, every corner was a surprise. Every building, every street I walked down was a revelation. It was like finding a new page in the atlas, or a hidden room in the geographer's attic.

And the city is charming. There is no better word for its gracefully decrepit French colonial buildings, its tree-lined streets and myriad lakes.

Best of all, the war felt distant here. It shouldn't have. This was the enemy stronghold, after all, Ho Chi Minh's headquarters, the forbidden city that Jane Fonda made headlines by visiting mid-conflict.

That had seemed like yesterday in Saigon. But in Hanoi, despite monuments and museums commemorating Uncle Ho, I hardly gave the war a thought.

In the north, I was aware of a longer past, stretching back through hundreds of years and dozens of wars.

Hanoi still has an Old Quarter, for example - the remains of an ancient walled city, a tight maze where narrow streets twist and coil back on each other. The walls are gone - except for one carefully restored city gate - but the color of local life survives.

The streets are named for the crafts that medieval guilds once plied here - Hat Street, Mat Street, Tin Street, Medicine Street (still a center for herbalists and traditional pharmaceuticals) and my favorite, Paper Street, so bedecked with red and gold banners, emblems, cutouts and fluttering gift wrap that the shop fronts sparkled.

The rest of central Hanoi is recognizably French, full of colonial-era buildings that recall provincial railroad stations and small-town city halls across France.

Typically stuccoed in yellow or cream, with green shutters and wedding-cake trim, they range from artistically seedy to pastry-pretty, depending on maintenance; either way, they're dramatically un-Asian.

As in many historic communities around the world, Hanoi's past survived largely because of poverty. The North, impoverished by warfare, didn't have the money to tear stuff down.

But that is changing fast. Thanks to foreign investment and the wrecking ball, old French and Vietnamese structures are going down all over the city, replaced by modern multistory offices and tall, narrow hotels and apartments, designed to make the most of even the smallest lot.

An ironic example: At the "Hanoi Hilton" - the infamous prison on Hua Lo Street where American POWs were held - cranes poked above its yellow walls. I stepped inside an open gate and got a glimpse of construction equipment in the courtyard before workers in hard hats shooed me out. What's going up in its place? A real hotel.

A bigger reminder of our presence already has vanished, though I wouldn't have known if my American friend hadn't pointed it out.

The sewer-like bomb shelters that dotted Hanoi sidewalks during the war are gone now, filled in and bricked over. You can spot them only if you look hard for color differences in the paving stones.

What I liked best about Hanoi was Hoan Kiem Lake. It is not big but it's the lake at the city's heart: a well-loved, well-used scrap of tranquility in the midst of 3 million people.

Its legend only adds to its appeal: This is where the golden turtle took back Emperor Le Loi's magic sword.

Le Loi is a real hero. In 1427, he drove the Chinese out of Vietnam, after yet another long struggle. The gods lent him a sword to help, but he didn't give it back after the victory. One day, when Le Loi was out boating here, a huge golden turtle rose from the water, grabbed the sword and sank back into the depths, returning it to its rightful owners.

Echoes of King Arthur and Excalibur. But Arthur's story lacks the inspiration that Le Loi still brings to the Vietnamese. It also lacks the not-so-mythical turtle.

You can see it preserved in an island pagoda reached by an antique bridge that looks like a red wooden rainbow. It's a real turtle, 6 feet long, the size of a small bear, taxidermied and varnished till it gleams, like gold, of course. It also wears a winsome little smile.

The creature was found dead - not captured, a sign notes - floating on the water in the 1960s. Such turtles, it says, can live 500 years, which puts this one squarely within Le Loi's era. I'd like to think they at least saw each other.

My hotel was near the lake, and Hoan Kiem's rhythms became part of mine. Each morning at dawn, I watched the elderly women gather along the shoreline to do their exercises.

Alone or in little groups, they faced the water, rhythmically swinging their arms and legs, bending, stooping, rotating their heads, stretching. Silhouetted against the silvery surface, they could have been priestesses communing with the sun.

Night was just as mystical. One evening, after a performance of Hanoi's quaintly appealing water puppets, I walked home alone, along the lakeshore.

For a world capital, this one turns in early. It was only about 10:30, but traffic was so light I could cross streets without fear, and there was almost nobody near the lake.

That made me uneasy, until my eyes got accustomed to the darkness: There were still people here after all. Young families walking their children home, elderly ladies chatting on park benches, men fishing from shore. Several times I passed close enough to unseen fishermen to hear their lines whirr as they cast.

There were even a few lovers, snuggling and whispering on benches, but not really necking. I'd heard that public displays of affection are rare, but public displays of tenderness are different, and there were plenty of those around Hoan Kiem.

The neighborhood felt intimate, like a small town, peaceful, old-fashioned and - a relief for any urban American - safe.

Partly because it was pleasant, partly as a test, I sat down on a bench under a dim street light and wrote in my journal for 20 minutes, something I would never do at night at home. Nobody hassled me or even approached.

A peculiarity that Communist countries share - along with architecture as thrilling as a college dorm - is the enshrined mummy of The Leader. Vietnam is no exception. There's Mao Zedong in Beijing, Lenin in Red Square, and Ho in Hanoi, in a huge, gray stone cube in a huge, empty square.

But when I went to pay the obligatory visit, the cube was closed; the body needs special treatment once a year, I was told.

No matter: One evening, near Hoan Kiem Lake, I thought I saw his ghost. I had passed a tiny shop, not much wider than a good-sized desk; the old man seated there in the lamplight looked so familiar that I did a double take. A sign by the door offered consultations in traditional medicine. I had been fighting a bad cough for a week, so I went in.

The old healer was thin and lanky, his white shirt loose on his bones. He had long white hair that flowed down over his shoulders and a white beard that feathered out near his waist. With his white raiment, he looked angelic, except for his cigarette-stained fingers. Had Ho been a chain smoker too? I wondered.

In awkward French, I described my symptoms. Delicately, he took hold of my wrist, taking the pulse, and suggested I try his for comparison. We sat there for a moment, taking each other's pulses in the lamplight.

His throbbed loud and steady. Mine, he said, was weak, and I believed him. I looked at mysterious boxes and bottles arrayed on the shelves around him and wondered what potion he had in mind for me.

No medicines, he said, just drink more fluids, especially lemon and orange juices, and rest. I asked how much I owed him. Nothing, he said, benignly as any saint, and bowed slightly as I left.

That was one of the warmest moments I had in Hanoi, and because they came rarely, Hanoi felt more reserved than Saigon, more distant, less outgoing.

No one was ever unpleasant to me, but no one was particularly friendly either. People smiled back (or not), but they never smiled first. They simply went about their business, looking serious, the way people do in any big city.

Perhaps, I rationalized, it's because Hanoi has been a capital for so long, starting with French Indochina. Or maybe it's a factor of northern-ness, even though this north isn't that much cooler than its south.

It also had to have something to do with the fact that fewer people in the north spoke English, and I had trouble even pronouncing the Vietnamese word for "hello."

Whatever the reason, the reserve felt familiar. It reminded me of Minneapolis. But unlike the lakes and the shade trees, it didn't make me feel at home.

This lack of communion grated on me; I felt more like a tourist in Hanoi than I had in the south, and that was part of why I gravitated to Hoan Kiem Lake: It helped me feel connected with the people.

Except for Ho's ghost, I'd mostly met exiles in the north. Most of them were Vietnamese refugees, back from the United States to visit relatives or check out business opportunities.

The most interesting exile was an American dynamo named Barbara Cohen, a former U.S. military psychiatrist who was stationed in Da Nang in the early 1970s. The experience changed her, and about five years ago she gave up her home and career in the States to live in a one-room flat in Hanoi, where she writes articles for English-language publications and explores her favorite city.

She spent hours introducing me to hidden temples, hole-in-the-wall soup stalls, the historic Old Quarter and the north's unique art form, water puppetry, a whimsical Punch-and-Judy show in which the stage is liquid, and the wooden puppets rise, like the golden turtle, from the water.

Fascinating as all this was, I didn't know until the last moment what any North Vietnamese really thought of my presence here, above the old wartime border.

Then, on my last morning in the country, with a taxi waiting to take me to the Hanoi airport, I walked over to Hoan Kiem Lake to say goodbye.

I stood there for a couple of minutes, memorizing the pagodas' reflections and the way people on the benches were framed by the gently moving branches of the trees. Then I turned to go.

A frail, urgent voice called after me - "Bon jour, madame!" It was an old woman in peasant clothes and a conical hat. She looked poor enough to be a beggar, and I expected her to ask for money, as others had in Hanoi.

Instead, she asked, "Are you French?" and I felt a tingle of deja-vu. This woman was a survivor, old enough, I knew, to remember French colonial days, to remember the Japanese occupation in World War II, the return of the French afterward, the battles leading to Dien Bien Phu, and of course the war with us.

Most likely, she'd even taken refuge from our planes in a few of those sidewalk bomb shelters. "No, from America," I told her, wondering, as I had so often on this trip, what the reaction would be.

She smiled broadly and said the same words I had first heard in Saigon, a thousand miles and a thousand moments earlier:

"Bienvenue - welcome to Vietnam!"

I had a whirling sense of coming full-circle. Even here, I thought, even in the sober, reticent north, the people had gotten past the war. I left Vietnam that morning feeling I'd not only been welcomed, but welcomed as an American - and forgiven.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)