Just Say Go, June 12, 2009
Walking the streets of Hanoi is like traveling back in time to several countries all at once. The historic city is an mélange of different cultures and outside influences, especially the French, who ruled Hanoi from the 1850s to the 1950s. French architecture abounds, and French wine dominates the wine lists at most restaurants. Wide, tree-lined streets, enormous palaces in the French Quarter and an Opera House that mimics its Parisian counterpart make you feel as though you are walking the streets of Paris.
For the ultimate luxurious French experience, a stay at the Hotel Metropole is a must. Yes, it’s pricey for Vietnam, but if you can swing it financially do so, as a stay there offers a respite from Hanoi’s busy streets and the opportunity to stay in one of the world’s finest hotels for less than you’d pay for a hotel in Manhattan. Although the historic wing first allured us – the hotel opened in 1901 – we opted to stay on the Club Floor of the Opera Wing, which was well worth the extra cost. A stay here makes you feel like a celebrity, which is reason why recent guests have included Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Fidel Castro and princes and princess from around the globe.
The airport is located about an hour away, so treat yourself to a ride from one of the hotel’s vintage Citroen cars, a fun way to start off your stay that includes cold scented towels, water and decadent cookies for the ride into town. A stay in the Opera Wing also includes a one-hour city tour during your stay, a great way to get your bearings. As we arrived, our butler – yes, a stay on the Club Floor includes your very own butler – greeted us. There’s no check-in desk, as you check in at your room, accompanied by a welcome fruit cocktail, another nice touch. The butler will even unpack your luggage for you so that you can start sightseeing immediately.
To start things off, head to the Old Quarter located just beyond the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. The Old Quarter is a maze of streets, all of which are named after what was once – or still is – sold there, such as Toy Street. Beware of the hawkers with shoulder-poles who try to place the heavy instruments carrying produce on your shoulder for a photo opportunity – they are very heavy and can be painful. A polite, “no” will suffice. There’s great shopping to be found around the Old Quarter (much better than the huge enclosed market nearby), as well as countless backpacker hotels, restaurants and bars. One of our favorites was Le Pub, which has great outdoor dining to watch the world go by, cheap beer and fantastic Bub Bo Nam Bo, a meat, lettuce and noodle dish that is to die for. For a more authentic Vietnamese experience, check out Boi Han Hanoi near the Old Quarter, a large open-air restaurant. We were the only tourists the day we were there, and the menu includes exotic foods (some of which were kind of scary) and great local draft beer for about 50 cents a glass. It’s a fun place where you’re bound to end up talking to locals all night.
After a delicious breakfast at the hotel (it’s included for guests on the Club Floor and is served in the spacious 7th floor Club Metropole), it’s off to sightsee. There’s enough in Hanoi to keep you busy for a week, but if you just have a few days, start your day off with a walk by Hoan Kiem Lake; be sure to look for turtles in the lake – a sighting will bring you good luck according to local folklore. Next, head to Hoa Lo Prison, aka the “Hanoi Hilton.” Admission is about 35 cents. Built by the French in 1896, it was taken over by Vietnamese in 1954 and is most famous for being a POW prison during the Vietnam War (or, the “American War” as it’s called in Vietnam.) Here you can see the gruesome detention methods used by the French for Vietnamese political prisoners, including the guillotine room, as well as Sen. John McCain’s flight suit when he was shot down during the war and spent time here. The videos are interesting as they paint a portrait of the “kind and gracious” treatment the Americans received. Note that like most attractions in Vietnam, the prison is closed from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
On your way back toward the hotel, duck into one of Hanoi’s classic tube houses at 87 May May Street. These interesting homes are open to the public for a small fee and show how for years, residents ran a business in the front section, beautiful courtyards abound in the middle and the back was used for housing. Since residents were taxed based on their street frontage, these long narrow homes were deliberately skinny.
After sightseeing each day, we made our way back to the Hotel Metropole, where every day starting at 4:30 p.m. on the Club Level, there was a huge spread of delicious food – foie gras spring rolls were my favorite – so big that some nights we skipped dinner (although one night we ate at the hip Angelina’s in the Metropole, where you can try six tapas for $15, all of which were delicious). Also enjoy the artistic martinis where an entire lime is used to create a twist that is wrapped around the stem or the mixed drinks that utilize a chopstick as the stirrer. The service was so amazing that the staff insisted on carrying our cocktails back to the room after we finished and knew us by name.
If you have a second day in Hanoi, get up early and go to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, which is only open Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday, 8-11 a.m., and is free to visit. It’s a bit of a walk from the hotel but not bad; you can’t miss it – it’s an enormous granite structure modeled after Lenin’s tomb. Here you can see the local hero who is embalmed despite his wishes to be cremated. Note that shorts and sleeveless shirts are prohibited.
As we left for Halong Bay (the hotel graciously allowed us to store the rest of our luggage there for a few days so that we would not have to carry it all on the boat), our butler, who had cleverly deduced where we were going through casual talks at breakfast, had the weather forecast for our next destination printed out for us so that we – or he – could pack accordingly. So this is how celebrities live?