Hanoi joy

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It’s a warm night in Hanoi and we’re eating coconut ice-cream on the steps of the opera house, watching people stream through the old building’s gates after a performance by the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra. A circle of motorcycles, cars and pedestrians flows in front of us, weaving and twinkling, like a well-choreographed show.
It’s too obvious to say that it feels like Paris, and it doesn’t really, anyway. A snapshot from where we’re sitting could no doubt fool a few people, but the scene is infused with an energy that is somehow frenetic and languid at once, a hallmark of south-east Asia.

The Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, where we’re staying, is a short walk away. Built in 1901, it’s one of the region’s great colonial hotels, with a classical white façade, green shutters and original wrought iron details. There is a lovely French street-side café, La Terrasse, which serves freshly pressed coffee and tartines. Breakfast is taken next door at French restaurant Le Beaulieu, renowned in Hanoi for its Sunday brunch.
In the lobby of the historic Metropole Wing, white flowers, marble floors and chandeliers offset the dark wood panelling. Decorations include carefully placed Indochinese ceramics and vintage telephones, as well as a cabinet of treasures – keys, cutlery and newspaper clippings – from the hotel’s long history. Sofitel has restored the property beautifully, turning it into the flagship of their legend series, which now comprises hotels in Amsterdam, Colombia, Egypt and Morocco.
The contemporary Opera Wing was finished in 2008, adding 255 rooms and suites as well as two more restaurants, Angelina (Italian) and Spices Garden (Vietnamese). The brighter, neoclassical style offers a different experience for guests. Nonetheless, heritage is important here. A guided Path of History tour takes place four times daily, focusing on The Metropole’s position in Hanoi.
In the first half of the 20th century, the hotel was a hub of the city’s French colonial society. During and after the Vietnam War, it became a base for journalists and diplomats. (There is still a special ambassador’s entrance.) Now, young families and couples mingle with curious veterans, wealthy Vietnamese and gap-year girls who arrive on scooters giggling.
The Metropole made headlines last summer, when a renovation of the outdoor Bamboo Bar revealed a hidden wartime bunker beneath the shallow end of the swimming pool. It was used to protect hotel guests and staff from the mid-1960s through the Christmas Bombings of Hanoi in 1972.
The air raid shelter’s opening prompted visits from those who were guests at The Metropole during the Vietnam War, including American folk singer and peace delegate Joan Baez. She returned to the hotel in March this year and gave a spontaneous and emotional rendition of Oh, Freedom while touring the bunker.
The Metropole’s guest register is fantastic. Graham Greene stayed, as did Somerset Maugham, and Charlie Chaplin honeymooned here. All three have suites named after them in the historic wing. More recently, celebrities, artists and dignitaries such as Angelina Jolie, Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Queen Noor of Jordan have graced the hotel’s halls.
We have travelled to Hanoi for a weekend from Hong Kong, and find the pace and attractions of the city just right for a three-day break. The capital is often unjustly overlooked in favour of the more commercial Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the rapidly up-and-coming Central Coast.
Hanoi has its delights, however, for those willing to walk a lot and bravely (the chaotic traffic means crossing the road is often an adventure in itself) and for those who would forego the universal pleasures of a nightclub, shopping mall or beach resort for something more original.
A wander through the vibrant Old Quarter, hung everywhere with red and yellow Vietnamese flags to celebrate the country’s independence, and a cold pint at one of the casual restaurants known as Bia Hoi (“fresh beer”) takes up most of one day. After an evening’s stroll around Hoan Kiem lake, we retreat to Le Club bar at The Metropole for cocktails and live jazz, the best in town along with Minh’s Jazz Club nearby.
Another morning is spent rummaging in hushed awe through the rooms of 54 Traditions Gallery, a disheveled house full of museum-quality antiques, artifacts and art from Vietnam’s 53 minority groups and Kinh majority people.
American Mark Rapoport, a garrulous retired doctor who served as a medical volunteer during the war, opened the place on his wife’s suggestion after years of collecting old curios. He moved to Vietnam with his family in 2001. Rapoport gives a fun and insightful tour of his collection, which is all for sale at reasonable prices and includes a fascinating part on Shamanism.
He has published a little book on Hanoi for visitors, and leaves us with a pamphlet of tips for “getting the very best” from his beloved adopted city. Number one: “Smile at people. The response is always great.”
That evening, we join a crowd of young Hanoi residents, who push their scooters into what looks like the ground floor of a warehouse on Trang Thien Street, a favourite local hang-out. All around there are stalls selling ice cream, in cones, on sticks and in soft swirls, with money changing hands at a bewildering speed and signs only in Vietnamese. So we smile, and a man standing nearby helps us secure our dessert. The opera house steps are sticky when we leave.
by Samantha Leese
Posted: 10 June 2013

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Glass Magazine travel and arts writer

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