It’s whiskey o’clock at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, and not a packet of salt-and-vinegar chips in sight.
Instead, in the Club Lounge, it’s a salubrious affair. Black-and-white historical prints set-off a room so chic I feel myself stand taller, sit straighter. Complimentary canapés: a tiny Vietnamese pancake; seared pork; and a baked, sunset-orange salmon morsel are served on the finest china and gently placed in front of me on a polished mahogany table. “Bon appetite,” says a softly-spoken waitress dressed in a flowing ao dai, the traditional white tunic split at both sides. She bows her head with a classical dancer’s poise. Her red lipstick is striking. And so is her smile.
Decadent, for sure, but my senses relish the time-out after today’s walking tour of Hanoi’s uncompromising Old Quarter. In tropical rain, we dodged scooters, jostled past colourful market stalls and makeshift street kitchens. There were pungent smells of dried squid, bamboo and prawns, to relish or be repulsed by. Laughter and mid-morning chatter of locals to eavesdrop on. We ventured down tight alleyways – more like warrens – home to families living in small apartments.
Now back in paradise, as the whiskey kicks-in, I could drift away until the words of novelist Susan Sontag, once a hotel guest, remind me this seventh floor oasis is not shared by all: “While every lunch consisted of several delicious meat and fish courses 99 percent of the Vietnamese will have rice and beancurd tonight.”
Our South East Asian holiday began with a stopover in Ho Chi Minh City where we acclimatised to the pace of Vietnamese city life. A domestic flight north, and we landed only a few hours from the People’s Republic of China. We find ourselves spellbound by French elegance in Hanoi – a swamp transformed.
In the early nineteenth century, French colonials developed the bend (noi) in the river (han) into an Indo-Chinese capital once considered one of the loveliest cities in the world. Twelve kilometres of tramway criss-crossed a settlement of lakes, manicured parks and wide streets. In journalist Andreas Augustin’s book, The Most Famous Hotels in the World, he records the words of Prince Henri d’ Orleans on a visit to the colony in the last decade of the 19th century: “… in French-built towns there is always some little resemblance of Paris.”
Fast forward to contemporary Hanoi, a beautiful energetic Asian city. In only one century, despite three wars, the population has grown from 150,000 to seven million. Streets are psychotic with scooters and noise. Yet the colonial elegance is unmistakable – felt in a stroll down a tree-lined boulevard in Hanoi’s French Quarter, or seen in government buildings painted mango-yellow with green window shutters and surrounded by greenery.
The Metropole was built by French expatriates around the turn of the 19th century and has a long tradition of welcoming ambassadors, writers, heads of state and entertainers. Political leaders from Ho Chi Minh to George Bush (senior) and Francois Mitterrand have visited. Somerset Maugham wrote The Gentleman in the Parlour here and Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard spent their honeymoon at the Metropole in 1936 after their wedding in Shanghai. Graham Greene stayed at the hotel in 1951 while writing The Quiet American.
In the seventies, the Communist government changed the name of the hotel to Thong Nhat Hotel (Reunification Hotel). More a political exercise than savvy marketing, but the tourists kept coming.
The Vietnam war brought anti-war activists. Folk singer Joan Baez hunkered in the hotel’s bunker during the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi. She donated a painting of a monk, completed during a recent stay, and it hangs in the lobby. Jane Fonda stayed for two weeks after a controversial visit to North Vietnam she would forever regret. She has since apologised, although American patriots find it difficult to forget. The Hollywood-famed actress was photographed astride an enemy anti-aircraft gun pointed in the direction of US planes saying, “I wish to have one of those blue-eyed murderers in my sights.”
The rich and famous now choose between the grandeur of the old section or the new, modern Opera Wing. In 2007, Hollywood icon and motorcycle enthusiast Brad Pitt jumped on a scooter out the front of the hotel, taking off to explore the city. Angelina Jolie is pictured as his pillion passenger. The Metropole’s Italian restaurant, angelina, is named after her.
After ‘refreshments’ at the Metropole, a little more concentration is needed to avoid slurring my words. Thankfully, experience has taught me how to hold my liquor. Still, it’s another matter to remain unaffected by an intoxicating mix of Vietnamese-style pampering, sophisticated surroundings and celebrity stories.
In a few days, I’ll be home, no longer dignified as “Monsieur”. No-one will worry my whiskey glass is empty. Delicacies, so carefully prepared they could be eaten by eyes, will not be served. There is next to no chance of luminaries visiting the local watering hole. All that will remain to fill the void is an almighty holiday hangover.
Not to be missed:
• Strolling early morning around Hoan Kiem Lake
• Browsing the tranquil Temple of Literature
• Walking a chaotic Old Quarter
• Catching a performance of the water puppets
To cross the street, pick a hole in the traffic and step confidently off the curb. Scooters will manoeuvre around you.
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