Hanoi remains one of the most enchanting cities I’ve yet visited. There are many vignettes of my time there which have become enduring memories, and each time I return, I add more: a posse of beautiful nuns in graceful white Ao Doi (the traditional dress) riding sidesaddle on mopeds; a Vietnamese homeboy with backwards baseball cap, serious bling and jeans hanging halfway down his backside, selling a pyramid of perfect strawberries from a rattan platter; drifts of dark, snipped hair along the footpath by West Lake as open air barbers go about their work, their clients looking patiently at their reflections in battered mirrors as the traffic buzzes past; a scooter carrying bamboo poles from which hundred of plump, water filled bags swung, each housing a single wide eyed goldfish……..the list goes on.
Although there are sights to see in Hanoi, from the brutalist Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to the teeming Temple of Literature, this is a city to savour, to wander and to absorb. I could live here.
And although I have always wanted to see inside one of those Viet-colonial houses in acid bright colours, five stories high and two metres wide, my temporary home has always been the Sofitel Metropole. It is no hardship. The hotel is in an unbeatable location a couple of blocks from Hoan Kiem lake and a short walk from the old town and its charming 36 streets dedicated to specific trades and guilds – silverware; medicines; haberdashery; linen and the like.
The Opera House is a few steps away, and galleries and high end shops tenant the immediate streetscape; on the footpath outside the small grassy square next the hotel, vigorous and competitive games of Hacky-Sack and badminton are played, no quarter given.
Like the city, this is a hotel rich in history and charmingly proud of its heritage. The concierge organises tours of the restored bomb shelter which endures beneath the swimming pool where today children frolic and smart suited staff bring them strawberry ices every afternoon. A large board in the Metropole Wing lists the heads of state and movie stars who have laid their esteemed heads here at one time or another. You can tour the city in style in one of their sleek navy 1930’s Citroens (which we did; realising, with our knees around our ears, that 70-odd years ago, people were a lot, lot smaller).
You will know by now that the Metropole is the place to stay in Hanoi. Service is bustling and effective, which it needs to be given how busy the hotel is. Crowds of families, businessmen and women, and high end tour groups frequent its hallowed halls. Despite its bustle, the hotel retains an atmosphere of calm, immaculate and immutable.
The Metropole Wing is the historic part of the hotel, with slightly smaller rooms and a more hushed atmosphere. The Opera Wing is the new part of the hotel, with larger rooms and suites, but all decorated in a plush Asian-colonial style with plenty of character of their own. The rooms are all lovely –white shuttered, timber-floored confections with pillowy beds and capacious bathrooms, a generous mix of modern textiles and colonial sensibilities.
The Club is surprisingly nice (I usually think hotel clubs resemble frequent flyer lounges and are to be avoided at all costs unless you are a serious cheapskate and would rather fill up the gas tank during happy hour than get amongst the local culture); the afternoon tea of tiny tidbits was glorious and it had a very pleasant library area.
There are plenty of drinking and dining options, from the clubby Angelina’s to the Terrace Bar overlooking the pool, to the Spice Garden restaurant. We tried the food (and drinks) at most, and found them a little wanting (although I was thrilled to find a proper crème caramel wobbling deliciously at the breakfast buffet – propriety be damned!). But perhaps that’s because there is so much amazing food in Hanoi, from the turmeric spiced fish along Cha Ca street, to the steaming bowls of Pho Bo or Pho Ga served for breakfast every few steps, or the zabaglione-topped whipped egg coffee which is more a food than a drink.
You can see why I want to live here………but for now The Metropole will have to do.