Heaven in Hanoi at the Sofitel Metropole

Written by admin on November 28, 2009 – 3:24 pm -

The The Metropole has always been the place to stay in Hanoi. Legends of the rich and famous, as well royalty, have made it their home. Located in the heart of Hanoi, it’s near the city’s Old Quarter. The hotel opened in 1901, although if the research is correct, the Colonial building was constructed a minimum of twenty years before.

There are many special hotels in the world but the Sofitel Metropole has a unique quality. It was designated the  the Sofitel Group’s first Legend hotel in July 2009. After a four-year-long massive renovation, the hotel now offers another level of service, coupled with every amenity guests could want. Yes, there are flat screen TVs and other electronic gadgets that yell, “up-to-date” but don’t detract from the hotel’s charm and elegance.

Each time I’ve tried to snag a reservation at the Metropole, forget it. Either the hotel was full or the rooms were so expensive, they were way out of my budget. I’d lunch at Spices and enjoy its wonderful buffet where more than 60 percent of the diners are locals — so you know the chefs are doing something right.

Or, I’d sit in the outside bar and have a drink and try not to have the look or word “jealous” streaking across my forehead.  “Thou shalt not covet” would echo in my consciousness as I watched the hotel’s residents relaxing by the pool. Before the spa opened, staff members were offering foot massages to help people digest their tea or one of the bar’s signature drinks.

This time, I hit it lucky. Suzy Gershman (of “Born To Shop” fame) and her editorial partner Sarah, and I  were able to score a super super deluxe room for approximately $350 per night. Yes, we’d be cozy in the 55-square-meter space. But we’d be privy to a private butler,  breakfast, tea, cocktails plus 24-hour-a lounge access with free computer access, WiFi and would we like a soda? I calculated that what we’d save by not having to buy breakfast, a glass of wine accompanied by extensive hors d’oeuvres (OK, we ate so many, they were dinner) would compensate for the room costing so much.

There are  perfectly decent hotel rooms for around $50 a night in Hanoi. But we wouldn’t have been treated as if we were royalty. Nor would we have had an elegant digs with a sybaritic bathroom overflowing with Hermes amenities. It felt like an incredible treat after running from dawn to dusk in a city where there’s non-stop noise, not to mention, traffic. The Metropole is an oasis in the middle of a frantic city.

Suzy and Sarah had stayed in the classic Metropole, but had yet to stay in the new Opera section, a building that was acquired approximately six years ago. Its decor is Colonial/modern/chic and the bathrooms have a deep bathtub plus a separate glass enclosed shower with a rain-fall shower head. The pillow menu is actually a small box with samples so guests could sleep on their favorite type.

The Metropole Spa is a part of the hotel’s upgrade. For those who crave relaxation, this is an ideal place. Massages and more are considerably less expensive in town — but you’re not pampered in such an elegant environment. Clients are given the option of selecting their own music (or for that matter, bringing it) and then returning to their rooms to nap.

Unhappily, there was too much to do and see, so I opted to sit in the spa’s lobby, drink a cup of tea and admire its collection of blue and white porcelains.

The hotel reminds me of Raffles in Singapore but has surpassed it.  There’s practically an unlimited selection of elegant hotels in the world. But, many are beginning to have a quasi cookie cutter look and feel. Don’t get me wrong, I could easily live in one. However, it’s a pleasure not to have to go up 22 floors, get lost in a hallway finding the door plus being greeted by a smiling staff member, who actually remembers your name and appears to care.

We were lucky enough to meet with the hotel’s general manager, Kai Speth, who joined Sofitel to complete the complicated renovations and spearhead the re-branding of the hotel to compete with Starwood’s Luxury Collection. We discussed some of the challenges of repositioning a hotel. For example, since the expansion, he doesn’t want to be dependent exclusively on leisure or business travelers. “It was one thing when the hotel was smaller. But, with the expansion, there are now 364 rooms and suites.” Speth explained. The GM also confided that the next Sofitel Hotels that will be labeled Legend are the Winter Palace in Luxor, Egypt, The Grand in Amsterdam and The Santa Clara in Cartagena, Colombia. Each property is unique.

If you’re a chocolate lover, don’t miss the afternoon chocolate tea that costs $15 and could cause anyone to go into sugar shock. There’s no such thing as too much chocolate for me and I tried to use restraint; not because I am disciplined, but because I was going to have a fitting for the suit I was having custom made at Cu Thanh on Hang Gai Street. Happily, it fit. But if I’d had one more dark chocolate truffle, I would have been asking for disaster.

During the tea, I had the pleasure of meeting the hotel’s main chef, André Bosia, who arrived at the Metropole less than two years ago. André assured me that all of the breads and pastries are made on the premises. In addition to a number of elegant boutiques in the hotel, there’s also a bakery that sells incredible edibles. One of the legacies left by the French from the days when Vietnam was one of its Colonies, was the appreciation of pastries and first-rate breads.

Both André Bosia and Kai Speth were pleased over the hotel’s new restaurant, Angelina, an Italian Steak House. Its bar has live entertainment most nights and the hotel goes all out to attract local residents and does an excellent job.

Le Beaulieu, the hotel’s anchor restaurant, offers first-rate French cuisine. It’s a meeting place for the city’s chic and with-it group (or those who love excellent food) at Sunday brunch; reservations are necessary.

Leaving the Metropole came all too soon for those who love Hanoi. We really hadn’t made sufficient use of “our” butler until we had a 4 a.m. wake-up call so we could make our 7 a.m. flight to Ho Chi Minh City. I was expecting to brew some coffee in the pot that was in the room and call it a day. Instead, we were awakened by Van, who was carrying a tray overflowing with hot coffee with hot milk, glasses of fresh orange juice and an enormous basket of rolls, croissants and fresh pastries.

Many people consider that a resort hotel should be in the country or overlooking water. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d like to return to the Sofitel Metropole and pretend it’s a resort that happens to be in one of my favorites city in Southeast Asia. That way, I walk or hop on a pedicab or moto and head into the city when I crave some excitement. The trip takes less than five minutes.

For that matter, I may have to return next year for the 1000th Anniversary of Hanoi. The government just devalued its currency (the dong) by approximately 5%.  That won’t make much of a mark for tourists since hotel rates are generally priced in U.S. dollars.  But, every penny helps.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Personal Space

Written by admin on November 24, 2009 – 3:27 pm -

Traveling is a challenge no matter how you approach it or like it. It happens to be my passion. But travel barges in on your personal space, starting at the airport. Before you board the plane, you’re jiggled and jostled while navigating security. How many times have you felt as if you’re playing beat the clock just to get through the TSA screening process and collecting your possessions?

It’s taken a while, but I routinely make snarky comments to people behind me, telling them to get off my back, so I can gather my clothes, cell phone and other paraphernalia. I’ve become increasingly aggressive since I left my driver’s license in a plastic bucket on the conveyor belt and had to spend an entire day replacing it. There must be a lost and found in aviation heaven that’s jammed with electronics, documents, the belt that was holding up someone’s pants, and sweaters passengers thought they’d collected.

Skip the fact of being stripped of liquids that are more than three ounces—and that limit has recently been increased. I hope someday it goes up to 12 ounces because I want to gulp something as soon as I’ve had the chance to catch my breath after making it to the other side. Come to think of it, you could swig a miniature purchased at the liquor store. But then, you might really be subjected to a lack of personal space because the airport police don’t think kindly of people drinking in the airport in public area

Plane travel is the ultimate testimony to existing in cramped quarters. Coach class can be more intimate than you ever fathomed, especially when someone has reclined his or her seat, so you’re wedged into your chair. There are (or should be) rules of etiquette. But they seem to evaporate each year. How many times have you gotten to know your neighbor better than you ever imagined just because you need to go to the WC—where invariably there’s a line to be admitted to the inner sanctum.

Unless Americans are forced into sardine situations, they tend not to stand on top of one another. And as friendly as people in the U.S. tend to be by telling one another too much too soon, strangers rarely touch one another. In other countries, the protocol is very different.

For example, in Asia, it’s apparent that vendors in outdoor markets feel they have the right to run after you and tug at you in order to make a sale. “Missy, missy, how much do you want to pay?” the out-to-kill salesperson will ask while simultaneously grabbing your shoulder. Americans aren’t used to this since it’s hard in the States to locate a salesperson when you want one. And you rarely touch even when you’re forking over your credit card and collecting the purchases.

Ask someone who’s French for directions and they become so intense you may feel you’re going head to head. As my Bonjour Paris colleague Joseph Lestrange has pointed out, they can make any conversation seem urgent, a matter of life and death, even if all you want to know if should I turn left or right or how much a beer costs. I think of this as the linguistic equivalent of crowding, words hemming me in.

The American idea of people not crowding you is a mystery to people who are used to existing in more confined quarters. But think about it. When you’re in Paris, there’s generally a lack of space wherever you go. Contrasted to the U.S., grocery aisles are barely wide enough for one cart and rarely two. And these are small caddies.

Bakeries are located in narrow storefronts and if someone steps out of line, it’s hard not to notice. Visitors to Paris find are dismayed to discover that they better know exactly which loaf or pastry they want when it’s their turn to be waited on. The customers behind you have little to no tolerance for any form of discussion other than, “Bonjour, je veux une baguette et deux croissants, s’il vous plaît,and off you go after a fast financial exchange.

Most Parisian restaurants are jammed with tiny tables. Thank goodness most French speak with well-modulated voices or you’d go nuts from noise pollution. Skip the idea of a truly private conversation if you’re eating in a bistro or a café.

The French must have it ingrained into their psyches that personal space is a negative. Sure, there are those who go off hiking, but even when they can spread out, they don’t. When they go on vacation, they tend to be like termites who exist only as a colony and not at all as individuals. In August, there’s a mass exodus to the beaches, and off they go to the ski slopes in February. And when they arrive at their destinations, they tend to stick together as if they’re joined at the hip.

That’s the way they are. As another colleague, longtime resident of France and husband of an exceedingly French woman, Bud Korengold has noted, a title for his collection of very sympathetic stories about living in France could be called “Those French!” The exclamation point encodes exasperation sometimes, puzzlement at others, and often enough absolute wonder, not to say admiration. That’s why they’re French and we’re not. And that’s why we come to visit or stay.

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Posted in Around the World |

Persona non grata at immigration? Can you get off the list

Written by admin on November 23, 2009 – 4:14 pm -

Even if you’re not a terrorist or anything akin to one, you too can spend extra time getting through customs. Ask as many times as you want, you’ll never be told what you might have done. You’re guilty until proven innocent.

I’m now pulled over each time I enter the U.S. So much for trying not to check luggage so I can beat the crowds clearing customs. I count on spending extra time being grilled in the secondary screening room. Sometimes it’s a matter of minutes. Other times, it’s substantially more. Who cares if I have a connecting flight. I’m captive to the point that I wonder whether or not I did something in a former life.

I’ve explained more times than I can remember that my passport was stolen in Nice France in September, 2000, and blurt out my mother’s maiden name before my inquisitor can ask for the information. Sometimes that does the trick. Other times it doesn’t and the interview is more extensive.

How does someone get off this list? During my most recent encounter, I was informed I couldn’t. Never? “Yupp,” the officer replied and waved me on. I only had 45 minutes to get from the international terminal to the domestic one and hit the departure gate with a only minute to spare. Talk about huffing and puffing.

This experience made me determined to take action. Being persona non grata, if only temporarily, is a pain in the neck. Well, i hope there is a way to get back into The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) good graces. It took numerous calls and more than three hours of listening to voice prompts and two days playing phone tag to locate someone who could tell me how.

A Consular Affairs Press Officer at the U.S. Department of State took mercy and said to fill out this form: The DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. Based on how many people are fielded to the secondary sanctum, this research may be useful.

After all, who needs or wants an immediate welcome interview each time you have to go through customs? No one. If you happen to be on the DHS hit list, do you know why you’re on such a list? I still don’t and suspect I never will. All I know is that I want off.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Hanoi adventures in Vietnam

Written by admin on November 18, 2009 – 4:18 pm -

If you’re someone who craves peace and  quiet, don’t book a trip to Hanoi or Saigon, rather Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). But they happen to be cities that have captured my heart. If forced to choose between the two, I’d head north to Hanoi, the country’s capital. Rise and shine and see the city awaken. Hit the streets after dark when it takes on an almost mystical feeling. Don’t miss Hanoi’s night market when the city comes alive.

Since my last trip to Hanoi two years ago, I immediately sensed the considerable economic growth that has taken place. An American photographer whom I encountered, commented the city has matured to the point that it’s lost some of its charm. Her definition of charm was no longer being able to bargain for items to the point it felt as if purchases cost nothing. Previously,  visitors had been able to return home with silk goods and clothes, lacquer work, pottery and so much more, without making a dent in a modest budget.

Some of my favorite family owned stores have been replaced by chic boutiques, where the personnel aren’t interested in discussing prices.  They know what they’re selling and aren’t desperate to dump inventory. This doesn’t mean there aren’t bargains and there may be some give and take.  You can certainly buy cheap tee-shirts that say Vietnam or “same same.”

Rather than the road from the airport into the city being inhabited cattle grazing the land, much of it covered by low banana trees, manufacturing plants are far more visible. Fewer people sit by the side of the road looking as if they have nothing else to do but beg. This isn’t to imply there isn’t tin and cardboard housing; but it’s far less visible. The cars are newer and cleaner and high-rise housing is more prevalent. A middle class is growning.

There are a lot of choices when it comes to transportation. Wear your most comfortable shoes and walk as long and as far as possible.  Some of Hanoi’s greatest treasures are found down back alleys; this is definitely a place where you want to get lost. Locals warn you to be careful with your possessions because they’re protective of visitors.   As everywhere, there are bad guys who’ll grab and run if it’s easy. Violent crimes targeting tourists are rare, which doesn’t mean purses or backpacks should be filled with valuables. I always leave my passport at the hotel and carry a photocopy of key pages.

A green light at a crosswalk doesn’t mean go. As a matter of fact, it seems to mean the reverse. If you can’t wear blinders and stride right along, you may be standing at the same corner after your flight has departed. People assume scooter drivers will swerve to miss pedestrians. Come to think of it, in spite of the chaos, I didn’t spot an accident, which is amazing considering many drivers might be considered mad with nerves of steel, and take no prisoners mentalities.

Men and women race through the cities on scooters. Most drivers wear masks to avoid pollution and helmets are mandatory. Families share scooters and pregnant women sit side saddle. Being a type-A person, my preferred way of getting from point A to point B was to hail one and join the crowd. The chauffeur always made certain I wore a helmet and I religiously forked over $1.00. It was more than a fair exchange. Ironically, I was sometimes taken the scenic route. Was I being ripped off? Not at all. I suspect the driver was showing his friends an older Caucasian woman was his charge.

There’s a thriving industry of pedicabs. Some drivers pride themselves on being tour guides and are delighted to be hired by the hour. Settle on the price before climbing in since fares are highly negotiable. The drivers, always men, have zero need to see the inside of a gym. They love to take tourists on tours of Hanoi, a city that’s composed of narrow streets. The vendors on specific streets  generally sell the same products. Passengers take photos of other tourists. It’s rare you’ll see a local riding in one of the pedicabs.

During rush hour, taxis may not be the fastest mode of transportation. But they’re clean and air-conditioned. That’s worth a lot if you’ve been out shopping (or whatever) and the thermometer is hovering near the 100 degree F mark.

If you are addicted to pottery and are up for a short excursion outside of Hanoi, head to Bat Trang, the world’s brick center and the country’s pottery and ceramics center. It’s a tiny village, complete with a tourist ox cart and heaps of dishes. You can walk the entire village in less than an hour. But it might difficult to tote your purchases. I scored six very small bowls and forked over $3. The price was established using a calculator with the shop’s owner taping one price and my entering another. If you’re tempted to go crazy and buy larger items, some stores offer shipping. I’ve always been hesitant because I’m certain the cost would negate the savings and will the pottery arrive whole and not in slivers?

Stay away from Vietnam if you can’t tolerate smoking. Asians still like their cigarettes and tobacco companies are betting they’re not going to give up their addiction soon. Non-smoking hotel rooms are available. But you know how smoke rises. Most restaurants have non-smoking sections but bars don’t. Go with the fumes or you’ll end up missing a lot.

Vietnamese food is wonderful. It can be spicy (meaning hot) or well seasoned. Its cuisine is healthy, well presented and you can eat well for next to nothing. How many nems can one person eat? Don’t miss ordering pho, a chicken soup that comes with noodles and you can add a variety of edibles from beef, chicken, vegetables and don’t forget the condiments.

During this trip (that was nowhere nearly long enough) we landed in HCMC, flew to Hanoi and back on Vietnam Airlines. If you’re flying within that part of Asia, you are not subjected to security, forced to have every item X-rayed, take your computer out of the bag and strip to the essentials. Vietnam’s and other Asian transportation officials feel  scanning isn’t effective. Your bags may be checked by hand, even though I can’t imagine anyone being able to see what’s in my purse that’s stuffed beyond stuffed.

If only we’d remember to reserve on line via Air Asia, we could have gotten a lot more bang for the buck. There’s so much more to write about Vietnam. And I will.

One thing that amazes me is that even though 58,000 US troops were killed during the war, more than a million Vietnamese, the majority of whom were civilians and happened to be in the line of fire, lost their lives. You’d think Americans would be disliked. They’re not.

Perhaps the Vietnamese perceive Americans as being anxiety ridden.  A friend asked a pharmacist for some sleeping pills to counter her extreme case of jet-lag and was offered Zoloft. Yes, Dr. Freud.

I’m already planning my next trip to Vietnam. It’s a country that holds endless personal fascination. But, next time, I’ll stay considerably longer.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Medical Musts or Maybes When Traveling

Written by admin on November 15, 2009 – 3:33 pm -

Anyone who’s traveling these days should take extra health precautions. This isn’t targeted only to people going from one continent to another. They may be taking a driving or train trip—or for that matter, going to visit friends or relatives during the upcoming holiday season. But that doesn’t negate the need to be prepared.

Driving long distances can play havoc with people’s bodies. Do stop every couple of hours if only to take a walk around the car even if you don’t need to use the facilities. Some rest stops are cleaner than others, so it doesn’t hurt to take some baby wipes with you, even if you’re not traveling with the infant or toddler set.

Whichever way you’re traveling, having a bottle of water with you is a good idea and even if you’re the best of friends or family, don’t share them. Take individual ones and fill them from water fountains when you stop for gas. I’m not implying you do this in Mexico – but if you’re close to home, chances are the water’s safe to drink. If there’s any question about this, buy a gallon bottle and fill your personal bottles from it. During these days of coughs, colds and flu, why chance catching something you might not if you’re extra cautious?

I’m not one who sees germs everywhere. But having just flown in three planes for cumulatively 24 hours, my antenna is at an all-time high. Considering the hacking and sneezing going on, I bet some people are feeling not so hot (or perhaps they’re feeling too hot since they’ve come down with a fever) because they contracted someone else’s germs and made them their own. Airplanes (whether or not the air is circulated) can’t help but be breeding grounds for infections and one sneeze may be enough to do the trick.

When I take long flights, I use an ointment (a type of menthol one) in my nostrils. My others musts are my own blanket, pillow and items the airlines may have cleaned but have not 100% sanitized.

My travel kit includes earphones, a tiny bottle of Purell and hand wipes. Many people tend to have sensitive stomachs when confronted with new foods – so pills for any and every GI problem are in my survival kits. Ditto for antacids. There’s nothing worse than a sour stomach when embarking on a new adventure.

Don’t forget throat lozenges in case you feel a tickle in your throat. A friend takes an entire sack of homeopathic drugs. She swears by them and come to think of it, never gets sick when she’s away from home.

Some people definitely have better immune systems than others. Not departing on a trip exhausted definitely gives most travelers a step up on overcoming jet-lag, adjusting to food, water and air in new environments.

Be sure your shots are up to date. Contact your doctor or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a list of necessary vaccinations. Allow plenty of time for this step in case you need to get vaccines that require more than one dose if you’re headed overseas. Even if you’re just going camping, be certain your tetanus shot is up to date. A cut shouldn’t necessitate your making a trip to the nearest hospital if you’ve encountered a rusty nail.

When traveling to a location where I may contract an exotic disease and won’t have access to an English-speaking doctor, I pack Tamiflu and Cipro with printouts with when and how to use them. Happily, I’ve never had the need.

This may sound crazy but pack a bar of soap, one you usually use or have tested. I should confess that I caused a houseguest to contract (what felt like) a killer case of hives. He was incapacitated from welts and the subsequent itching. When I had to ask my Paris pharmacist for some cream so this person could move without being miserable, I had a case of serious humiliation.

Even though houseguests may not be a blessing, death by savon isn’t polite. Plus, it’s embarrassing when the story is told – and retold. And this type of happening invariably makes the rounds. “She did what?” is said with giggles and more than a bit of incredibility.

What do you pack when you’re traveling? Prescriptions (and always get a written one for refills from your MD if you’re going to be away for any period of time) and your usual medications are givens. But do you have other musts? There’s no way I could have included everything.

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Posted in Around the World |

Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City, or to many, Saigon

Written by admin on November 9, 2009 – 4:22 pm -

Karen Fawcett, our intrepid traveler, is back in Asia. On this trip she has decided to head to Vietnam. Here is her report on the road, so to speak. She has just landed this weekend.

Welcome to Vietnam. It’s now possible to get a visa when you arrive at the airport rather than doing it before leaving home. Definitely try to avoid this unless you’re in a pinch or have no other choice. An E-Visa can be a savior if your trip has been re-routed.

This kind of visa would have been the perfect solution last year when the airport in Bangkok was closed and my traveling companion and I were forced to go to Singapore rather than eternally be in transit. However, getting a visa at the airport is cumbersome and if the paperwork isn’t in order, you’ll be out of luck. The Vietnamese government really wants visitors to get visas in advance from a local consulate or its embassy prior to boarding the plane.

Our 100-percent-full flight arrived after 10 p.m. One would have thought it was mid-day in Miami. Besides being hot and humid, there were thousands of people greeting friends and family. Even though it costs extra, it was a godsend to spot someone holding a sign with our names waiting to shuttle us to the hotel.

There are taxis. But since last year’s airport renovation, locating them is chaotic and forget finding  an organized taxi line. The confusion is compounded after traveling for hours and sagging from jet-lag, which is probably the case if your trip originated in the U.S.

Collecting checked luggage is a challenge. Those coming to visit family, or returning to Vietnam, don’t appear to worry at all about excess luggage fees. Bags and boxes come rolling, one after the other, off the conveyor belt. People appeared to be transporting everything including the kitchen sink.

Even though most locals probably speak minimal (if that) English, one woman was fast to ask if I wanted cold water. “One dollar.” she said with a heavy accent. Clearly a capitalist, she had a good gig going. Locals generally accept dollars to such an extent you don’t need to change much money into the local currency. Good thing too, since the local currency has so many zeros one would have to be a human calculator to figure out the exchange rate. Even with a calculator or a currency cheat sheet conversions are mystifying.

What a difference three years makes. That was the last time I was here. Saigon felt like a quiet French Colonial city then. It’s now assumed more of a boomtown feel. What else is new in Asia? At least, there’s no Starbucks, McDonald’s or Baskin-Robbins – yet. There are plenty of coffee shops and restaurants galore and places with free WiFi reign supreme.

Motor scooters whiz by (and don’t be surprised if you see a family of four perched on one) but progress means more cars as well. Not that driving here could be compared to driving in Paris. It’s not that scary – yet. Mind you, that’s not a recommendation to rent a car.

When taking a taxi, be certain to get the driver’s number.  If he takes the scenic route, inform the doorman at your hotel and he’ll spring into action. We were amazed when the guilty driver returned the majority of the fare after we showed the concierge the circuitous route we were taken. We felt more guilty after discovering it was the driver’s first day on the job and he was lost.

The newest hotel destination is the Asiana Intercontinental. The 300-room hotel is barely open and it’s already known for having some of the best restaurants in the city. Asians like buffets and it has one (for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Sunday brunch) that goes on longer than the eye can see.

Don’t expect to encounter solely quantity rather than quality. The hotel’s largest restaurant, Market 39, has seven open kitchens. Diners can choose from French, Vietnamese and Southeast Asian cuisines.

At the Sunday buffet brunch, shellfish lovers, will think they’ve hit the jackpot when they see the mounds of oysters, crayfish and other choices. This is just the beginning. The pastries and breads would put any French baker to shame. All of this (and much more) is served with luscious Laurent Perrier champagne. While you’re if Vietnam, learn to like local beer to quench an alcoholic thirst. Wine costs a small fortune since there’s a 50% import tax on liquor and wine.

Shopping in this city runs the gamut. Visitors can bargain for nearly anything in some of the outdoor or smaller stores that are frequently in alleys.  Don’t miss Ben Thanh, the city’s central market.

Many upscale stores such as Louis Vuitton have opened recently — there, expect to pay the asking price. I haven’t been here long enough to get into serious shopping but have had a quick overview. I did bring a few clothes to be copied in silk for next to nothing – especially compared to French prices.

One of the city’s most respected tailors, Lam Couture, said a custom-made man’s suit including top quality fabric would cost $300.

There’s much more to Vietnam than shopping and eating. The country is full of culture and history that’s especially meaningful to many Americans. In a short vacation, don’t expect to do more than scratch the surface. But any visitor can try and should.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

(Photo: Primetravels.com)

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Houseguests à la Française

Written by admin on November 7, 2009 – 3:37 pm -

When one moves to Paris, or for that matter anywhere in France, one obtains immediate celebrity status. People you hardly remember always seem to be able to remember that they know you (sort of) and that you live in Paris. This is especially true in the days of the weak dollar where airfares may be cheap. But once you arrive in the EU, living is expensive.

You quickly acquire the habit of never answering the phone just after a U.S./Paris airfare war has been announced. If you should forget, the conversation goes like this.

Scenario #1: The Casual Acquaintance

“Hi, my dear friend. Guess what? I am coming to Paris and would love to see you,” says the person you hardly know.

Then comes the inevitable question: “Can you suggest a really cheap hotel? Or for that matter, could I sleep on your sofa if you don’t have a guest bedroom. I (or we—for example, a family of four) will be no trouble and we will have such a good time,” croons the voice on the end of the telephone.

If I weaken and say yes, it is only proper that these guests be greeted each morning by fresh croissants and home-made jams. Please do not think I am forgetting the freshly squeezed orange juice or cafe avec lait chaud. After all, this is France, and there are certain standards.

Scenario #2: The Teenaged Backpacker

This is a bit of theater that American expats know by heart. I suspect that if you took a survey of the “transplanted,” you might find one—maybe—who has not experienced the following:

The phone rings. A happy voice says, “Guess what? My teenager is coming to France. He/she will be no problem, and I would be ever so appreciative if my darling could camp on your floor.”

The reality is that “darling,” having been backpacking for three months, comes equipped not only with a sleeping bag but also with three months’ worth of dirty laundry. “Darling” tells you, “I hate to spend time at the laundromat.” Can’t blame our newest guest. Why should he/she (it?) have to spend time doing laundry in Paris when he/she could be out and about? But after the fourth load of clothes, I am tempted to throw them all out the window.

I forget to mention that “darling” needs to be bathed and fed. I may be mean-spirited, but nevertheless, I am a mother myself.

Inevitably, this hot-to-trot kid also has a list of “must dos” while in Paris. And few of the targets are in your ordinary guidebook.

My “charge” takes off and I mean, off. I want to go on record that I do not appreciate waiting up for this 16-year-old “darling” to roll “home” at five in the morning with reports of what “neat” people he or she has met (and with dilated pupils). “And excuse me,” says the guest. “Do you mind if I sleep a bit late? Do you really need to get into your office/guest room? I’m exhausted.” No problem. I try to be quiet and pray that my Skype calls won’t awaken sleeping beauty.

Scenario #3: The Gourmet Tourist

Then there is the third type of visitor. More sophisticated (or possibly wealthier), these are ones who stay in hotels. But they are nice enough to call and say, “Let’s get together. You choose the restaurant. For that matter, we’d love to try the restaurant at Le Meurice tonight. We’re sure you have connections with Yannick Alléno, the chef”

No, I don’t, is my response. It only takes six months to get a reservation in a three-star restaurant here. And on a journalist’s take-home pay, it is a wee bit out of my restaurant budget—for the year. “We’ll go anywhere you choose,” says the caller, “but let’s make it special since we want to experience the best of French gastronomy.”

We eat a calorie-killer dinner, after which it is midnight and all I want to do is go home. Amazingly enough, when the check does arrive, more times than not, it is left on the table as though it did not exist. My guests point out how expensive everything in Paris is. I reply, “I know!”

After what feels like an eternity, I take out my credit card. “Thank you,” my “guests” say, “when you come to the U.S., we will take you to dinner.” Gee, I wasn’t planning on coming to Cincinnati!

Hotel Fawcett House Guest Policy

After living in France for more than 20 years, I have adopted a house guest policy. No one camps with me for more than three days.

I have even become so hard-nosed that I have instituted the rule that if people were not close friends of mine in the United States, I’m not going to put them up in Paris out of a feeling of obligation because I am the one person they happen to know here.

If people do stay with me and they crave fresh baked bread in the morning, I will point them to the closest bakery. I will help them plan their itineraries, but I no longer try claim that I’m an offshoot of the Paris Tourist Office, solely in Paris to be a tour guide.

I am not in Paris on vacation. Unlike my guests, I have to get up in the morning and get to work. And, even though sitting at a computer may not appear to be work, rest assured, it is!

Gazing at the Eiffel Tower at 2 a.m. lacks a certain thrill when one’s work day begins at 8 a.m. If anything, I would appreciate it if they would assume some day-to-day chores such as picking up some groceries.

Also, I refuse to feel guilty anymore because I don’t know the entire Metro system without consulting a map and rarely know that day’s precise currency exchange rate. Nor do I need dollars in place of the euros in my wallet “because it takes such a long time to exchange money at the bank.”

I have learned after all my years here to compile a “survival” kit that includes a set of keys to the apartment, a guide book or two, a map of the Metro (subway), a few metro tickets, and a cell phone. I am rethinking the inclusion of the phone since it seems to serve as a license to call at any hour of the day or night and ask the tiniest of questions.

Do you think that I am being ungracious or unkind? Well, how would you feel if you had 83 consecutive nights of revolving house guests, which is what happened to me when I first took up residence in France? Put yourself in your host’s shoes and do unto others…

I must confess the nicest thank-you gift from a guest I ever received was a sign saying HOTEL FAWCETT. But, I have buried it somewhere… hopefully never to be found again.

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Posted in Paris |

Tipping while traveling — more questions than answers

Written by admin on November 2, 2009 – 4:25 pm -

With so much information easily accessible on the Internet, most travelers are still clueless about tipping. Many have no idea of how much they should tip and to whom? If you’re on a tour or a cruise, travelers receive guidelines and some of the tips are automatic. But, for travelers on their own, a sense of local tipping rules are need-to-know facts. Otherwise, travelers may come away leaving locals with the impression that they’re rude, condescending or stupid tourists.

One purported resource is: The Conde Nast Tipping Guide. It’s a start. Tipping rules vary by country, by region and by the scenario. However, many locals feel this Conde Nast chart is out of whack as well. If you are not totally confused after reading this post, add your own tipping stories.

Tipping gaffs are international — foreigners don’t know our rules, just like we don’t know theirs. One of the reasons many Europeans receive bad raps in U.S. restaurants is because the tip is already included in the tab at home. They may choose to leave a few extra coins to show their appreciation. But, it’s no where near the traditional tip of 15% U.S. waiters expect to receive.

Because of this, some restaurants in areas that attract a lot of foreign visitors, note on the menu that tips aren’t included (or clearly state they are included). It’s not unusual for the management to state an 18% tip will be included on checks when six or more people are dining. (Of course that can happen anywhere, even in non-touristy spots.)

If the service has been less than satisfactory, it’s up to the clients to make their feelings known. First, you have to find the manager on duty.

Note: For Americans used to tipping 15-20 percent and traveling in areas frequented by foreign tourists, check your restaurant bill carefully. Often the tip is unexpectedly included. Nothing is more irritating that finding that you unexpectedly tipped again on top of the original tip.

Even here at on American turf, tipping rules are somewhat confusing. Travels don’t have to be international to be confusing.

Americans tend to tip the service people with whom they do business including the person who brings you your car (you do want to see your car again and relatively quickly) if you frequent that garage. Tipping is expected at the hairdresser, barbershop, the person who grooms your dog and the list goes on. Are you supposed to tip the owner of a hair salon if she or she does your hair?  The technical answer is no. But have you ever seen your “thank you” turned away?

Hotel guests frequently overlook tipping the maids who take care of their rooms. Who does what and when may be a mystery and how do you know the correct person is collecting the money? Either you can tip as your go if you see the housekeeper or you’ve made a special request for extra towels or more. If there’s a day crew, a night staff and then there are weekends, you might want to leave an envelope at the front desk for the head of housekeeping and hope he or she passes on your monetary thank you.

Do you tip the concierge? I always do if he or she has done something special, such as making a restaurant reservation.

How much do you tip the bell-hop for dragging suitcases to your room?

Are you expected to deposit something in the doorman’s palm each and every time you leave or enter the hotel? Or do you save your money for when a  taxi appears because of his magic whistle or wave?

Don’t necessarily do as the locals do. Yes, they’re definitely a good frame of reference. But there may be different rules for people who live in place rather than visit it. And you won’t always get a 100% accurate response if you ask a waiter whether or not the tip is included. Some waiters in the E.U. have an interesting way of interpreting that question that ends up with the diner forking over some extra money.

Read what it says on the bottom of a check before making up your mind as to whether or not an additional gratuity is expected. If one is, it’s more appreciated if left in cash rather than on a credit card. Not that I’m an authority but it has something to do with the tax man.

Most people have made gaffs when it comes to tipping. When I insisted on giving a taxi driver in China something more than was shown on the meter, the tip was quickly and audibly returned. I wasn’t aware taxis are equipped with with microphone and tipping isn’t allowed. Live and learn.

A group of us are still  feeling (somewhat) guilty over our not tipping when we were having a drink recently. We waited 20 minutes before our drink orders were taken as we were bellied up to the bar. When a table freed up in front of it, we grabbed it taking our Martinis with us. No one bothered to clear or clean the table so we were sitting among glasses and dirty napkins and empty dishes. We were hoping for a second drink but we were invisible.

When the check arrived, our host forked over a credit card but omitted adding a tip. The bar’s owner marched right over and chastised us for not adding a tip or making a slash in the tip amout line and insisted it be done. One of our group decided to write a summary of everything  that was wrong and we exited quickly.

We were fine with that decision because we had zero service. Our host wasn’t, because it’s the only place in her tiny town that has a bar and she might need to return there.

Everyone has tipping stories of when they’ve tipped too much or not enough and when they’ve regretted it. Add yours to the comment section and add to the confusion. Some are even worth a few giggles because cultural differences are precisely that.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Thanksgiving Abroad

Written by admin on November 1, 2009 – 3:42 pm -

Many Americans are in the process of making plans for Thanksgiving. Families traditionally gather over turkey and all the fixings to give thanks and catch up with relatives. It’s frequently a multigenerational gathering under the best circumstances. Americans tend to live in different parts of the country because the days of the nuclear family are pretty much a thing of the past.

Many consider this holiday a time for reflection. Even if their lives are a bit bumpy (OK, the economic data are better—do you hear that?), it’s a time to give thanks. Invariably, there are collections of food for families who are less fortunate. Some begin the day by going and serving turkey dinners to people in shelters or soup kitchens. Perhaps, because it’s a holiday with a muted religious significance, it isn’t loaded with do’s and don’ts. And realistically, aren’t we paying homage to native Indians who taught the first inhabitants of the new continent how to physically survive?

If you’re an American living abroad, Thanksgiving poses a different type of challenge. It’s your holiday. But it’s not one in the country where you’re working. The fourth Thursday of November isn’t even a day off or a leave-the-office-early day. On the other hand, you may not have to work some days when your U.S. colleagues do, such as La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) where people honor the dead, and it’s not just an excuse for a Halloween party—and trick or treating. For the French, it is a religious holiday, and of course an excuse to take a long weekend.

Children who attend American schools most probably will be on vacation. But their parents won’t be. Some families opt to band together and celebrate the holiday because, if they plan to return home, it’s usually during the Christmas break when everyone is on vacation.

Expats may leave their home countries, but they take their traditions with them, and holiday traditions often become more meaningful to those living abroad. Because of this, groups such as the American Club and many others sponsor holiday events. Americans who are traveling and find they won’t be home for the holidays can contact various groups and pay to be included. Many hotels that cater to Americans offer a special meal. If you look in the English language newspaper (or call the American Church), you’ll find numerous choices. But, if you’re in Paris, don’t wait for your invite from the American ambassador to France. The Rivkin family is undoubtedly busy.

Preparing the traditional turkey dinner can also be a challenge, unless you’re stationed on a U.S. military base where it’s easier to “live American,” and Butterball turkeys are available at the PX. Those who are entitled to buy at a U.S. commissary don’t have to pay a small fortune for such exotic products such as canned cranberry sauce or jelly, Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix, and tiny marshmallows to bake on top on the sweet potatoes. They can even buy cans of puréed pumpkin so they can whip up pies in ready-made pie crusts. Don’t tell your French friends.

Thanksgiving has always been meaningful to me. I’ll never forget the first year I lived in Paris (we’re talking 22 years ago) and my mother came to visit. Her luggage included cans of Ocean Spray’s finest tucked into shoes, and unpacking her suitcases was an experience in itself. It was a true treasure hunt.

These were the days before France discovered and started marketing turkey as the “white meat.” The largest turkey anyone could buy was a bird only marginally larger than a chicken. A few butchers in the 6eme, 7eme, and 16eme arrondissements (where most Americans tended to live) were willing to order large turkeys for their clients. But everything had its time… and that time was Christmas.

Being resourceful and ignorant of French agricultural regulations, my mother imported a real honest-to-goodness Butterball in a Styrofoam container. Gee, it had to defrost anyway, and what was wrong with doing it in transit across the Atlantic? When the customs inspectors asked what the trunk contained, my mother who spoke little French but had a dazzling smile, explained it was for her daughter and Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey and she were waved through security and, yes, it was a memorable dinner.

We invited all of our American friends, who were amazed by the Butterball caper. We also included French friends and professional colleagues who weren’t overwhelmingly impressed by the caliber of the food. Who could blame them? Thanksgiving meals simply aren’t haute cuisine. It goes without saying they were incredibly polite and saved the evening by bringing chilled champagne. We were all feeling less pain by the time dinner was on the table.

Big turkeys are readily available now, but because they’re free-range, they cost a fortune. After you’ve tasted a farm-raised turkey, you’re spoiled for ones that have been raised in incubators, even though they may look juicier and considerably plumper.

I’ve come to relish Thanksgiving dinner with family, American friends, and French friends. The evening probably doesn’t begin until 8:00 p.m. But we have a wonderful times bonding over food and an American tradition. And lots of wine. Isn’t that what life is about? And something to be thankful for?

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Posted in Paris |