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 |

What’s in a five-star hotel? And do you want such digs?

Written by admin on September 21, 2009 – 4:50 pm -

In these days, where many people are watching their pennies, are über deluxe five-star hotels become memories of the past? You know, elegantly decorated hotels with a staff available 24-hours-a-day to satisfy every whim?

Well, yes and no. Would you pay for such service? As the famed financier JP Morgan said, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” He was probably right.

Let’s face it – there will always be the very rich and famous (or wannabees) who aren’t going to go without. They’re probably just not us. Or if they are, it’s because we’re getting special deals.

Many hotels are offering promotions to keep their room occupancy nights high since they don’t want to let the employees go during these challenging economic times, when unlimited expense account travel is down and even well-to-do tourists are being increasingly cautious.

Other hotels are cutting services, which some hoteliers say is the way to go. Others feel there’s no turning back when the financial crisis is over.

But why does a hotel merit a five-stars and what how are hotels classified?  The global rating system is supposed to be consistent.  In reality, five-star hotels in Paris and New York City are inevitably jazzier and offer more service than hotels in Tunisia. In parts of Asia, hotels are often more sybaritic, as well as service-oriented, because the service personnel’s salaries are substantially less.

What’s the definition of a five-star hotel?  According to Hervé Novelli, Secretary of State for French Tourism, five-star hotels should have most of the same services as the revered Meurice Hotel in Paris:

A multi-lingual concierge staff that can perform miracles and access tickets for events and reservations at restaurants that are ‘impossible’ to come by.
- A gourmet restaurant
- A bar with food service.
- Room Service – 24 hours a day
- A spa or health club
- Laundry and dry-cleaning facilities
- Air-conditioning, individually controlled
- Rooms for non-smokers and ones that are handicapped accessible and equipped

Technology in all Rooms

- Multi-channel TV (LCD and plasma screens)
- High-speed Internet access
- DVD and CD players
- Video and music on demand
- Multi-line telephones
- Dual-voltage power supply
- iPod radio-alarm-clock

Business and Entertaining

- Fully equipped Business corner with Internet access
- Fax machines/ printers in the room on request
- Wi-Fi access in public areas- Private dining room
- Ballroom and banqueting suites

Additional Amenities

- Car or Limousine service services
- Babysitting on request
- Courier services

It goes without saying, bathrooms should be worthy of being featured in “Architectural Digest” and all linens should be perfect, including robes. There should be complimentary bottled water, lavish bathroom amenities, evening turn-down service and a well-stocked mini-bar.

The above services don’t come cheap. But many hotels essentially offer much or many of the same ones.

How do you choose between one hotel and another? Some people may prefer high-tech modern décor opposed to traditional (and often opulent) silk, satins fabrics exuding a more formal look and feel.

The Meurice Hotel has 200 years of tradition and service to differentiate it from this year’s high-rise hotel a block away. There are plenty of five-star hotels that are wonderful but may not be as charming or elegant. It’s up to clients to decide what’s right for them and what they select is very subjective.

Which brings me to my questions. Even if you’re not planning to spend big bucks (Euros or Yen) on a room, what essentials do you require? How do your decisions differ if you’re on business versus pleasure? Do you take advantage of a hotel’s facilities (e.g. a fitness center) or do you just like knowing one is available in case you’re motivated?

When do you decide to splurge on a hotel? If you’re traveling on business and are staying in a big city, how much latitude do you have in deciding where to reserve? If your company has a corporate travel department, do they make housing decisions without your input?

And last but not least: When you’ve check into a hotel that has promised the sun, stars and the moon and find that it’s not delivering what it promised, do you complain? Do you ask to change rooms? Do you check out?

Please post what a five-star hotel experience signifies to you – and whether or not you’re willing to pay for it and when? If you are, which hotels are the ones to which you love to return?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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