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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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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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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