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Travelling to Vietnam: Highlights of Hanoi and Halong Bay

By: Joanne Miller

Hanoi’s European ambience sets it apart from many other Asian cities. The French may have lost political sway over Vietnam in 1954, but their influence remains ingrained in the city’s culinary culture and architecture. Joanne Miller took to the streets to discover its unique allure and why over seven million people call Hanoi home.

The 35-kilometre stretch from Noi Bai Airport to Hanoi passes rice paddies, water buffalo, the Red River and Long Bien Bridge, designed by French architect Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). It all seems rather rural and pleasant, but before too long you’re in the midst of droves of weaving, beeping motorcycles – there are, after all, 24 million motorcycles in Vietnam. A labyrinth of alleyways heave with merchants selling all kinds of wares from antiques and herbal remedies to silks, toys and the ubiqituous national dish pho (beef or chicken noodle soup).

As the taxi slows in the Old Quarter’s Ngo Quyen Street, I’m captivated by the Parisian-style, white façade of the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi – colonial architecture and an inviting sidewalk café. It’s without question the best and most elegant place to stay in Hanoi. The 110-year-old grande dame of Vietnamese hotels is imposing in its architecture but warm in its hospitality. Inside, gracious staircases, highly polished teak furniture with brass fittings and marble floors add to the prestige. You can choose either a traditional or a contemporary-style room or suite, all spacious and luxurious. Each is  named after writers (and one filmmaker) who spent quality time in the landmark building, such as Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Charlie Chaplin.

Special touches include an extensive pillow menu and complimentary Vietnamese cake, chocolate and fruit, welcome offerings for the weary traveller. Standard rooms are surprisingly affordable (starting from S$200). Le Spa du Metropole is one of the most opulent spas I’ve ever seen: the Tonkin couple’s suite has its own whirlpool spa, a choice of 12 different soundtracks and five different room scents.

The Metropole is a history boffin’s delight –  if only its walls could speak! US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton had only just checked out the day I arrived. A brag sheet of royal, political, notorious and celebrity guests includes Cuban leader Fidel Castro, former French president Jacques Chirac, rocker Mick Jagger, actors Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, former US president George W. Bush and US senator John McCain.

The lobby displays carefully preserved artefacts from French colonial rule, the struggle for independence and the Vietnam War. Hotel renovations late last year uncovered a 40-square-metre air raid shelter beneath the hotel’s outdoor bar. Daily guided Path of History tours serve as a grisly reminder of the terrifying and claustrophobic conditions hotel guests endured (sometimes for up to 12 hours) during air strikes from the mid-1960s through to Christmas 1972. The tour also includes a recording of folk singer Joan Baez singing in the shelter during war time, while an eerie light bulb continues to flicker without any obvious electricity source nearly 50 years on.

Hanoi positively swelters in June and July. You will break a sweat just standing still so bring a fan, handkerchiefs and plenty of loose, light and natural fibre clothing. November to April is regarded as the dry and cool season with temperatures dropping to as low as 10 degrees Celsius around Christmas. Return to Hanoi (and the Metropole) during the festive season and the yuletide lights and white Christmas fanfare may make you feel you’ve been teleported to Europe. It’s best to avoid Vietnam during Tet (Lunar New Year) from mid-January to mid-February, as the place comes to a grinding halt.

The Tourist Trail
Hanoi is Vietnam’s political capital, evidenced by the countless buildings in trademark yellow ochre and the Communist Party announcements via the tannoyat 4.45pm each day. It’s also the final resting place of Uncle Ho (Chairman Ho Chi Minh): my first official tourist stop. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is imposing, somewhat at odds with the man’s dying wishes to be cremated and have his ashes spread across the country’s north, centre and south. Nevertheless, the museum provides a personal insight into his austere life – Uncle Ho chose to live in a gardener’s simple hut rather than his own presidential palace. The mausoleum is only open in the morning from Tuesday to Thursday and is closed throughout all of October and November, so plan accordingly. Uncle Ho’s home is open every day, but times are restricted: 8am to 11am and 2pm to 4pm.

The Temple of Literature is Vietnam’s oldest university, dating back to 1070. Its Chinese-inspired courtyard details some of the nation’s history and philosophy: the names of best-performing students between 1442 and 1778 are recorded on 82 tortoise-shaped stone tablets. Ropes and signage are meant to deter handling, yet many of the countless Hanoians and tourists who visit the temple pay little attention to the warnings and instead rub the smooth tortoise craniums in the hope that good luck and wisdom would be bestowed upon them for upcoming exams and other challenges.

On a little island in the centre of Hoan Kiem Lake is Ngoc Son Temple. The lake is the meeting spot for tourists and Hanoians, whether at the crack of dawn, for a midday siesta when the heat is most stifling, or at dusk as the sun casts ethereal golden rays across the water. It’s a popular locale for exercise, with many taking to wiggling, windmilling, gyrating and doing all kinds of unusual but highly amusing moves. You’ll also see people relaxing, gossiping, canoodling and even playing heated games of chess at any hour of the day or night.

Hanoi Mementos

The Old Quarter consists of around 36 streets and guilds named according to the wares being peddled on each – Ice Cream Street, Medicine Street, Tin Street and so on – making shopping easier, if only the traffic and alleyways were more navigable. Cho Hom Market and Van Phuc Village are the best places to buy inexpensive fabric and sewing materials while Dong Xuan Market has everything from fresh food to flowers and fashion jewellery.

Apricot, Art Vietnam, Bui Gallery and 54 Traditions are all worth visiting to buy or simply marvel at the works of talented local artists. Bookworm has an impressive collection of new and used English and French titles and had my bibliophile travel buddy salivating.

Living in Singapore, you’ll be familiar with the traditional Chinese female dress, the qipao or cheong sam. Vietnam’s version is the oh-so-elegant ao dai (pronounced “ow zai”). Though it’s similar in design to the qipao, the hem falls to the ankles and trousers are worn underneath. Head to La Hang or Thuy Nga where tailors will happily modernise your ao dai or opt for the classic design as seen on the immaculately dressed Metropole staff.

Tan My has been Hanoi’s leading provider of quality silks and embroidery for three generations, with an array of locally made jewellery, homeware, men’s wear and bedding in a three-storey airconditioned showroom with a café – an oasis amid the stifling and crowded shophouses.

Shutterbug Alert
Hanoi is a photographer’s delight, and here are some particularly noteworthy locales.

Head back out of town (towards the airport) to Long Bien Bridge for iconic images of Hanoian life. It is only accessible by foot or on two wheels, so if you’re going by taxi, arrange to be dropped nearby. The stunning views across the Red River are worth the trip but be mindful of potholes, whether you’re walking or riding, so you don’t break your camera – or your nose!

Hanoi isn’t the place to wear your finest garb, but the local octogenerians are renowned for their sartorial splendour, often sporting berets, fedoras, Aviator or Wayfarer shades and tweed jackets despite the sometimes soaring temperatures. They make great subjects for charismatic portraits.

Halong Bay (170km east of Hanoi) is a no-brainer. Sure, you’ll get home and realise that you probably didn’t need to take 2,500 shots of the islets, but you’ll have a few frame-worthy photos to adorn your walls and remind you of your escape to a place where time stands still and troubles melt away.

Eats
You simply cannot visit Hanoi without sampling the 100-year-old guarded family recipe of Cha Ca La Vong’s catfish, sautéed in fragrant oil with dill and turmeric and served with vermicelli noodles. It’s ingredients are simple, but the taste will having you oohing and aahing long after you’ve descended the rickety steps of this Vietnamese eating institution. After chatting with those in the know, I found out the family also has a Saigon outlet, where they’re a little more generous with servings and hospitality – the terse demeanour of the staff here is reminiscent of Seinfeld’scharacter the Soup Nazi, but you’ll either warm to or ignore them once your food arrives. Tip: Head upstairs for more breathing space, take plenty of tissues or wet wipes and avoid the loos.

For a complete contrast in surrounds and tastes, The Metropole’s Le Club is hell bent on fattening all who dare to cross its threshold with its daily all-you-can-possibly-devour afternoon chocolate buffet (S$25). Miniature versions of every imaginable choc-laden dessert adorn platter after platter.

For somewhere in the middle, opt for Kinh Do, a stalwart Hanoi bakery that also claims to be French actress Catherine Deneuve’s favourite. It’s popular with Hanoians and expats alike.

Majestic Halong Bay

My final two days in Vietnam include the Unesco-listed natural wonder of Halong Bay, or Descending Dragon Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. The three-hour drive, 170-kilometres east of Hanoi was nothing short of heart-stopping. As our mini-van swerved and narrowly avoided head-on collisions with semi-trailers, the countless roadside offerings of corn on the cob, fresh fruit and baguettes provided a welcome distraction.

Living in Southeast Asia can desensitise you to picture-perfect island imagery, but nothing quite compares to the sheer scale and pristine views of Halong Bay. It’s over 500 million years old, occupies 1,553 square kilometres and features 1,960 limestone karsts and isles with extensive caves and grottoes. Archaeologists cite age-old sea deposits as the cause of the magnificent undulating craggy peaks that jut out of the emerald waters, but legend has it that an enormous mother dragon simply allowed her almighty tail to flail through the waters, carving out the breathtaking islets.

A quick check-in and we’re aboard, setting sail on replica paddle steamer the Emeraude (emeraude-cruises.com) for an afternoon and overnight cruise to admire the spectacular scenery. At just US$149 per person (twin sharing), a standard cabin includes a small and basic bathroom, snooze-inducing beds with a choice of four pillow types and a welcome drink, lunch, dinner and breakfast. It’s an affordable yet historic getaway that includes stops at the cavernous 10,000-square-metre Surprise Cave and a kayak trip and dip in the warm waters at historic Titov Beach, named by President Ho Chi Minh after he visited the island in 1962 with former Soviet astronaut, Gherman Titov.

Charming, steely blue-eyed Emeraude captain Jacques Le Fur (65) has been sailing the waters of Halong Bay for the past seven years, although his love affair with Vietnam began much earlier as a young French naval officer. His life story reads like a film script: captured alone by communists on the Mekong River during the Vietnam War, stationed at Iraq’s Basra River during the Gulf War and then later meeting his wife in a chance encounter in a Parisian café before deciding at the tender age of 59 to uproot to Vietnam to begin a new chapter.

Captain Le Fur drops anchor just as the sun sets before hurrying downstairs to greet all of his guests for dinner. Cocktails follow on the upper deck before an outdoor screening of the 1992 Academy Award winning film, Indochine, set in 1930s Saigon, starring French actress Catherine Deneuve. A nightcap ensues before it’s time to turn in relatively early in order to wake to the next morning’s serene and heavenly sunrise before partaking in tai chi on the sundeck. After breakfast, it’s time to make our way back to Hanoi, head to the airport and bid adieu to Vietnam.

Getting There
SilkAir offers three flights to Hanoi each week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, with the option of Business Class. A 90-day visa from Singapore’s Vietnamese Embassy will set you back around S$90.

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