Weekend in Hanoi: Under Vietnam's spell

1 Jun 2017 by Tamsin Cocks
Paradise Elegance cruise ship in Halong Bay

I’m sipping an espresso at La Terrasse – the Parisian-style pavement bistro of the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. The hotel lies in the heart of the French Quarter, an area resplendent with colonial architecture, broad, tree-lined boulevards and stunning landmarks like the Hanoi Opera House.

The Sofitel Metropole is a prime example – opened in 1901, the beautiful granddame hasn’t aged a day, with a perfect chalk-white, four-storey façade elegantly framed by lofty French windows and dark-green shutters.

Except tonight, I can’t see any of these details. The entire street – along with most of the city – has been plunged into darkness for Hanoi’s participation in Earth Hour, a global WWF initiative that sees businesses and landmarks power down to raise awareness of environmental issues.

Hushed under total darkness, the effect is quite magical. There is barely a murmur in the café as we all admire the strangely serene setting. I can’t help but conjure up images from Hanoi’s turbulent not-so-distant past, when the northern Vietnamese city trembled under wartime bombing raids.

This is partly due to the fact we’ve just experienced the hotel’s fascinating Path of History tour. Led by knowledgeable Ambassadors of History, guests are taken on a journey that starts in the lobby – which itself invokes the era of French Indochina, with ceiling fans, dark-green leather armchairs, tiled floors and old-fashioned telephones with message pads. The tour brings to life artefacts in the display cabinet, before moving through the Wall of Fame that documents the reams of notable figures who have stayed within its walls, from American folk singer Joan Baez to writer Graham Greene and President George Bush.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

The final stop is the most exciting: the secret bomb shelter, built in the 1960s and only rediscovered in 2011. The claustrophobic concrete bunker, as basic as it is, was once a refuge for the hotel’s privileged guests during the bombing raids – though the hotel staff had to take their chances in drains under flimsy manhole covers outside…

Eventually the lights come flickering back on at the café, rousing us from our reverie. Finishing our coffees, we wander towards the Old Quarter. Before we’ve walked 200 metres, we’re confronted with what seems to be an impromptu street party, extending the whole way around Hoàn Kiem Lake. As it turns out, the city government has ordered the surrounding streets be pedestrianised every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 7pm to midnight. The result is a carnival-like atmosphere, drawing locals and tourists alike. We see groups of musicians, choirs and street performers, with others playing badminton and navigating double skipping ropes.

The simple happiness is contagious, and the backdrop of the lake is beautiful. Numerous couples have snatched secluded spots on the bank under the trees to gaze at the romantic scene, perhaps hoping to spy one of the legendary giant turtles that once populated the lake (though the last known resident – Cu Rua, aka great-grandfather turtle – died in January last year).

In Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the scene abruptly changes and horns fill the air. Vietnam’s crazy street traffic is notorious, but it still has to be seen to be believed. I stand open-jawed on more than one street corner, boggling at the delightful madness in front of me. Impossibly narrow streets are treated as fair game by a two-way stream of cars, mopeds, bikes and people. One man nonchalantly freewheels through the chaos, texting with one hand, a cigarette held lazily in the other.

Full of character, the heart of the Old Quarter is a maze of teetering two-storey avenues, populated with brightly coloured and slightly crumbling colonial villas that house shops, bars and restaurants. Down some of the busier streets, an impenetrable swarm of people spill out of bars and clubs, with tables lining the
narrow avenues.

We stoop to sit at child-size pavement chairs and tables for a steaming bowl of pho, Vietnam’s ubiquitous noodle soup, before enjoying a Hanoi beer while overlooking the streets from a rickety overhanging structure. On our return to the Metropole, we stop for a nightcap (or two) at Angelica, the hotel’s late-night bar with dark hues of red and a resident DJ. A couple of rather lethal martinis later, we stumble happily to bed.


If you have the time, don’t pass up on the chance to visit the World Heritage-listed Halong Bay. A mystical land- and waterscape, it features almost 2,000 limestone islands and provided the perfect fantasy backdrop for recent blockbuster Kong: Skull Island.

Don’t try and squeeze this into a day. Numerous cruise packages allow you to stop overnight on the water – and it’s an incredible sight to wake up to. The four-hour journey out includes a stop at the Hong Ngoc Shopping Centre, and while this is undoubtedly a tourist trap, don’t instantly dismiss it. Firstly, the range of souvenirs, from traditional lacquerware and paintings to jewellery and other trinkets, is beautiful to browse, with some high-quality pieces. Secondly, many of the artworks are created by disabled people and the proceeds are used to fund charitable missions.

Paradise Cruise (paradisecruise.com) offers one of the most luxurious berths on the water. The recently launched Paradise Elegance is a gorgeous, gleaming white vessel with 31 deluxe guest quarters. Inside it has a glamorous olde-worlde feel with smooth, modern finishings. The cabins are beautiful – far more spacious than I was expecting, with dark, glossy mahogany walls. The bedroom has a comfy king-size bed and TV, with a private balcony, dressing room and large bathroom – with fully plumbed toilets and hot showers.

We set sail out of the harbour with a flotilla of other pleasure boats and glide towards the looming wall of islands that signal the start of the heritage site. In virtually no time we’re lost amidst the towering green monoliths, shrouded in a misty veil. I’m completely blown away by the sheer size of Halong Bay – a vast, watery spectacle with jungle-topped islands spreading out over a colossal 1,553 square kilometres.

We are gathered for a ship briefing shortly after setting off, where we are introduced to our jovial captain. He greets us warmly and runs through the itinerary, which includes a choice of excursions such as visiting Cua Van floating village, exploring the area by kayak, climbing to the peak of Ti Top Island for breathtaking panoramic views, or entering the depths of Sung Sot Cave.

After a safety briefing is concluded, we tuck into a buffet lunch, with a delicious and varied selection particularly strong on seafood. Other activities on board include a sunset cooking class on the top deck, live entertainment from a Filipino band in the piano bar (with ample opportunity to join in if you’re so inclined), spa treatments and a 6.30am t’ai chi class on the sundeck.

In the evening, the dark outlines of the surrounding limestone rocks are illuminated from the soft glow of other boats huddled together for the night. But rather than feeling “too touristy”, in this otherworldly landscape you’re glad of the company. Just in case King Kong is lurking…

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