When you’re in the most stressful city in the world, it helps to stay in the world’s most luxurious hotel.
Two days into our honeymoon in Vietnam’s capital we’d had enough.
Our hotel in the city’s mental Old Quarter was nice enough – we were given fruit, wine and rose petals on the bed in the shape of two hearts – but the constant beeping of motorbike horns outside the single-glazed window was wearing us down. Why hadn’t we chosen a standard honeymoon in the Seychelles?
A way out of the madness
The next morning, we checked for last-minute hotel deals at an internet-café, and found a bargain at the 5-star Sofitel Legend Metropole (15 Pho Ngo Quyen). Rack rates for the best rooms start at around $550 but by booking with a price-comparison website it's possible to stay for under $250.
Ten minutes later we were on our way there in a rickshaw – surely the first couple to arrive at such an opulent hotel in this way.
Vive La France
The Metropole opened in 1901 (you’ll see its tagline “Depuis 1901” on everything from room service menus to the fluffy white bath-robes) when Vietnam was part of French Indochina.
Its ornate wedding-cake exterior and the two 1950’s Citroens parked at the hotel’s entrance hint at its Gallic history, while the location in Hanoi’s French Quarter is spot on. Here, the wide boulevards are a tad quieter than elsewhere in town – crossing roads in this area is a doddle compared to doing so in the Old Quarter.
The best hotel room in the world?
After checking-in, we were guided past the hotel’s outdoor swimming pool to our room, and were gobsmacked when we saw our home for the next three nights.
The bathroom was bigger than most bedrooms, while the bed was bigger than the bathroom.
We had his and hers washbasins, complimentary Hermés toiletries and a huge bathtub in front of a plasma screen with a waterproof remote control. Our rooms were cleaned twice a day, with goodies left after the second cleaning including a bouquet of red roses and a heart-shaped box of chocolates.
A dip in the pool is a great way to start the day – there are bells attached to sun-loungers to call the waiting staff, who will run, dressed in traditional Vietnamese attire and hats, to serve you.
The hotel’s restaurant, Le Beaulieu, was a little out of our price range so we popped to the excellent Au Lac House (13 Pho Tran Hung Dao; 933 3533), a couple of blocks away. Set in a French colonial villa, a two course meal of the freshest contemporary Vietnamese cuisine for two with wine will set you back around $65.
The cold Vietnamese spring rolls are highly recommended, as is the Vietnamese white wine, from the hills of Dalat in the country's south – a happy legacy left from the French rule. If you don’t fancy the twenty minute walk there, the concierges will wave down a motorbike taxi or a rickshaw for you and negotiate a fair price – a godsend as haggling for these is a total pain.
Lakeside wedding snaps
Once you've had your fill of seeing how rich tourists and businessmen live at the Metropole, it's time to venture out into Hanoi and observe the lifestyles of the locals. Hoan Kiem Lake is Hanoi's focal point and is just a five-minute stroll from the hotel. Walking around the lake you will see joggers, tai chi practitioners and improvised badminton matches, as people attach nets to willow trees.
We were curious to see dozens of Vietnamese couples in wedding attire having their photographs taken with the lake in the background. As this is Hanoi's most picturesque spot, newly-weds come here after their weddings – the brides with jeans under their wedding dresses - to have a souvenir taken for their wedding albums.
The Old Quarter borders the north shore of the lake, and is teeming with life. The population of Hanoi is 6.5 million, and at times it feels as though they are all congregating on the narrow streets of this area – some in cars, some on foot but most on motorbikes.
Time for a bia
A fun way to take it all in is to find a street-side Bia Hoi joint, plonk yourself down on a tiny plastic chair reminiscent of primary school days and people-watch with a Bia Hoi – watered down draught beer for around 20,000 dong a glass. There are many of these sociable bars and they don't tend to last too long in any one place, so just look out for those plastic chairs and pick one with a good view of the action.
Tube houses and toilets
Pho Ma May was our favourite street in this area, not least for the building at number 87 (87 Pho Ma May; 928 6504). For just 7,000 dong, you can enter this house which has been restored to show tourists what a traditional Hanoi Old Quarter “tube house” looks like inside.
Guides will tell you about the cramped living conditions and traditions before trying to sell you souvenirs and paintings. The toilet is well worth a look (see photo) – not quite as grand as the loo in the Metropole.
A magical bowl of pho bo
The area is also something of a haven for backpackers, although local life is still more prominent than tourism here. New Day Restaurant (72a Pho Ma May; 923 3686) is an excellent choice to sample some fine, fresh and cheap cuisine. A bowl of steaming hot pho bo (sliced beef with noodles and coriander in soup) is just 23,000 dong and is extremely versatile – locals and tourists lap it up for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Just over the road at the more touristy 69 (69 Pho Ma May; 926 1720), the food is even better – book ahead or be prepared to wait with a cocktail at the downstairs bar.
In the steps of celebrities...
On our last night, we enjoyed drinks on the decking back at the Metropole's poolside Bamboo Bar, under rotating wooden ceiling fans. Cocktails are named after the hotel's alumni of famous guests such as Grahame Greene, Joan Baez and Charlie Chaplin, who we were told had also spent his honeymoon here.
As we staggered back towards our room, a concierge ran over to hold the lift for us. “I’m very sorry sir – there is a VIP coming. Please can you wait for the next elevator?” he asked, as he held the lift, not for us but for none other than Prince Andrew.
This was a classic dinner party-story ending to our memorable stay at the Metropole – a hotel fit for, if not a king, then a prince.
Too posh for you?
If the Metropole is out of your price range, try the Elegance Emerald (85 Pho Ma May). It bills itself as the best boutique hotel in the Old Quarter, with doubles at $50 and junior suites at $65, both with breakfast.
NB: Vietnam takes two currencies – the US dollar and the dong. There are roughly 20,000 dong to the US dollar.