Our senior digital editor, Kristen Remeza, just returned from a 15-day trip to Southeast Asia. She and her husband stayed at three Andrew Harper hotels and visited five countries — Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand among them. Here she tells us about their experience in Hanoi, where they stayed the first four days of their trip.
Overall impressions: Hanoi is the beating heart of what was once French Indochina. The streets of this thousand-year-old capital city buzz as multitudes of motorbikes fly by; tiny, weathered old women squat on the sidewalks cooking meals over hot flames; and fruit vendors wearing conical hats transport their goods using traditional bamboo shoulder poles. Hanoi is full of contradictions. It’s Asian, French and Communist, gritty, cramped and poverty-stricken, yet at the same time it’s charming and life-affirming.
I was personally more prepared for a romantic French version of Hanoi than the modern reality, but our hotel lived up to every expectation. The elegant Sofitel Legend Metropole opened in 1901, and its old soul is still palpable today. Somerset Maugham wrote “The Gentleman in the Parlour” there, Charlie Chaplin was a frequent guest and Jane Fonda spent time there during the “American War.”
Favorite meal or meals: The fried-fish noodle soup at Bún Cá Văn. It was so colorful and flavorful, and the fried fish stayed crispy in the broth.
Most unexpected moment: Meeting a 9-year-old girl who stopped us at Hoan Kiem Lake to practice her English. We learned she has a little dog named, of all things, Donald Trump. When asked why, she said, “Because he’s so naughty!”
You can’t stop thinking about: The artwork I wish I could have transported back from Manzi, a refreshing art gallery/café-bar featuring emerging local artists. I took a photo of it instead.
Favorite museums: Bảo tàng Phụ nữ Việt Nam, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which celebrates the role of women in Vietnamese history, family and fashion. The permanent exhibition on the different use of fabrics and motifs by the country’s 54 ethnic groups was interesting and made me appreciate each design — whether created of hemp, batik, ikat and embroidered or appliquéd — as a work of art. Also fascinating was learning about the custom of tooth lacquering, a beauty ritual where sticky black resin was used by women to blacken their teeth.
The Hỏa Lò Prison, known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” was also a must visit. It gave insight into not only the place where John McCain and others were held as prisoners of war but also how propaganda informs history: The government even now contends that the POWs were treated well there — hence the nickname — while the POWs themselves insist it was a facetious title given to a place where they experienced mental and physical torture. Though it's much smaller today than it once was, it is quite chilling.
If you have time, visit the two modest houses Ho Chi Minh lived in after refusing to take up residence in the presidential palace: one the former home of the palace electrician and the other a stilted house. They are located near the heavily guarded granite mausoleum that holds “Uncle Ho’s” embalmed body. And while we didn’t go inside the mausoleum, the hulking structure makes quite the Communist statement.
Where or what to drink: Take a tour with Mark or Tu of Hanoi Street Food Tours (not to be confused with a similarly named tour company), and you will eat and drink quite well. On a four-hour tour, we tried fried fish noodles, fermented wild rice with yogurt, iced coffee, shrimp cakes, char siu pork noodles and the most delicious crab spring rolls I’ll probably ever have in my life.
Day-trip suggestions: Hop on the back of a motorbike and ride pillion through the streets of Hanoi with Hanoi Motorbike Street Foods. We were naturally a little nervous to grab a helmet and join thousands of bikes on the road, but our guides — tiny as they were — managed to deftly navigate in controlled 25-mph chaos.
Surprising fact or tidbit: Don’t drink the water, but do try the egg coffee at Café Giang. Created in 1946 during a milk shortage, cà phê trúng gets its froth from whisked egg and condensed milk. Poured over bitter Robusta-bean coffee, it tastes like a liquid version of tiramisu.
Souvenir: Traditional handicrafts created by ethnic artisans at Craft Link. I bought several handmade silk scarves for $5 each.
What to pack: Plastic sandals you won’t mind getting filthy and enough clothing that you won’t have to do laundry even after three showers a day. Rainy season in Hanoi is hot and humid!
Insider’s Tip: There are no traffic laws — or at least none that people actually abide by — so when crossing the street, walk don’t run and cross at an angle while making eye contact with the motorbike riders heading your way. They may get close, but they won’t hit you.
Any regrets: I wish I would have tried the Pho Cocktail at the Metropole’s Bamboo Bar and gotten a tour of the bomb shelter under the hotel to protect guests during bombing raids during the Vietnam War. So little time….