The grand dame of hospitality in Hanoi is an unforgettable experience transcending space and time to recreate an atmospheric colonial era vibe.
Text by Jan Yong
Staying at The Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is like walking through a time tunnel, along the way, the past comes alive to remind you of its many stories. As the top hotel in Hanoi, and once the finest hotel in all Indochina, it has welcomed dignitaries and celebrities from all over the world. The list of guests reads like a ‘Who’s Who around the World’.
Top politicians, Hollywood A-list stars and musicians, corporate titans, philanthropists and writers have walked through its corridors, and wined and dined at its fabulous restaurants. Some even left their names behind – three Legendary Suites in the Old Wing are named after Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, and Charlie Chaplin, respectively. Incidentally, Chaplin had spent his honeymoon there with wife Paulette Goddard, a Hollywood diva in the 1940s. In more recent times, another (former) celebrity couple, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have availed themselves of the warm welcome of the hotel.
First opened in 1901, the rooms were elegantly furnished and attracted the rich and famous. Situated next to the Red River in Hanoi’s French Quarter, the Metropole recreates the old world charms of a historical hotel complemented with modern amenities. It has what is acknowledged as the first and finest French restaurant in Hanoi as well as a sidewalk café that still packs in the crowds.
During the war years, like other grand hotels around the globe, it became a venue for discrete meetings and where military personnel stayed in the best rooms. After the war in the 1970s, the rooms temporarily housed foreign embassies while their embassy buildings were being rebuilt. It became the only hotel in the world to house so many different diplomats under one roof – Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany and Israel, among others.
‘Mekong spy thriller’
The Metropole could easily be the setting of a great Mekong spy thriller – it has all the ingredients – the atmosphere, the people and the antiques. There is for example, a vintage Citroen limousine parked next to the Old Wing lobby and an excavated bomb shelter. Indeed, a known Japanese spy did stay there during World War II.
The bomb shelter is hidden beneath the swimming pool and the Bamboo Bar. Built in 1965 during the Vietnam/American War as a shelter against American bombings, the 40- sqm bunker has 5 interconnecting rooms and could fit a maximum of 40 people.
In 1972, two famous celebrities, Jane Fonda and Joan Baez, visited the bunker separately during their 2-week stay at the hotel. Baez emerged with 15 hours of tapes of the ‘worst air-raids of mankind’ – over 60 bombings in 11 days. While hunkered down, she recorded a song, with bombs falling, sirens blaring, women singing, children laughing during Christmas of 1972. Thankfully, the hotel was never hit. It is today the highlight of the hotel’s awardwinning Path of History tour.
A stay at the Metropole is not just another hotel stay – it is a fully-fledged sensuous indulgence into a bygone era filled with elegance, fine dining and a cosmopolitan vibe. With its location steps away from the exquisitely restored Opera House, it became, for some an obligatory stopover for dinner prior to the performance.
The grandeur is breathtaking and once inside, it gives out an aura at once intimate, exclusive and rarefied.
Hanging out at the hotel’s restaurants, lounges, Bamboo Bar and swimming pool area is like an occasion in itself where you feel the need to dress up.
Against this opulent setting are various touches that make this hotel unique. A garden by the restaurant hosts some 2,400 different species of bees with the bee hive protected from the elements. The same bee hive supplies the honey that is used for breakfast, usually held at the Spices Garden or Le Beaulieu French Restaurant.
The Metropole also has its own Frenchinspired bakery, L’Epicerie du Metropole that supplies homemade and preservative-free cakes and pastries. On offer are cookies, ice cream, macaroons and cakes baked for different seasons such as the moon cake. During Christmas, they offer turkeys and roast lamb. Other delectable offerings include imported oysters, smoked salmon, salami, dry sausages, cheese, imported items from France, butter, wine, foie gras and chocolates. Not surprisingly, it is considered the best French bakery in town attracting a clientele who appreciate fine food.
The revamped Angelina Restaurant which triples up as a cocktail bar and whiskey lounge combines European and New World elements. It is a new concept hangout with a strong Scottish influence and is home to the most extensive whiskey selection in Hanoi in addition to a large collection of fine wine.
“The ingredients are extremely high quality served in a casual and rustic presentation that urges diners to share,” says Anthony Slewka, Director of Sales & Marketing, as he hosted me over lunch. As I looked over the menu, it certainly reflects a chef who is disposed to using the best ingredients yet without any pretentious flair.
For starters, I had the Eggs in the Nest consisting of organic eggs, foie gras, pancetta, potato and black truffle. Very French, very high quality yet with a touch of rustic farm goodness. This was followed by Roasted Black Cod which comes with garden vegetables and cauliflowers, a very healthy combination indeed. Combined with some of the best cocktails in town, The Angelina delivers the essentials with a down-to-earth flourish.
I later headed to the Bamboo Bar next to the swimming pool. Voted as one of the Top 10 bars in Vietnam, it has set a high bar for itself. The bamboo theme can be seen in its unique bamboo-made ceiling fans and bamboo-draped ceilings. Bamboo being a common plant found in Vietnam, it truly reflects the beautiful effects from a fusion of local materials with foreign imports.
Back at the Opera Wing where I was staying, the room was impeccably furnished with top of the range furnishings, exuding luxurious comfort in a contemporary setting. Opened in 1996, it immediately received an architectural award.
In the Historical Wing, as the name implies, the original grandeur of French architecture was preserved along with the creaking wooden staircases and bannisters and some of the fixtures and fittings.
According to Slewka, there are 364 guestrooms and suites spread across both the Historical and Opera Wings. During peak season stretching from November through March, the hotel has a high occupancy rate with guests coming mainly from America followed by Europe and Japan.
Explaining The Metropole’s timeless appeal, Slewka says: “With its majestic colonial design, elegantly furnished rooms and historic legacy, it has become the top among all hotels in Vietnam – indeed, it is Vietnam’s first 5-star hotel. We have also managed to stay at the top by keeping up with the times – by offering state-of-the-art technology and amenities while preserving its historic character.”
Its location in the French Quarter of Hanoi also lends an atmospheric feel to the hotel surrounded as it is by iconic buildings near Hoan Kiem Lake. “There is a certain charm to the French colonial architecture which in some cases are in a state of mild disrepair – it’s not easily duplicated anywhere else in the world. Apart from being the administrative capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is also the country’s premier cultural and historical destination.”