Historic Hotel

It has built a reputation as the most luxurious city hotel in Vietnam, one steeped in intrigue and history. But just how good is The Sofitel Legend Hanoi?

It would be hard to find a place to stay in Vietnam with a higher reputation preceding it than Hanoi’s Sofitel Legend Metropole. Not only has it hosted an exhausting list of celebrities over the years, but its role as a refuge for foreigners during the American War and its recently rediscovered and reopened bomb shelter have created a legend in more ways than one.

Even walking past the building, one cannot escape a sense of history, with its 1950s era vintage cars lined up outside and distinctive French classic architecture.

The Metropole spans two wings, the historic one dating back to 1901 with 106 rooms and three suites, each bearing the name of a famous former guest – Graham Greene, Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham. Management must have had a tough task choosing which three VIPs to name the suites after given the roll call – Fidel Castro, George Bush, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Gerard Depardieu, Jacques Chirac, Michael Cain, Mick Jagger, Queen Noor of Jordan, Robert DeNiro, Angela Merkel, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Dmitri Medvedev… OK, enough name dropping; suffice to say Oi was in good company.

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Choosing the wooden staircase instead of the tiny lift, just for the experience, our reception attendant agrees it’s a beautiful environment to work in. Other staff tell me that many of them have worked for many years, “It’s like a family.” Few seem to want to leave because, quite frankly, when you work in a place as grand and rich in history as this, where you’re likely to bump into people you’ve only read about in glossy magazines, where else would you go to?

Entering the Metropole wing is more than just an escape from the noise of downtown Hanoi – you seem to step back in time, getting a very strong sense of what life must have been like in the era when the French ruled with their aristocratic convention and the opulence which imperialism brought with it.

Inside, my room has polished wooden floors and dark wooden furniture throughout. Sitting at the antique-style writing desk typing into a Mac laptop, one can imagine Graham Green sitting in the same place decades earlier with a fountain pen and pad, writing what would one day become a famous novel.

Modern aluminum framed doors insulate the room from the sound of traffic outside, but also opens onto a small, traditionally shuttered deck from which one can look down on the twin vintage Citroens lined up before the main entrance. The cars date back to the 1950s and have a few patches of rust showing through their shiny black skins, yet they unashamedly draw attention away from a shiny new black BMW 7 series limousine which one can take to the airport for VND2.6 million – one way.

A small coffee table bears four delicious handmade chocolates and a pair of sapodilla. According to the accompanying card, in part a warning not to eat the seeds from the centre, the sapodilla is native to Mexico and Guatemala and is known to lower blood pressure and detoxify. Probably the ideal tonic after a day dodging motorbikes, speeding taxis and cyclos clogging the tree-lined streets of downtown Hanoi.

But the Metropole experience is much more than the room. As essential as trying out the al fresco Bamboo Bar by the pool is to take the complimentary hotel history tour. In less than an hour, a historian will explain some of the hotel’s history and the background to the souvenirs of yesteryear stored in a large glass cabinet in the reception area – a signed album from US folk singer Joan Baez, local French language newspapers from the pre-American War era and other curiosities. The tour concludes in the hotel’s bomb shelter, a 40sqm, damp concrete bunker sealed off soon after the war ended in 1975 and rediscovered during renovations in 2011 before being reopened in May last year. The bunker has been preserved in its original bleak state and tour participants can squeeze into one of its rooms and listen to Joan Baez’s poem set to music and a real soundtrack recorded when nervous hotel guests, including Jane Fonda, gathered beneath the ground while air raid sirens sounded outside. Baez talks of a mother crying out “Where Are You Now, My Son?” after the planes have departed the skies and local Vietnamese take tentative steps out of their own shelters to see if they still have a home.

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Chocolate & Surprises

After a sobering excursion back 40-odd years, what better way to lighten the mood than with a truly decadent chocolate buffet in Le Club. For VND646,800 chocoholics can order a coffee or tea and set themselves loose on a veritable mountain of chocolate served in every imaginable form and an equally tempting array of other non-chocolate dishes – pralines, macaroons, tarts, cakes, truffles are laid out on tiered displays. A chef can prepare a fresh crepe suzette or you can dip skewers of fruits and marshmallows into the free-flowing chocolate fountain.

As politely and discreetly as possible I overindulged with glee. The discretion must have worked because when my stomach was stretched to capacity with sweet temptations the maitre’d expressed concern I had not eaten enough… they must be used to guests shrugging off diets here with reckless abandon.

As a mark of respect to my stomach a walk was in order and the Metropole is perfectly located to take in the most historic and grand of the capital’s colonial era architecture. From the hotel take a left and you are a mere block away from the giant roundabout onto which face the city’s Opera House and other French era buildings. An equally short distance away lie the city’s most luxurious shops, including the stunning new Hanoi Dior store just opened at the Trang Tien Plaza shopping centre.

Come the evening and the most difficult choice to make is not what to eat, but where to eat. Metropole has five large restaurants. Angelina is an Italian restaurant and lounge in the newer wing, Le Beaulieu, specializing in French fare, and Spices Garden is for those who prefer to try Hanoi-influenced Vietnamese food. For lighter fare you can try the Bamboo Bar overlooking the pool, and eat beneath plantation era-style giant fans or at Le Club for live jazz and dinner.

La Terrasse, inspired by French sidewalk cafes, is an indoor-outdoor restaurant overlooking the street and a leafy city park. I tossed a coin a few times and Angelina emerged the winner. It proved a stark but enjoyable contrast from the antique opulence of the Metropole with its stark white and red contrasting decor and modern house music which, while possibly a little loud for some older customers, I loved as a backdrop to the fine Italian wine and food.

A delicious eggplant stack entree followed by house specialty veal Milano, two glasses of Planeta Rosso and a bottle of water came to VND1.796 million after tax and service charge, but it tasted authentic, was suitably filling and the service was as attentive as the best I’ve experienced in any restaurant in Vietnam.

Too many smokers may deter some from lingering in the lounge bar after dinner for more wine and DJ-driven music so it was time to put that sumptuous bed to the test.

Back in the room, the turn down service had been executed while I dined. A water bottle wrapped in a cloth jacket was on either side of the bed, slippers lined up on the bedside (how did they know which side?!) and two fresh macaroons were a delightful closing touch for the day. But the final surprise was yet to come. Mid-morning, while working on the laptop, the phone rang and reception enquired what time I was checking out and whether I was flying out that day. When I said yes and advised the time she arranged a complimentary late checkout and booked a taxi so the transition from room to airport was seamless.

The Metropole is not an inexpensive escape but for those with the means, it represents an oasis in the capital city. It is filled with mystique, intrigue, history and guilty pleasures. It’s the ultimate city destination for a luxury escape, a place to pamper and reward yourself or surprise your partner. Its antique style breeds romantic enchantment. Its vast food offer satisfies any culinary craving. If that is your thing then the value is indisputable.

Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel
15 Ngo Quyen, Hanoi 10000.
Room rates online run from around USD200 to USD360 a night, depending on the season.
Go to www.sofitel.com and locate Metropole using the Destinations tab.

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