Born to Shop: One Perfect Day in Hanoi
A vintage Citroen in front of the The Metropole Sofitel in Hanoi.
When you wake up in a large room in The Metropole Sofitel Hanoi and sun is streaming in from the garden, it's already a perfect day. When your room-mates are snoring or buried beneath their down or fiddling with their crack-berries and you know you are first up in the luxury bathroom, it's a more perfect day. When you head downstairs to the colonial portion of the hotel and take in the buffet breakfast (take in visually and orally) and meet with new friends you have just met in The Lounge, then it's a very perfect morning. And that's just the start of the day.
Sofitel, the most upmarket of the French group Accor's hotels, has just named The Metropole as their first Legend, which is emblazoned on the back of the key card. The Legend hotels are iconic hotels all over the world that have upgraded to new standards and have a luxury story as well as a historical story to share. Accordingly, there have been zillions of dollars of renovations at the hotel and assorted upgrades in service such as a 24 hour butler. That may strike you as a silly little item until you happen to need croissants and fresh coffee at 4AM in order to make your 7AM flight.
Among the best things about The Metropole is its location– you can walk to most of the main shopping districts. Since taxis only cost $2 and cyclos $3 (you pay more for manpower)– it's more fun to not walk. I love a good cyclo (say see-cloh) in the morning and love to sit in the breezy little cabin while someone pedals me through the traffic with unnerving intimacy…it's just you and the cars that whizz by right in your face, almost mano a mano.
A cyclo in Hanoi.
I used to always go 'to the church' and walk from there, but now that I have learned my way around better, I target different addresses for the cyclo driver in the various parts of town that I want to shop and hop off without the extra walking. With the help of a map I can usually find my way back to The Lake or to Hang Gai Street, the center of the touristic shopping universe.
I took my first cyclo of the day to Hang Bo Street because this is the heart of the trimmings district and I wanted to find some chiffon-y fabric for the blouses I was having made in Saigon. I saw exactly what I wanted at Hobby Lobby in San Antonio, but that was then and now is now. In the end, I could not find what I wanted so I just wandered around and enjoyed the colors, the glitters, the people and the moto action.
Hanoi is, of course, famous for its 36 guilds which are different medieval trade unions located at different streets. Most of those trades have packed up, but new ones have moved in– so you have a street of shoes (Ly Than To)at one point and a street of silk else where. Hang Gai is the street of silk, the most touristy and well developed retail stretch in town for silks of all kinds, including but not limited to clothes and bed quilts. For a first timer, this is the main place to shop until you wander into the Lacquer area and get bound up in art galleries. But then, art galleries are taking over the town and are not limited to one street.
I ask my next cyclo driver to take me to the restaurant The Green Tangerine, which is right of center and not directly in the tourist flow…although The Green Tangerine is a well known eatery and this area is especially popular at night. I like the little street (Hang Be) because it has a few DVD shops. None of these sells programs or software, just movies, CD's and TV shows. You pay more for DVD-9 (better quality); most items are sold in boxed sets. Although I bought a few kiddie movies for a friend, I later saw they were free on my TV set on-demand at home. Oh well…it seemed perfect at the time.
On the way back to The Metropole, I asked the driver to stop at the corner so I could pop into my favorite art gallery in town, Hu'Ong Xuyen, which is directly across from Citibank and the hotel, on the opposite corner. This is sort of a dumpy looking gallery, not nearly as chic as most or as touristy looking as many. I have been coming here at first because it's across the street from my hotel and more regularly because I have been buying– serious art by the same artist, who is now up to $750 USD a canvas and beyond me, as well as smalls such as flowers in vases for $15-20 per canvas and small greeting cards, $3 each.
Lunch on my perfect day always includes a return to Spice Gardens for lunch and then a trip to the Metropole's new spa, which has not only a menu of treats but a music menu to accompany your treatment. I picked 'French Songs' although there was no singing, just Muzak-like noises to soothe away my aches while I got a full body massage of well-being. Sarah had chosen a foot treatment that included being poked with a stick, which she said was quite refreshing.
The Metropole Spa is part of the hotel upgrade and sits behind the swimming pool and alongside the Spices Garden restaurant. You enter a tiny lobby and then weave your way across polished teak floors and old French colonial wrought iron into light and airy spaces and a sitting room decorated with miles of blue and white porcelains. This is the oasis for escape in the middle of a noisy and sometimes frantic city.
Recovery from the relaxation was slow, so I poked around the two different retail areas of the hotel– the designer strip at the front of the hotel's colonial doors, which includes a Louis Vuitton and a Ferragamo store and the back arcade with a branch of Hermes as well as the hotel's own La Boutique, which is pricey but well chosen for local gifts and crafts. There's also a deli and gourmet food market (l'Epicerie du hotel) with hotel made yummies from the famous French chef who toils behind the ovens.
The late afternoon was spent on my favorite street in Hanoi, a one block wonder called Nha Tro, with a branch of Song on the corner. It's just down from The Church and easily found. Song was created by an Australian designer and is one of the best stores in Viet Nam (there's also one in Saigon). There's a number of home style stores on this strip that sell very elegant table top, far more interesting than anything found in Saigon. And don't miss Sparkles for funky handbags, Grace for embroidered home style and May for little gift items such as velvet eyeglasses cases and flowers for the suit jacket, $4 each.
The day was so busy that I had no time for the final perfection– a trip to the Dong Xuan Market, which is where we usually go for fabric when we are using our Hanoi tailor. Alas, we did all tailor errands in Saigon this trip. We did make it to the Night Market, which is not a great market, but is wonderful for atmosphere in twilight with crowds and twinkly lights and motos and enthusiastic local shoppers. It doesn't get much better than that.
Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole, Hanoi, Vietnam. Doubles from $220.
Suzy Gershman has been known as The Born to Shop
Lady for over 25 years while traveling the world and reporting her
series of guidebooks, magazine articles and television spots.Read more Suzy at SuzyGershman.com.