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I arrived in Hanoi at around lunchtime. I would be leaving on the morning of the day after next. minus the time for rest and sustenance, that meant that I practically had but a day to enjoy this city. so what can one do in 24 hours at Vietnam’s storied capital, I wondered. So very much, I would find out.
It is a city of mythical dragons and magical swords; of marionettes, songbirds, and baguettes; of world-famous folk singers and hollywood bombshells sheltering amid apocalyptical carpet bombing; of modern day triumphs and timeless heroism; of colonial elegance and proletarian pride; of succulent foie grastopped steaks and humble yet savory pho soup; of placid lakes hemmed by blooms, weeping willows, and lovers whispering sweet nothings.
With so scant a time to enjoy so much, I felt blessed that I arrived both relaxed and invigorated courtesy of Vietnam Airlines. I was all the more grateful when I encountered gruff and bedraggled backpackers weary and sore from long train and bus rides; I could see that so much of their precious time was wasted on being bleary eyed and befuddled by the confusion around them. But not I, who had the luxury of not only a pleasant flight from Saigon but also a fabulous stay at the legendary Hotel Metropole—itself a must-see and must-experience historic and epicurean attraction.
This being my first time in Hanoi, I had done my research and knew what I wanted. Upon arrival, I bought a ticket so I could get to see the city’s famous Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre. Thankfully, the concierge at the Metropole sells tickets at no extra charge and my diligence was rewarded by getting the best seat in the house—first row right at the very center. (I had to buy a separate permit to take pictures upon arrival at the theater’s own ticket office.)
Getting to the theatre from my hotel was a short pleasurable walk that had me skirting the banks of Hanoi’s picturesque Hồ Hoàn Kiếm—the “Lake of the Returned Sword.” Legend has it that emperor Le Loi, one of Vietnam’s beloved heroes and founder of its Lê Dynasty, drove out the invading Chinese with the aid of a magical sword with the words Thuận Thiên (The Will of Heaven) inscribed from the demi-god Kim Qui, a mythical giant golden turtle. After his victory, the sword was reclaimed by the turtle of the lake, which legends says still inhabits its waters. Even today, endangered large soft-shell turtles still can be sighted at the lake despite the urban sprawl that now surrounds it. The city of Hanoi itself has its origins in myth. Emperor Ly Thai To, the first ruler of the Lý Dynasty, originally named the city Thăng Long (Rising Dragon) after having witnessed such a creature arise from the city’s the Red River. Many poems, songs and stories still refer to Hanoi by this ancient name—hence the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre. A statue of the Emperor Ly Thai To stands at a small park facing the Sword Lake. In contrast to the severity and pomp of the monument, youth use the space around it to perform amazing hip-hop moves as well as traditional cultural dances, while other adolescents showcase breakneck skateboard and roller blade tricks.
The lake itself is fringed by well-manicured flower gardens, stone sculptures, and weeping willow trees. Near its northern side is a very small island which contains the Temple of Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain) that can be reached with a traditional oriental arched bridge named The Huc (Morning Sunlight). Another small island at the very center of the lake upon which stands the curious Tháp Rùa or Turtle Tower. Strolling by the lakeside paths, I saw many brides and grooms-to-be having their prenuptial wedding photos taken by the picturesque lake. Also to be found nearby are songbirds in elegant bird cages that hang upon the trees that fringe the lake, and a baguette and sausage stand that reminds visitors of Vietnam’s French colonial heritage.
Hoàn Kiếm is the largest of Hanoi’s seven lakes. The city is also nurtured by two rivers. These numerous bodies of water as well as the city’s northern latitude make for weather that is much cooler and much less humid than that of Saigon. A cool gentle wind blew even as the sunshine gently warmed my skin. According to Nhung Le, Metropole marketing executive and Hanoi native, the very best time of the year to visit Hanoi is autumn—which here only lasts for only one month, October. She notes that the city is perhaps the only capital in tropical Southeast Asia that experiences a true winter season.
In with the old, out with the new
After my short leisurely stroll in such good weather, I found myself in front of the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre with time to spare before the first performance of the day. Fortunately, the theater, which is right across the lake’s circumferential road, has its back to Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which—along with the Sword Lake, the water puppet theater, and the Metropole—is one of Hanoi’s essential attractions.
A multitude of gift shops filled with handicrafts such as wooden clogs, fans, lacquer boxes and intricate paper pop-up cards abound. Interspersed among them are boutique hostels and hotels, bars and cafes as well as street food hawkers. This is the place not only to buy gift items but also witness the original character of Hanoi. I could still spot a few old buildings and houses in the colonial mango-colored paint. Amid the rush of motorbike traffic, I saw many tourists still patronizing the iconic “cyclos”— Vietnam’s reverse tricycle where the passenger sits at the front instead of the driver. Finding myself still hungry despite a small baguette and sausage sandwich by the river, I searched for the most iconic of all Vietnamese dishes—Pho ga (chicken noodle soup) or Pho bo (beef noodle soup)—as well as some authentic Vietnamese coffee to perk me up. Surprisingly, looking for such fare mid-afternoon was quite a challenge as many eateries close down for the time between lunch and dinner. But find them I did. A delicious and filling meal of rice noodles garnished with fresh basil, crunchy beans sprout stalks and topped with shards of meat, pho offers a nourishing yet affordable meal for locals and tourists alike. Completing my gastronomic foray was a cup of Ca phe sua da — Vietnamese iced coffee. Though I had already tasted this drink at Saigon, I simply couldn’t get enough of it. Utilizing a stainless steel French drip filter, it allows for an extremely potent brew. I was now ready for the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre.
Operated with underwater rods instead of being suspended by stings, the water puppets were performed on flooded rice paddies in ancient times by farmers to appease the spirits. A screen conceals the puppet’s operators and also serves as the puppet’s backdrop. It is an art form unique to Northern Vietnam. Though still enacted to the sound of traditional Vietnamese instruments, the water marionettes are today performed on a specially constructed theater stage that allows for modern innovations such as fog machines and stage lights. The particular performance I watched featured the different indigenous peoples of Vietnam in a tale that celebrated national harmony and cultural diversity. At the end of the show, the puppeteers revealed themselves to the rousing applause of the audience.
After the theater performance, I found myself back at the Old Quarter looking for a place to have dinner while exploring different aspects of the location—its community of backpackers and other foreign tourists. I settled at the eponymous The Pub where I sampled Burmese brew Biere Larue, wolfed down seared chicken breast and roasted pumpkin, and chatted up with tourists from New Zealand ab out their adventures in Vietnam thus far. And all that I did with my first few hours in Hanoi.
Red letter day
The next day found me waking early to enjoy the sumptuous breakfast buffet at Metropole before heading out to see the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Presidential Palace, the Ho Chi Minh residence and the One Pillar Pagoda.
Also located within this area is Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Typically, the mausoleum would be the primary attraction, but as my research had already indicated, the body of the great leader was abroad for its annual maintenance. Nonetheless, I still went to see the exterior of Mausoleum which is an impressive site by itself.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is a modernist interpretation of the leader’s life and thoughts. Derided by some westerners as a propaganda tool, it nonetheless offers insights to how the man came to be. Beside it is the curious One Pillar Pagoda—a very small Buddhist temple that stands on but one pillar over a manmade pond much like a lotus flower. The story goes that the Emperor Lý Thái Tông, who was then childless, dreamt of a beautiful lotus flower emerging from a muddy swamp. A Buddhist then told him that this meant he needed to marry a commoner in order continue his lineage. Thus he did and, true enough, had a son. The emperor ordered the pagoda’s construction to celebrate the birth of his firstborn.
Another site nearby is the Presidential Palace. Framed by mango trees, this stirring example of French Colonial architecture is painted in bright mango yellow. Tourists are not allowed to enter and can only view it from one designated vantage. After coming to power, Ho Chi Minh refused to take residence here and instead chose to live in a humble home nearby that tourists can also view.
After spending the morning touring this cluster of historical sites, I went back to the hotel to savor one of Hanoi’s essential attractions.
The century-old Le Beaulieu Restaurant is one of the most highly regarded restaurants in Asia. Serving divine and deliciously decadent French cuisine amid the Metropole’s historic colonial setting, it is the perfect culinary counterpoint to Hanoi’s hoi polloi street food.
Curiously, just outside Le Beaulieu is La Terrasse, Metropole’s iconic al fresco cafe where Hanoi’s couples have made it a tradition to have their wedding photos taken. It has been estimated that some six million people have had their photo taken at the La Terrasse. Those dinning indoors at Le Beaulieu consider it an attraction that so many happy and gorgeously dressed couples and international fashion models pose outside their window. But the real attraction is the cuisine.
We began our meal with silken lobster bisque flavored with verbena. For our entrée, we savored pan fried foie gras marinated with Phu Quoc pepper, Amarena cherry and lemongrass jelly with a warm brioche. The liver simply melted in my mouth. And for dessert, we had the famed chocolate burger: smooth biscuit, tanariva lactée chocolate Chantilly, Guanaja sherbet, creamy sauce and crumble. Most decadent of all, our desert had me gorging and dispensing with any notions of a healthy, calorie conscious diet.
For the afternoon, I decided to spend it at the nearby Vietnam National Museum of History beside the Opera House, so I could make it back to the Metropole in time to join its scheduled history tour of its storied underground bomb shelter, as well as an exclusive peek into the hotel’s historical rooms and suites.
The Museum of History documents Vietnam’s path to nationhood: from rebellions against French colonial authorities with spears and crossbows, to the introduction of Marxist ideology, to the struggle to unify North and South Vietnam even as the United States involved itself in the struggle. History is written by the victors. Such is the privilege of Vietnam. Besides relics and photos, the museum also houses many artworks that depict important historical events.
Metropole’s long history and stellar status has meant that its patrons include the likes of actor/director/songwriter Charlie Chaplin, author and war correspondent Graham Greene, Hollywood sex siren and anti-war protester Jane Fonda, folk protest singer/songwriter Joan Baez, US President Bill Clinton, former Vietnam War prisoner of war and US Senator John McCain, celebrity couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and Filipino beauty queen and journalist Gemma Cruz Araneta, to name a few.
During the Vietnam War, the United States extensively bombed Hanoi and the rest of North Vietnam to force it back to the negotiating table. (North Vietnam was reluctant to negotiate since they were already winning the war. The US simply could not fight indefinitely whereas the North Vietnamese could). With gigantic B-52 bombers, the US dropped more bombs on Vietnam than all previous wars in history combined (including the First and Second Wold War). Though parts of Hanoi were obliterated by the tonnage of bombs, the Metropole was spared. Nonetheless, like many establishments in Hanoi, it built underground bunkers. It was during an actual bombing raid in 1972 at Metropole’s very bunker that Joan Baez recorded her chilling song “Where Are You Now, My Son?” about a Vietnamese mother’s grief.
Recently rediscovered, it took a year to restore the underground bunker which had become flooded with ground water. Today, one enters the bunker through a staircase beside the hotel’s pool. As I put on the required hardhat and entered the small concrete chambers, I imagined what it was like to huddle with guests from across the globe as thundering bombs exploded above.
After such stark reminders of the reality of war, I had a chance to tour Metropole’s Graham Greene Suite located at its historic wing, just a few steps away from my own luxurious room. Imbued with historical charm and furnished discreetly with cutting edge entertainment technology, this is one of Hanoi’s most desirable rooms. In contrast, Metropole’s new Opera Wing possesses classy yet edgy aesthetic that appeals to the modern jet setter.
With just an hour or two to spare before I had to sleep for an early flight back courtesy of Vietnam Airlines, I walked back to the Sword Lake and to the Old Quarter to be among Hanoi’s locals and feel their infectious joie de vivre, to feel the crisp cool autumn air, and to look for that dragon rising.