The Sofitel on Ngo Quyen Street, Hanoi, is not a beautiful hotel. At least, that’s not all it is.
Inside, it’s a living museum of literary and music history. Not mention something of a time capsule of a bygone age.
The entrance provides all the colonial-era glamour you might expect: crisp white walls, leafy green plants and deep, dark, polished wood. There’s immaculate service. Wine. Cocktails. Quiet attention. Cool air. Whirring fans.
The rooms, too, soothe and inspire all but the most jaded of travellers. Some (ahem) may even be visited by a storm of literary inspiration! I’m not sure whether it was the varnished desk (plus the creative boost of TV and wifi access,) the slatted shutters, or the cream envelopes that did it. Or the soft, sumptuous bed (hey, you can’t write if you’re tired, can you? Can you?!)
Most of all, I think, it was the knowledge that Graham Greene wrote his classic novel on the American – Vietnam conflict from within this very building. He called it The Quiet American.
I’ve wondered before quite why it should matter what historic events took place in a destination, why it isn’t enough to simply know that something took place at a point in time without needing to revisit the point in space. When I come up with a beautiful and brilliant answer I’ll let you know.
In the meantime, I find that they do. From standing on the square where Hitler addressed a crowd to seeing the body of a pharaoh 4000 years after he lived, from standing in the dusty Paris office of Nobel prize winner Marie Curie to the birthplace of the International Red Cross, there’s a subtle, silver thread of connection that links people to the past through what we can see of the present.
And in that regard, the Sofitel Legend Metropole oozes in woven silver.
There’s more than just Graham Greene’s pursuits here, though. There’s a gallery of visitors, both distinguished and otherwise, ranging from Charlie Chaplin on his third honeymoon, to a beaming Bill Clinton, an athletic Jane Fonda and even James Bond himself in the form of Sir Roger Moore.
And then there’s the staircase.
The dark, damp one that extends into the earth from behind a locked door.
The hotel’s bomb shelter from the shadows of Vietnam war.*
It’s cramped and decidedly unpleasant. But it was here that guests would gather during the bombing raids that saw the city scramble for safety. Perhaps surprisingly, many of these guests were from the US.
One, a folk singer called Joan Baez, recorded the sound as the bombs rained down and used it as the background to her single Where are you my son? released later the same year.
After the end of the war, and a period of deliberate forgetfulness, some enterprising soul began using it as a wine cellar. And following a night of particularly intense embassy negotiations, an Australian diplomat ended up locked in here and decided to pass away the hours by sampling the produce and carving his name into the wall.
You can trace your fingers across the grooves in the stone today.
Back up in the lobby, it’s all bright light and tiled floors. The thatched Bamboo Bar serves Graham Greene martinis and a portrait hangs in the lobby from Joan Baez, who returned some years later to see Hanoi thriving in happier times.
Sweet pink macarons line the shelves of the French bakery where packets of tea sit in tins of black and gold. Meanwhile, Hanoi’s chilli and lime flavours clamour past in the thick humidity outside. Steve Job’s technicolour image broods one street corner while stacks of counterfeit books tell tales on the other.
Hanoi is pulsing its way through the 21st century and the Sofitel Legend Metropole hasn’t fallen behind. What it has done, though, is to take an ugly piece of time, preserve it and then gift wrap those silver threads of history for all to see but none to touch.
And so it’s so, so, so much more than just another beautiful hotel.
What I loved
The pool – a chance to cool down after a sticky Hanoi evening.
The colonial style decor
The historical artefacts – both literary and military
The French patisserie
The Bamboo Bar around the pool
The guide around the bunker
The location – just around the corner from central Hoan Kiem Lake
What to know
-Restaurants get booked up quick. Even if you’re staying at the hotel, you can’t always get a table so you’ll need to book well in advance.
-The hotel has two parts – a newer wing and the older, historic part. Both are beautiful but if your main reason for visiting involves the history then make sure you’re in the right place.
-Bunker tours are currently only available for hotel guests. Non residents can enjoy a cocktail in the bar, though, and visit the historical displays in the lobby.
22 suites, 364 rooms
Ramps & wheelchair access
Business facilities & Parking
Concierge, delicatessen, money exchange & babysitters
Outdoor heated pool
Italian, French & Vietnamese restaurants
Prices start from $200 USD/night
Disclosure – I paid a reduced rate to stay here for review purposes. All literary musings and indulgences remain my own, as does everything I write here on Inside the Travel Lab.
This review also forms part of the DragonRoute, a project that leapt across southeast Asia with artistic sponsorship coming from Cathay Pacific.
* In Vietnam, it’s known as the American war.