Signature checks in to … Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi
Steeped in history and bursting with old-world charm, Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is truly (for now) the one and only place to stay in the Vietnamese capital. It played host to the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and is the hotel of choice for Angelina Jolie, Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, former US President Bill Clinton and myriad other VIPs. A fixture of Hanoi’s Old Quarter since 1901, this colonial and neoclassical property has cosy and spacious rooms, a sumptuous spa and top-notch food and drink offerings. It’s a shining example of this country’s ability to move on from a past marked by colonialism and war to a bright future propelled by a booming economy.
Traveller: C. James Dale
Room: Grand Luxury Room (historical Metropole Wing) & Grand Premium Room (newer Opera Wing)
Address: 15 Ngo Quyen, Hoan Kiem, 100000 Hanoi
Date: March/April 2019
Best for: A destination that transports guests back to Hanoi’s colonial past, set in the heart of the old part of the city within walking distance of historic sites, a slew of shops and an abundance of restaurants and cafes.
The Signature factor
History is in full force for those who arrive at the hotel’s historical Metropole Wing, where two vintage cars are permanently parked on the footpath and staff in traditional Vietnamese outfits greet guests before ushering them up to their rooms. Pictures and displays help inform visitors about this property’s storied past. The art, the decor and the design keep the colonial vibe very much alive in the older part of the hotel. The newer side could be seen as a counterpoint, the yang to original wing’s yin, with a brighter colour palette and a feeling of restrained opulence.
P49 Design and Tribeca Designs are behind the look of this Sofitel, which has a harmonious exterior that belies its dual-personality interior. (Bangkok-based P49 Design is also the creative force behind The Sanchaya in Bintan, Indonesia.) The historic Metropole Wing, open since 1901, relies heavily on classic French architecture, but includes bursts of Vietnamese style. The newer Opera Wing, added in the mid-1990s, sets itself apart in an obvious way with a more open, higher-ceilinged lobby and a sleek blend of whites, blues, greys and pinks. Almost a third of the hotel’s 364 rooms are in the Metropole Wing, including three so-called Legendary Suites named after famous guests: Graham Greene, Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham. Over on the Opera Wing side, there are 236 guestrooms and 18 suites, plus the sprawling Grand Prestige Suite.
Most guests arrive by car from the airport and, along the way, take in the scenes of Hanoi, the bustling capital of this rapidly developing Southeast Asian nation. The hotel dominates a corner of the Old Quarter and stands close to one of its colonial peers, the French-built Hanoi Opera House. The Sofitel’s elegant façade is white, with dark green window shutters helping to provide a simple contrast. The columned awning gives guests and staff cover from the heavy rainfall that can sometimes hit Hanoi. The lobby of the Historical Wing has a cosy interior with a low ceiling and walls dominated by whites, browns and burgundies. Staff standing in front of a dark wood reception area check in guests, who are offered cool towels and tropical welcome drinks. Down one hallway, you can read about the history of the hotel and Hanoi. Other walkways lead to the restaurants offering Vietnamese, French and international fare; the poolside Bamboo Bar; and Le Spa du Metropole. The lift up to the rooms in the old part of the hotel is tiny, whereas the thickly carpeted staircase is grand and wide, with eye-catching Vietnamese art gracing the walls. Each floor has a sitting area with old-fashioned chairs and telephones. The hallways to the guest rooms are narrow, adorned with mirrors and lamps atop small tables. Over on the newer side of the hotel, the design is a blend of classical and contemporary styles, with wider, brighter hallways decorated with the odd vase and sprig of greenery enlivening white-coloured consoles.
The room: Metropole Wing
My three-night visit to the Sofitel happened over a week spent in northern Vietnam, with two nights on the historical side and one evening in the new wing. For the first part of my stay, I bedded down in a Grand Luxury Room, which had a dark wood bed set and desk, old-fashioned lamp and bedside lights, and gold-coloured curtains. The mattress was comfy and the sheets were soft. The bathroom was rather simple, perhaps understandably so given the space and style constraints of the historical wing.
The room: Opera Wing
Upon my return to Hanoi following a short side trip to Halong Bay, I stayed in a Grand Premium Room in the newer side of the hotel (and yes, it sounds funny describing something that’s more than 20 years old as ‘new’, but this addition has really held up). These digs quickly grabbed my attention, from the diminutive desk that separates the entrance from the bed, to the stunning patterned-fabric wall behind the plush bed, to the spacious bathroom, which has a clawfoot bathtub adorned with old-fashioned fixtures, two sinks and playful black-and-white tiling in the shower and on the wall behind the tub. The coffee/bar area is tucked away in one corner, while the television and speaker system are well placed on the thin wall sandwiched between the two entrances to the bathroom. The window looks out over the pool, spa and garden.
In the historical Metropole Wing, a number of the rooms were used as post-war embassies by some nations; Australia occupied rooms 225 to 229 between 1973 and 1976. These days, the best accommodation is named after some of the Sofitel’s more famous guests from the first half of the 20th century: British writers Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene (Ms Jolie stayed here), and entertainer Charlie Chaplin. These suites, which come with living and dining rooms, are loaded with classical French touches, while plenty of strong and rich colours help to set the mood of a bygone era. Here and there, guests also see Vietnamese and Indochinese decor, along with a sprinkling of modern tech. The Chaplin room, for example, is equipped with an iPad loaded with newspapers, magazines and music, plugged into Bang & Olufsen speakers. All of these suites have access to the Club Lounge. Over on the Opera Wing side, the top room is the Grand Prestige Suite, a favourite of Clinton, Medvedev and a host of other A-list political figures. It’s a gorgeous, well-appointed apartment occupying 176 square metres and blending neoclassical and modern touches, with a master bedroom, living room, library and office space, dining area for up to eight people and a small spa room. The suite comes with Club Lounge access and 24-hour butler service.
On my plate
Most people who visit Vietnam crave those hearty bowls of meat, vegetables and broth known as pho. Rest assured, you can get excellent versions of the traditional breakfast dish (without meat, too) morning to night at the Sofitel, along with other local delights, from crab fried nem to various incarnations of spring rolls to grilled seafood. The twin breakfast buffets offer Western and Vietnamese food, the latter being the specialty of the restaurant Spices Garden (where Trump and Kim dined). Le Beaulieu serves up French cuisine. Guests can also eat at Le Club Bar, La Terrasse, Bamboo Bar and, of course, in their rooms. We sat down one night for an amazing meal at Angelina, the hotel’s newest restaurant, which has a menu jam-packed with European and New World fare. Also billed as a cocktail bar and whisky lounge, Angelina has a cool vibe and is a stylish setting to enjoy some seriously delicious drinks (happy hour is 5pm to 7pm). You can sit around the gleaming bar with its four-metre-high shelving unit for bottles and glassware, or sink into a chair in the room with the fireplaces that use light and steam to pull off a fantastic trompe l’oeil. We eventually moved upstairs to a table in the dining area that overlooks the bar. After enjoying cocktails (I loved the ‘Puerto Plata’, which features rum, fresh basil and honey water, along with pineapple and lemon juices), we moved on to the main event. Guests will want to sample almost everything on the menu. We went with the roasted king scallops, goat cheese and beet salad, Angelina caesar, pumpkin gnocchi and the Angelina burger, made with minced Wagyu beef topped with aged cheddar, tomato, onion and smoked bacon. We could have had more, but we needed to save room for dessert, specifically, the ‘President Trump & Chairman Kim Chocolate Freedom’. This dish, taken from the leaders’ 27 February dinner menu, is essentially a French molten chocolate cake, accompanied by chocolate crumble, fresh berries and vanilla ice-cream. It’s decadent, delectable and well worth a try.
I wish I could take home…
…the soft, silk robes (white, adorned with simple flower garland patterns). The material caresses your skin and the robe’s traditional style helps to transport guests back in time. Also on my wishlist: all the table settings from Angelina, including the metal placemats and the chic glassware, which would bring a new level of sophistication to anyone’s personal bar cart.
Le Spa du Metropole is found in the heart of the property, overlooking the pool and garden. The light-filled entrance leads to two other floors, where the treatment rooms are located. Mine was nice, but could easily double as a waiting room in a contemporary-style office. Plus, some guests may not be comfortable with the changing area, which is only separated from the rest of the room (and your awaiting masseuse) by a sheer curtain. Obviously, the aesthetics generally don’t really matter once you’re lying face down on the massage table. I signed up for a signature ‘So Exhilarating Body Treatment’, which combines Swedish massage and the Hawaiian lomilomi technique, known for its long and flowing forearm strokes. My therapist, Tau, was excellent, easily giving me one of the top 10 treatments I’ve ever had. She started with the legs instead of the back, a welcome change. Then she hopped on the table and used leverage to work the knots out of my back. Afterwards, I sat in a private room sipping rosehip and honey tea, snacking on dried fruit as I floated in a wonderful post-massage daze.
Enjoy poolside drinks at Bamboo Bar, soak in the sights and sounds of Hanoi from a footpath table at La Terrasse, or catch some live jazz music at Le Club Bar. Guests can also take part in one of the hotel’s traditions: the ‘Shining Ritual’ (observing staff as they polish brass nameplates) and the ‘Candle Lighting Ritual’ (following staff as they use a time-honoured technique to light candles around the hotel). Or, ask to hitch a ride around the block in a 1950s-era Citroën car (it was under repair during my visit). Later, head underground and go back decades to the time of the Vietnam War. On the ‘Path of History’ tour, you can explore the bunker that was found by chance in 2011 during the renovation of the Bamboo Bar. Guests and famous folks, such as Jane Fonda and Joan Baez, took shelter here during air raids. Baez even recorded part of a song in the bunker. Being inside the low-ceilinged, dimly lit cavern is a stark reminder of a grim time in this country’s complicated history. A sign at the door says it all: “Remember. Forgive. Forever.”
Stepping out: Hanoi
Vietnam’s capital is a paradise for foodies, shoppers, and history buffs. Go for a stroll around the 12 hectare Hoan Kiem Lake or ‘Lake of the Returned Sword,’ in the middle of which sits ‘Turtle Tower.’ The late 19th-century structure commemorates a Vietnamese legend about a landowner who used a heaven-sent sword to fight for his country’s independence from China’s Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. After becoming emperor, he went boating on the lake and a golden turtle emerged from the water to take back the weapon. The lake surrounds Ngoc Son Temple, built in memory of a 13th-century military leader who also battled against the Chinese (access is via the scarlet-painted wooden Huc Bridge). History aside, Hoan Kiem Lake itself is a great place to take a stroll during the day, as many families do on weekends. At night, couples kiss, cuddle and snap selfies on benches. Closer to the Sofitel, locals dance around a small monument in an adjacent park or sit to eat snacks and chat on the steps of the Hanoi Opera House. The streets are frenetic, a cacophony of cars and motorbikes, which can hold anywhere from one to five people. Around the hotel, shoppers can browse Boss, Valentino, Hermès, Louboutin, Rimowa, Prada, and many more high-end boutiques. We fell in love with Hanoia, which sells gorgeous Vietnamese lacquerware. When you’re tired of shopping, get a dose of culture at l’Institut Français de Hanoi-L’Espace or see a show at the world-famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. If you’re hungry and want non-Vietnamese fare, drop by El Gaucho Argentinian Steakhouse or keep it regional and sample from the amazing menu at the unadorned Gusto Thai (recommended by the Sofitel concierge). Fancy a nightcap or a happy hour drink? Head across the street to Press Club (which has a Michelin-star French menu, by the way) or stroll to Nê Cocktail & Wine Bar. You can also take a taxi, hop on a Grab motorbike, or flag down a human-powered cyclo to Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets, known as “Beer Corner,” to get a cheap, ice-cold bia hoi (light Vietnamese draft beer).
Stepping out: Halong Bay
A fair number of tourists use Hanoi as a base to travel to Halong Bay, the roughly 1,500-square-kilometre UNESCO World Heritage Site near the Chinese border that is dotted with nearly 2,000 limestone islands and islets. The scenery seemed positively ethereal over a couple of cloudy days in early April when we navigated the islands and explored their caves with Paradise Cruises, which has a partnership with Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. The company bills itself as a five-star experience, but it’s more of a luxury-for-less vacation (though still highly enjoyable). Prospective guests will want to request the highest category room and work with the team to avoid the activities that feel more like a package tour (for example, the beach visit on the second day). Also worth considering: Emperor Cruises and Orchid Cruises. Travellers can make the 170-kilometre journey to Halong Bay via private car (2.5 hours) or helicopter (1 hour).
· Fodor Travel: Fodor’s Finest Hotels (2019)
· DestinAsian: Best Hotels in Vietnam (2019)
· Condé Nast Traveler: Gold List 2018
· Travel + Leisure: Top 19 Bars (2018)
· Condé Nast Traveler: Best Hotels in Asia (2018)
· Now Travel Asia: Asia Top Heritage Hotels (2018)
· Luxury Lifestyle Magazine (UK): Best Hotels in Asia (2018)
· Smart Travel Asia: Top 10 Luxury Hotels in Asia (2018)
· Luxury Urban Escape: World Luxury Spa Award (2018)
· World Spa Awards: Vietnam’s Best Hotel Spa (2018)
The list of VIPs goes on and on, from the aforementioned world leaders and top actors to rock stars (Mick Jagger), film directors (Peter Davis), tech titans (Mark Zuckerberg) and royalty (Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge). It’s so extensive that the hotel has put together a seven-page document that we’ve attached here.
The two breakfast buffets are essentially the same, but it’s better to be on the terrace of Spices Garden when the weather is nice. On rainy days, the interior of Spices Garden feels a bit dark, so head to the brighter Le Beaulieu. The latter also offers a vegan breakfast menu, complete with vegetarian pho and Vietnamese noodle rolls (banh cuon).
Green thumbs up?
Sofitel’s parent group, AccorHotels, has social, environmental and sustainable development initiatives in place, including the Planet 21 project. This program encourages guests to reuse their towels. The savings on water and energy are used to fund tree planting. But as with many hotels, it appears the housekeeping staff haven’t received the memo. I followed the notice that’s in the bathroom and hung up my towel to dry after its first use. Unfortunately, it was taken away. Sofitel also relies heavily on plastic bottled water, but management says it will soon be moving to glass bottles. It has already phased out plastic straws and replaced them with ones made out of bamboo.
Room for improvement
In these days of luxury travel, hotel mini-bars need to be both complimentary and cool. Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi falls short here. Staff should also tell guests about the range of experiences the property offers when they check in. Visitors who don’t do their research will feel left in the dark. However, beware that the ‘Candle Lighting Ritual’ is a little dull. The ceremony doesn’t come with an explanation and feels more like you’re just following staff around as they do their jobs.
…the pool were bigger. It’s nice when no one is in the water, but it feels packed with a couple of families splashing about and the odd person doing laps.
Sofitel Legend category is AccorHotels’ “unique collection of heritage hotels infused with French art de vivre”. This property in Hanoi definitely makes the grade and is the best place to stay in the Vietnamese capital for discerning business and leisure travellers. But in the coming years, it will need to maintain and even up its game as it prepares to face some stiff competition from another luxury player; Four Seasons Hotel Hanoi at Hoan Kiem Lake is currently in the early stages of construction.
Where to find Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi
The hotel is a roughly 45-minute drive from Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport. Guests can order local taxis, Grab cars or book the Sofitel’s BMW 7 Series full-size luxury sedan.