Hanoi guide to shopping and hotels

Getting value at Hanoi business hotels and a guide to Vietnamese art galleries, silk, the best in Hanoi shopping, and some saucy nightlife.

Written and photographed by Vijay Verghese

AS HANOI geared up for its 1,000th anniversary celebrations (the city started as Thang Long in the time before time apparently), I prepared to hail a taxi. Instantly a wail of police sirens rent the air and an ominous cavalcade of black cars swept up. I withdrew my hand hastily. The doorman bundled me politely but firmly to one side. The Queen of Denmark stepped out of her limousine regally and vanished into the Sofitel Legend Metropole accompanied by throngs of admirers, diplomats and hangers-on.

The Sofitel is celebrating 110 years in the business against which my puny 53 years on the planet paled into insignificance. I had to exit at the other end of the hotel to catch a cab on a non-cordoned-off street. But with classy neighbours such as the Queen of Denmark, I was hardly complaining. I took it in my plebian stride.

Hanoi guide to just about everything

As you arrive in this ancient city, your taxi will speed past a mock Brandenberg Gate with powerful prancing horses frozen in bronze above the swirling traffic. This is modern Vietnam. The new Hanoi sprouting from every inch of dust from the airport to the Red River, sports a slew of motorcycle-choked ring roads, meandering highways, and slim-front Cinderella suburban houses in every imaginable hue along with the occasional faux-European embellishment. Why this is necessary in a town famed for its beautiful, if peeling, French villas, beats me, but then, who doesn’t keep up with the times?

Fortunately, it’s easy to ignore all this creeping modernity to plunge, inelegantly and bug-eyed, into the familiar mayhem of stampeding cycles, mopeds and persistent postcard vendors. Now THAT’s Hanoi. The city sports a fresh lick of paint and diligent whitewashing is nowhere more evident than in the spatters on the pavements and on parked bicycles. It is a city of art, cycles, lakes, pedestrians, and gleaming Hanoi business hotels, some with excellent conference and meeting venues.

Hanoi exudes a laid back old world charm and the traffic, though plentiful, moves along at a leisurely pace. Instant string quartets materialise in hotel lobbies. People walk, couples promenade around the numerous lakes. Everyone is friendly, polite, and diligent. Some years back, I walked into a government-run hotel and asked to see the place. The receptionist beamed, took out a large bunch of keys, and we proceeded to do just that – floor by floor, room by room, cupboard by cupboard, inch by inch. She was thorough. A broad smile and a fresh key greeted me every time I said, “Well that does it.” So on with our Hanoi guide.

At another government hotel restaurant I devoured a huge lunch buffet for just D30,000 (US$1=D18,500). The room was empty save for a long table along the window where a group of about 15 were ravenously devouring heaped bowls of fish, pork, noodles and rice. I was shown to my table. I pointed to the buffet. The waiter smiled apologetically and shrugged. Apparently the buffet was over though it was barely 1.30pm. It had been cleaned out completely, from what I could gather, by the entire kitchen staff and the waiters who continued to slurp and chew and spit and joke on their table.

At length one of the celebrants rose and took my order. This is quintessential Hanoi, an egalitarian, easy-going, Sort-Of-Communist-But-Unblushingly-Capitalist city. Here, in a splendid reversal of the “chef’s table” where guests dine in a five-star hotel kitchen amidst gleaming pots and pans, the chefs dine with the guests. I picked up the buffet flier. It read, “Showcase of chef’s talent and enthusiasm of staff”. It was exactly as advertised.

In any Hanoi guide, the centre of the city from most standpoints is the lovely Hoan Kiem Lake where lovers stroll and urchins thrust postcards into tourist hands. Hanoi is a city of lakes, and postcards, both memorable for different reasons. There are several lakes. The largest is the West Lake with swan pedal boats and a nice shaded promenade along Thanh Nien that separates this romantic spread of water from Truc Bach Lake. Around Hoan Kiem and its Ngoc Son Temple is a profusion of eateries, silk shops and art galleries.

Hanoi shopping guide to silk and more

Most Hanoi shopping for silk, antiques and lacquerware is done along Hang Gai street and its extension, Hang Bong. Try the smart cuts and colours of  the relocated Khai Silk (113 Hang Gai, tel: 928-9883, or 26 Nguyen Thai Hoc street at Brother’s Café). The Khai Silk outlet at the Metropole Hotel has closed so you’ll need to make the trek out to browse crinkle silk scarves (US$24 up), purses, men’s linen shirts (from US$60 up), and graceful Vietnamese ao-dais (pronounced “ow-zai”) from US$40-US$60.

Pop into Hadong Silk (102 Hang Gai, tel: 3928-5056) where ties are roughly US$20; Hien Silk (100 Hang Gai, tel: 3826-9151); Thuy Ky (98 Hang Gai, tel: 3825-1606) that displays embroidered linen for the home with double bedspreads from US$55.

Also check out the small and cosy Silkroad (96 Hang Gai, tel: 3825-4237) with a silk scarf from US$24 and a range of modern ao-dais; Artcen Company (80 Hang Gai, tel: 3825-6154) selling statues, pottery and traditional jewellery; Tan My (66 Hang Gai, tel: 3825-1579) with silk ao-dais from US$35 up, and To Thanh Nga (54 Hang Gai, tel: 928-7550). Beware of the slimline ao-dai. Vietnamese women are impossibly svelte. They eat noodles by the mile, all day, but the carbs miraculously disappear, which is how you get three or four women on a single moped – and that’s just on the handlebar. Talk of hourglass waists…

Fortunately for visitors, garment sizes do not reflect these anorexic waistlines. Business is directed at less-than-compact foreigners so large-size stock predominates. Alterations can be done in hours and a complete dress stitched in a day.

Most shops stay open almost 8am till 8pm and some stretch it to 9pm so there’s lots of time to rummage around – every day. This is the Hanoi shopping heartland. At one end of this maze of small streets where you’re equally likely to find a lifelong treasure or get run over by a grinning road warrior, is the expansive Dong Xuan Market that stocks everything from shoes (US$20 up) caps, jeans and clothes, to handbags, watches, spices and condiments.

At the other end, closer to Hoan Khiem Lake, is the wondrous intersection at Nha Tho dominated by the old St Joseph’s church, an area that abounds in small neighbourhood cafes and cheery boutique shops selling clothes, home décor, and art. Mosaique Decoration (22 Nha Tho Street, tel: 928-6181) is typical of the convivial sprawl. It sells lampshades, cushion covers and stuff that MUST get into your home. It would be remiss to leave this out of any Hanoi shopping guide.

From Hoan Kiem it is a five-minute stroll down Trang Tien (pronounced “chang tee en”) to the characterful Opera House that dominates the much-photographed landmark square or, rather, roundabout. Motorcycles buzz like hornets and of an evening a newlywed couple will turn up to be immortalised in front of this gracious building. Trang Tien is itself an interesting, fast-changing street, packed with a crop of funky art galleries and bookstores. The infostones bookshop (41 Trang Tien Street, tel: 3826-2993, www.infostones.com.vn) has architecture, art and design coffee-table glossies along with cookbooks, dictionaries and Vietnamese language translations.

The delightful Chi Yang store (formerly at 17 Trang Tien, tel: 936-0027) that stocks a pleasing collection of silk embroidered fabrics put to different uses, has moved to 63 Hang Gai. Pick up gauzy eye-catching wine bottle presentation wraps, cushion covers, bedspreads, or stylish embroidered linen bathrobes (US$80). On Trang Tien find handicrafts (23 Trang Tien, tel: 936-2508), which does carved soapstone boxes, lacquer bowls, and chess sets, while Dang anh Tien (19 Trang Tien, tel: 936-6199) sells old, wooden artefacts and statuettes. Tucked into another hole in the wall, Life Photo Gallery (39 Trang Tien Street, tel: 936-3886) stocks and displays some eye-catching black-and-whites. L’Espace (24 Trang Tien) run by the French Cultural Centre is a bright stop for flavour-of-the-month exhibitions and music recitals. But if you must have a touch of glam and wish to cruise the rarefied environs of top-dollar Hanoi shopping, try the glitzy (by Hanoi standards) Trang Tien Plaza, at the Hoan Kiem lake end of the street. This is a polished, mall-style affair with jewellery, perfumes, sunglasses, and handbags and the latest in international designer fashions, all at hideously inflated prices. Hanoi brand shopping is at its best at the Sofitel Legend Metropole where you’ll find top designer labels in glittering surrounds. In this vicinity expect to find Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Sergio Rossi, and the Galerie Royale with Kenzo, La Perla and Estee Lauder.

Hanoi art galleries and artists for walls or investment

As any Hanoi guide will tell you, art galleries are all the rage in Hanoi – for foreigners that is. Apartment walls everywhere from Hong Kong to New York are groaning under the weight of inspired Vietnamese creations, and the oils-and-lacquer avalanche continues. A favourite is the Apricot Gallery (40B Hang Bong, tel: [84-4] 3828-8965, www.apricot-artvietnam.com). The gallery features the colourful impressionist Le Thahn Son, the vivid village scenes of Dao Hai Phong and Hong Viet Dung’s shadowy figures emerging from pale gold backgrounds. A 1.5sq m Dao Hai Phong sells for around US$7,000.

Apricot sister gallery Thanh Mai (64 Hang Gai, tel: 3938-1146, and 11 Trang Tien Street) has one-metre Dao Hai Phong’s from US$2,600 up. At 113 Hang Bong Street with a second hideaway not far from the Opera House at 3b Phan Huy Chu is the Mai Gallery (tel: 3938-0568, www.maigallery-vietnam.com) run by none other than Mai herself. She stocks up-and-coming artists as well as the Hanoi Five Faces group, which includes Tran Quang Huy’s distinctive metallic female faces set in delicate murals. Another choice on Hang Gai is the Thang Long Gallery (41 Hang Gai, www.thanglongartgallery.com).

Several Trang Tien road art galleries have gone with the arrival of the wrecking ball. One simple Trang Tien option if you are not too picky is the small family-run Hanoi Art Gallery (16-36 Trang Tien, tel: 3934-7192) with Nguyen Minh Phuoc’s ethereal monks walking up temple steps and some attractive lacquer portraits of hill tribes. This gallery stocks younger artists, including wannabe Le Thanh Sons and the like whose work is vibrant but less expensive. It’s worth a visit if you are starting to dabble and don’t really wish to splash out enormously. The larger Thanh Binh Gallery (25-27 Trang Tien, tel: 3825-1532) offers upmarket display space while the spacious Green Palm (15 Trang Tien, tel: 936-4757, www.greenpalmgallery.com) is well stocked with works by established artists and offers bright splashes of colour like the red lacquer baby-monks from Le Huu Ich from US$1,500 up. Trawl for works by Le Quy Tong (architecture, bridges and striking impressionist faces).

A one square metre Dao Hai Phong here may retail for around US$3,500 while a larger Le Thanh Son could fetch US$19,000 or more. Green Palm is also at 82 Hang Gai Street and 110 Hang Gai. Hanoi Studio (13 Trang Tien, tel: 3934-443) run by Duong Thu Hang is closer to the Opera side of the street and offers ample viewing space with stylish works by Bui Tien Tuan who creates sketches of ladies on silk with a print-and-dye finish conjuring up a vibrant Japanese or Paris feel depending on your point of view. Pick up a one metre canvas from roughly US$2,300. The studio promotes young and upcoming artists. Find a second Hanoi Studio gallery at 23 Trang Thi Street. Around the corner at 7 Hai Ba Trung is Atena Fina Arts with a broad range of styles. And just across the road from the Sofitel Legend Metropole is the Trien Lam My Thuat Gallery at 16 Ngo Nguyen.

Keep an eye out for bright lacquer-on-wood paintings by Thanh Chuong who relentlessly churns out water buffalo portraits, deifying these beasts in all manner of cuddly and cud-chewing poses. Along the way you will also likely encounter Nguyen Thanh Binh’s enormous output – devoted almost entirely to paintings of schoolgirls in white against gold backdrops: dull but popular, with many knock-off artists feverishly imitating these styles.

Hanoi Dining, Restaurants, Cafes and Bars

Dining out is one of the great pleasures in Hanoi and the city has some excellent choices, atmospheric, and relatively cheap. As night falls, the avalanche of cyclos, buses and cars subsides and visitors can venture onto the streets with a small measure of confidence. The pace is sedate though an occasional lady may approach you on a moped and enquire if you want “Boom boom”. On then with our Hanoi guide to the most interesting dining establishments. Head to the relocated Bobby Chinn now at 77 Xuan Dieu Street near West Lake. Grab a bite or drink in rather chic surrounds replete with paintings, drapes, cosy nooks, Buddha-Bar-style music and eclectic French-Thai dishes. If you’re popping by for a drink, make it late.

Tucked right under the Opera building next to an alfresco Highlands Coffee is the chic and upscale nineteen 11 (1 Trang Tien Street, tel: 3933-4801), a contemporary escape for fine dining in brick-and-wood surrounds. Good service, interesting menus (Vietnamese and Continental) and steep prices. The characterful Emperor restaurant villa closed and reopened as Club Oriental (22 Tong Dam Street near the Opera House, tel: 3826-8801). Or try the intimate Club Opera (59 Ly Thai To behind Metropole, tel: 3824-6950).

For some real atmosphere plunge into the clamour of the Old Quarter close by Hoan Khiem Lake to the fabulous Green Tangerine (48 Hang Be Street, tel: 3825-1286) with its alfresco patio and signature blue-green doors leading into a small two-storey villa where you are assured of some rather innovative and tasty French and European treats. Food is excellent, if a tad pricey, and you can expect an extensive wine menu.

An older eatery with a gracious villa ambience albeit wearing a somewhat deadbeat and empty look at times, is Nam Phuong (19 Phan Chu Trinh, tel: 3824-0926). It is housed in an old corner villa, a sedate oasis amidst the whining motorcycles that scream down the street. The menu is not bad at all.

For Vietnamese fare other choices include Indochine (tel: 3924-4097) that has been in decline for a while, the excellent, if simple, Cay Cau (De Syloia Hotel, tel: 3933-1010), and the charming villa-housed Le Tonkin (14 Ngo Van So, tel: 3943-3457). At all these spots, a decent lunch for two without wine will come to around US$20. Le Tonkin is in an attractive restored French villa with green louvred windows. It offers indoor and outdoor seating. For a zesty Vietnamese-Euro lunch buffet try Tara (tel: 935-1069) in a converted French villa at 3A Ngo Quyen.

While wandering down Trang Tien near the Opera, stop awhile one floor above the traffic at the quaint Zigzag Cafe (No.2 Nguyen Xi Street, tel: 393-64 111), which perches unsteadily above a small leafy t-junction with tables and sun umbrellas scattered along a wraparound balcony. There’s an indoor airconditioned section too. Nothing fancy, just a nice rustic pit-stop with Vietnamese tea a steal at 10,000 dong. Pastas, fried rice and Vietnamese dishes are around 45,000 dong. The entrance is hidden in a side street off Trang Tien. Also duck into the small alley midway down Trang Tien that doubles as a motorcycle park and a teen hangout with ice-creams and cakes. There are lots of book stores in this area. Serving up a cool and chic atmosphere with good service and delicious food is the contemporary Wild Rice (6 Ngo Thi Nham Street, tel: 3943-8896) and its sister Wild Lotus (on Nguyen Du Street). Try their tangy fried beef with coconut sauce. The alfresco courtyard affair Brother’s Café (26 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, tel: 3733-3866) is a breezy choice with extensive buffets. For something less lavish and on-the-run, check out the woody Paris Deli (tel: 3934-5269, 6 Phan Chu Trinh, just across from the Hilton, with a second outlet on Nha Tho Street near the church) and the new Highlands Coffee at Nha Tho.

The atmospheric Moca Cafe (tel: 3825-6334, 14-16 Na Tho) features just about everything from Italian and Vietnamese to Indian on its extensive menu. The food’s not bad at all and this is a great place to hang out, especially upstairs if you bag a window booth. Indonesian nasi goreng? They’ve got it too, and heaps of books should you wish to stay longer. At 57 Ly Thai To, the cosy Au Lac Café (tel: 3825-7807) is another popular hangout.

Back at the Opera House and its radial streets, WiFi Cafes and coffee shops abound with the occasional trendy restaurant. Off Trang Tien at 3 Nguyen Khac Can is the compact and cheery three-storey Pane e Vino (tel: 3826-9080) that does passable and jolly Italian with a smile. Nearby are the Au Lac Club (tel: 3936-9009, 3A Nguyen Khac Can), and the redbrick The Sushi Tokyo (tel: 3936-4236, 15 ngo Trang Tien). Around the corner pop into the tiny Ferrari red Segafredo Zanetti coffee shop (18A Ngo Quyen, tel: 3936-9421).

A popular after-hours spot behind the Metropole is the Press Club (tel: 3934-0888, 59A Ly Thai To), which includes the fancy European-style Library Bar, the Terrace Bar & Restaurant, and a nice little deli. Of course, for some of the best Vietnamese food in town you’ll need to exercise your wallet, but not immodestly, at the Sofitel Legend Metropole’s Spices Garden (tel: 3826-6919). Their Le Club rustles up a fancy high tea and chocolate buffet of an afternoon, 3pm-5.30pm. Not to be outdone, the Hilton has refashioned its Chinese restaurant into the mod Ba Mien specialising in Vietnamese cuisine taking in the “three regions”. It can get a bit dark and quiet here though the service is friendly. Spices Garden at the Sofitel Legend Metropole is a cheery and classy option, fronting the pool and gardens, with a great buffet that actually serves up some excellent Vietnamese food.

But if you have the money and the moxie and wish for a close brush with the bizarre, check out the Hale Club (pronounced “haa-lay”, tel: 3942-4201, 64 Nguyen Du). This is an imitation Bangkok bar with chrome poles, pounding music, dancers (most in red-and-white sailor outfits) and perplexed foreigners downing cheap Tiger Beer. There are karaoke rooms as well. At midnight the police pop in to turn off the music though die-hards can still drink late. Arrive fashionably late or you may be the sole customer listening to “Five Hundred Miles”. Catering mainly for Vietnamese, the throbbing Hale Club is not hard to find. It is next door to the Ministry for Public Security not far from the Nikko Hotel.

For something a bit more risqué – if less so these days – head to the Daewoo hotel’s Club Q, where long-legged ladies will sashay up and press you for a drink. No money, no honey. If you want to be a cheapskate, play pool in the corner unmolested. Daewoo has toned down of late. For more of the same on a grander scale, visit the Hanoi Hotel nightclub after 8pm or, wilder yet, the Big Boss KTV club at the Fortuna Hotel after 7pm where immaculate lovelies will be brought to your table while the mama-san flashes a torch beam on their faces one by one. Tacky and embarrassingly silly, but… there’s music, dancing, karaoke and, occasionally conversation – “You handsome man. You take me hotel.” The banter will set you back about US$30 for the pleasure of your partner’s company. Drinks are extra. Both the Fortuna Hotel and Hanoi Hotel offer massage and pseudo spa treatments.

Sightseeing outside Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Perfume Pagoda

There are several day trips around Hanoi including golf at King’s Valley, 36km away, a cruise through Halong Bay with its stone outcroppings reminiscent of Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay, and a tour of the Perfume Pagoda following which you can drift down the river on a rowboat peeking into grottos and caves along the way. The verdant Tam Dao; hill station is do-able in a day but Sapa (with its hill tribes and wonderful walks) will take at least two to three. While hotels have several tour agents listed, one you might try is Asia Sun Travel. This is run by the energetic and resourceful Ta Bich Ha whose special interest is tours for the disabled. Bich Ha speaks excellent English. There’s the upbeat 4U Tours Hanoi Or team up with Exotissimo at one of its many hotel counters. Halong Bay is around three hours by road.

Hanoi business hotels, heritage hotels, and budget stays

So where should one stay? Given that Hanoi is not a particularly large town, location is not a major issue though a central spot near the Opera House and Hoan Kiem Lake is considered eminently desirable if you are looking for top Hanoi business hotels. Two charming properties here are the Hilton Hanoi Opera, which mimics the colonial design of its historic neighbour, the Opera House, and the stately 100-year-old Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, once the sole choice for visitors, that includes among its distinguished guests the likes of Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham.

The 364-room Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi with its starched colonial whitewash is a cultural heirloom that comes packaged with a navy-blue vintage car parked outside to underline the point. It has two blocks, the older one sporting creaky teakwood floors. The Metropole offers Broadband in all rooms and Wireless access in public areas at US$18 per day. The pool has been renovated. The atmospheric Old Wing of the hotel has undergone refurbishment to emerge all spit and polish. The 32sq m Luxury Rooms feature compact bathrooms with L’Occitane toiletries, dark wood parquet flooring, a wooden work desk, classical comfy chair, silk cushions in sober colours, and double-glazed windows to firmly keep out street noise. Room features include a classic-face bedside clock, a ceiling fan, a rather comfy bed, flat-screen TV, DVD player and a large safe that can actually accommodate a laptop. Three cheers. One step up is the 37sq m Grand Luxury Room with a larger bathtub (with a separate shower cubicle) and a lounging divan.

The “New” wing or the Opera Wing as the hotel terms it has also gone through a dramatic facelift. The corridor carpets are done in startling orange-red stripes while the walls are in vertical black-and-white barcode stripes across which hang virginal white doors. It’s not as hallucinogenic Alice in Wonderland or Sixties as it sounds. The ensemble is designer mod.

Rooms themselves feature flat screen TVs, stark polished dark timber underfoot with starched white linen on the beds and splashes of red in the chairs, crimson wake-up-call toilet tiles and cabinets. The shower is hand-held. Also find a weighing scale, a small box safe (that won’t house a laptop), coffee and tea-making facilities, a large-face classical clock, and crisply focused “pipe” lights for reading. It’s an interesting and enlivening juxtaposition for an historic Hanoi hotel.

The premium business traveller Club Metropole is housed in the Opera Wing (converted from office space) and turned into an executive haven with a Club Lounge, complimentary Internet and WiFi, vastly muted colours this time, and 48sq m Grand Premium Club Rooms. Expect a leather-top table, king-size bed with a faux-crocodile leather headboard, floral walls, and a funky freestanding bathtub accompanied by twin vanities and Hermes toiletries. And, in all rooms, you’ll spot the stylish black-satin-cloaked bottles of mineral water with their elegantly raised crimson Dracula collars.

For Hanoi brand shopping head to the surrounding block or the hotel’s Metropole Arcade for Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Chopard, Rolex, Salvatore Ferragamo, Hermes, Sergio Rossi, Jaeger-le Coultre, Bally, Burberry, IWC and more. In the vicinity are Esprit, Escada and Estee Lauder. Despite the colonial opulence and seemingly laid back atmosphere, this is easily one of the best Hanoi business hotels with brisk and friendly service.

After hours, unwind in the fabulous new Le Spa du Metropole set in a dedicated wing across three floors of elegant, classical, dreamy, aromatic décor with seven treatment rooms, a foot reflexology lounge and a hammam steam room. Check out the plush themed rooms and pick from Oriental or modern among others. Later, bop the night away at Angelina.

The Hilton Hanoi Opera, by contrast, has modern interiors, a businesslike feel and a high-ceiling lobby that echoes to the sounds of an excellent acoustic jazz-and-pop band most nights. You could transport the Hilton and plonk it down in Paris without causing a murmur. It slips into period that well. The executive floors here feature free Broadband though all hotel rooms have access at a modest fee. Satellite television is available in all 269 rooms. The rooms at the Hilton are what perhaps set this hotel apart from others – they feature bright floral prints and wallpaper married with a smart working desk and three-pin (square) plug connections. None of those old-fashioned European round plug sockets here.

The impression is bright, welcoming and friendly. These are the sort of rooms where you can both relax and crank out work, with equal aplomb. (If you need executive pampering, book into the seventh floor where refreshments and snacks flow endlessly.) The toilets feature a separate shower cubicle and bathtub. A good spot as any to catch some rays, is the small outdoor pool overlooking the Opera House. The Chinese restaurant has been reincarnated as the signature Vietnamese restaurant Ba Mien. Ba Mien specialises in three regions’ cuisine, dishing out Hanoi, Hue and Saigon favourites in a spacious, cool and chic environment. The hotel houses some designer brand outlets with fashion accessories. It is among the top Hanoi business hotels. Expect free Wi-Fi in the lobby from 8am to 10pm and Broadband in-room at US$15 per day.

The bustling Sofitel Plaza Hanoi overlooking the West Lake is more group oriented. Its highrise rooms offer sweeping views and you can take a dip, any time of year, in the top-floor all-weather pool – with a retractable roof. Classic Rooms start at 30sq m offering lake or river views and most come with a bathtub and separate shower.

A bit farther out on the far, secluded side of the lake, the gleaming Sheraton Hanoi offers a stylish resort ambience with all the crisp flourish you’d expect from quality Hanoi conference hotels. It is an interesting, and relaxing mix, with lakeside frontage and pleasant gardens. Views are great, though the rooms look askance at the lake, rather than all the way across the length of it. This is a minor quibble as the place is really first class, especially if you have a large cranky corporate meeting in tow. The rooms feature conservative pastels with dark, rich, wood tones and, yes, three-pin (square) sockets. There is a flat safe for small notebooks if not a full-size laptop.

Rooms are Broadband enabled (US$18 per day) so you can plug in and start surfing right off the bat. There are two telephone lines. Call your wife and boss simultaneously, and then wonder why on earth you attempted this. Internet access is free for a brief surf at the lobby Link@Sheraton that is set up with a couple of humming computers. In-room find two generous 500ml bottles of complimentary mineral water. To work up a sweat, or cool off, there’s a free-form pool set in the lakeshore gardens, an extensive fitness centre, and a tennis court. Pin-stripers can de-stress all the while marvelling at the excellent meetings facilities. Savour Vietnamese fusion at Hemisphere’s and later unwind at the Nutz Bar which gets swinging late.

If you wish to just look at the Sheraton and can’t afford to stay there, the next best thing is to kip at the neighbouring Dragon Hotel, an ornate Chinese establishment that offers a dizzying amalgam of artefacts, urns, ceramic horses and wood carvings in a bright yellow building that resembles a pagoda. The place is basic but clean and a bit eccentric. If you get spooked easily, think twice before checking in. This is Halloween meets Friday the 13th. Heck it’s only about US$39 a night.

A newer kid on the block – or over the water, more appropriately – is the that opened in March 2008. Formerly The Lien Resort Hotel, the 359-room InterCon has upgraded this over-water enterprise with considerable flair.

Expect an inviting tropical swimming pool right by the lakeside, Club InterContinental for business travellers in need of all-day butler service and high speed Broadband and Wi-Fi (US$18 per day), and capacious rooms upwards of 43sq m with 32-inch LCD televisions, satellite channels, twin vanity, and bathtub with separate rainshower. Rooms reflecting a modern Vietnamese style largely look onto the waters of the lake. Gourmets can enjoy Italian, French and Asian fare. Service is welcoming and brisk, a cut above the usual Vietnamese five-star fare.

A bit out of town in Kim Ma Street is the Korean-owned if-you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it Hanoi Daewoo Hotel. Needless to say, the kimchi and bulgogi are terrific. The high-rise hotel is slathered in marble and it boasts an extraordinarily generous 80m outdoor pool in which you could have shot The Titanic. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton have stayed here but I’m not sure if cigars are big around here. Daewoo also has apartments, a good fitness centre, an 18th floor sky lounge and meeting facilities. High-speed Internet is available free, which is a huge plus. There are 411 rooms, mostly in bright pink-rose pastels with a work desk, a deep safe (not laptop size unfortunately), and generous views of lakes in all directions. Floors 15-17 offer the benefit of an Executive Lounge with canapés, drinks and breakfast. In the evenings, the young and restless – or old and jaded – can pop into Club Q for an enlivening moment.

Three Hanoi business hotels worth looking at are the Hanoi Horison Hotel (run by Swiss-Belhotel International) not far from the Daewoo, the crisp and modern Hotel Nikko Hanoi and the Melia Hanoi which boasts the largest conference space in the city. You could stage an Indian wedding at the Melia and still have room to swing a cat by the tail though animal rights groups may not appreciate use of a feline barometer.

The Hanoi Horison Hotel has a good executive floor and a decent Chinese restaurant. Its conference facilities can accommodate up to 800 people. The Horison Club floors offer both plug-in and wireless Internet options. The property is not too far from the action and offers quick access to both the airport as well as downtown.

The Melia Hanoi offers Broadband throughout the hotel. Wireless is available in the lobby as well as on select floors. There is an open-air pool, a fitness centre, and a Grand Ballroom that seats 1,200. There are, of course, smaller function rooms as well. Rooms are pretty straightforward, with light wood, and pastels. Here you’ll get THREE 330ml bottles of complimentary mineral water, a small safe, and a well-stocked mini-bar. Melia is not your average understated address. It is large, businesslike and busy. Expect woody hues, echoing hallways and a sense of people on the fly. After hours enjoy tapas at the foot-tapping Latino Bar.

The Hotel Nikko Hanoi is minimalist and corporate. Deluxe rooms start at a spacious 36sq m with Executive rooms stretching that to 48sq m with free and unlimited Internet access. There’s Chinese on the menu as well as Japanese while a broad-menu brasserie covers more bases and palates. Also find a sunny outdoor swimming pool and a fitness centre with sauna, massage services and Jacuzzis.

The Fortuna Hotel is a four-star dive, albeit clean and neat and orderly, that masquerades as a business hotel. It has little to recommend it save for the lively nightclub, spa and friendly doormen. It is a way out of town in a seedy commercial area though the Exhibition Centre is walking distance through the scrum. The basement beckons with slippery sleaze but the rooms are not too bad. Deluxe rooms come with iron and ironing board, a hair drier, a flat-screen TV, Broadband access, a decent work desk, a coat stand, large laptop-size safe and even a Jacuzzi. The hotel has its rules and standards. You cannot take durian fruit up to your room but scantily clad ladies are no problem.

Other distractions here include the Millionaire Club with over 50 slot machines and the aforementioned Big Boss KTV dance club which is worth a look-see for high-camp fun. Similarly, the Sunway Hotel, positioned rather boldly as a “boutique” property, but is a tad disappointing. Its service and facilities are fair but the overall ambience is bit cramped and dark. On the bright side, it offers a health club with assorted fitness gadgetry, a sauna, and some herbal spa massages. Its location is not far from the Opera House area.

A smaller but interesting option is the well-located doll’s-house De Syloia that offers the Cay Cau Vietnamese restaurant, a small business centre and a gym. This is a compact, homey establishment but you will find meeting rooms, a business centre, in-room safe and satellite TV.

The smart Guoman has rebranded as the Movenpick Hotel Hanoi. It always had strong European accents and this trend continues – albeit with a very mod transition – in this Hanoi boutique hotel incarnation. There are 154 rooms starting at 30sq m. Super Deluxe rooms have dark accents with wood flooring enlivened by a green border carpet, silver chest-of-drawers below the flat-screen LCD TV, a black leather sink-in reading chair, silk drapes, and large face bedside clock. The wallpaper is in grey tones and a partial see-through glass wall leads the eye from bedroom to a compact bathroom. Expect an iron and ironing board, a large electronic safe, weighing scales, a data port and two multiplug electric sockets by the table. The hotel also has rooms set aside for women travellers who will appreciate the iron and ironing board, bright lighting, and a portable make-up mirror. And in the Junior Suites find a Jacuzzi bathtub. All rooms offer Broadband Internet access at US$12 per day and WiFi is accessible throughout the hotel in rooms and in public areas. Meeting facilities are brisk, if small-scale, catering for corporate get-togethers, with Wireless and plug-in Internet access. Also expect a gym with massage and sauna, reflexology and a Jacuzzi. Not to be outdone by the Metropole, Movenpick has a cream vintage Citroen parked outside. This is a good hotel choice but don’t expect a swimming pool.

Not commonly mentioned in any Hanoi guide, the very welcoming and friendly Hoa Binh Hotel is centrally located just two blocks from the Opera House on Ly Thuong Kiet Rd. This is a three-star establishment with a French restaurant, a sleepy yet inviting air and a fair bit of character not least on account of the numerous classical columns and creaking floorboards. The place first got underway in 1926 under the name Le Splendide, and that name is retained by its French restaurant that doubles as a cheerful breakfast venue that serves a hearty buffet in the mornings. Staff are keen to help and manage weddings, foreign visitors and local guests with egalitarian charm. They clearly take pride in their hotel.

One receptionist told me her mother had worked there previously and she was carrying on that family tradition. Deluxe rooms here are much larger than your average five-star Hanoi hotel, with a diwan, two chairs, a writing desk, a vanity table with mirror, a large lumpy and springy bed, a TV that usually works (though CNN is impossible to find), an electronic safe that will house your video camera, a mini-bar, and Internet both in-room as well as the business centre (at US$3 per hour). WiFi is free in the lobby. You’ll get a large wooden almirah in the foyer (remember foyers?), shampoo and bath gel, a shaver, wall-mounted hair-drier and two bottles of mineral water each day. There is a tea and coffee-making facility.

A local agent could secure this with a huge breakfast for around US$52 per night. I booked into room 255 that mysteriously was not on the second floor. It was not on the third floor either. I was mystified. A maid later pointed out a side staircase on the second floor that went up to the fourth floor where my room was located at the end of a long corridor. Quite a bit of schlepping about but at that price I’m not complaining. Do watch out for the noise though. Being on a busy intersection means you will be vigorously reminded of the huge strides modern Vietnam is making as heavy trucks and whining motorcycles roar by at all hours.

Farther along the road at 94 Ly Thuong Kiet Street near the Central Station is the new and modern four-star French-run Mercure Hanoi La Gare with 102 rooms featuring a look-in glass bathroom wall. Playfully, the drapes are on the outside. Another newbie is the four-star Best Western Muong Thanh, a highrise construct in a newer residential area called Linh Dan about 9km from the city centre. Expect high-speed Internet, pool, spa, steam room, solarium, fitness centre and in-room iron and ironing board.

A flavourful and tiny Hanoi boutique hotel option is the tucked away Cinnamon Hotel near St Joseph’s church in the Nha Tho area (26 Autrieu Street) with just six rooms. Cosy, welcoming and well located and a steal at US$75 up. A modern if pricier option is the 106-room self-style Hanoi boutique hotel, new Silk Path Hotel at 195 Hang Bong not far from Hoan Khiem Lake. For high rollers and karaoke enthusiasts, there’s the Hanoi Hotel (modern yet grotty but with a lakeside location), with a smart Chinese restaurant, a sauna and massage, a slot machine room for foreigners only, and a bopping nightclub where you’ll encounter the usual avalanche of nimble, nubile lovelies. This is a BIG nightclub. Best to come with friends if you don’t wish to look too furtive and lost.

Hanoi long-stay hotels and executive apartment options

For Hanoi long-stay hotels and for visitors in need of something more laid back there’s the Sedona Suites Hanoi, in the Quang Ba area 15 minutes from downtown, with 175 rooms (starting at 59sq m) with kitchenette, satellite TV, in-room safe, and a raft of activities from badminton and tennis to squash, basketball and sauna. There is a mini-mart, a business centre and small meetings facilities. Other apartment-style long stay hotel options include the upscale 185-residence Somerset Grand Hanoi (from the Ascott group at 49 Hai Ba Trung Street) close by the Melia in town, with gym, sauna, business centre, conference area, tennis, Wi-Fi, and kindergarden; and the newer, smart, and contemporary Fraser Suites near West Lake on Xuan Dieu Street. Expect secure keycard access to residential floors, large LCD TVs and the usual mod-cons. Families can avail of a children’s playroom and the Syrena Shopping Centre is just a hop and a skip away. Hanoi has several decent serviced apartment options.

Transport, taxis, and getting around through the mayhem

Getting around Hanoi is not too difficult. There are metered taxis, and metered taxis and. Well, some taxis start at D12,000, some start at D6,000, while still others start at D7,000. At the end of the day for a distance over 2km the fare will be roughly the same, as the cheaper taxi meters run faster. Make a note of Hanoi Taxi (tel: 3853-5353). Rides within the city are normally about D20,000-D40,000 though some meters run at Olympian speeds.

Within the city, hotels can arrange a private taxi with a driver and an air-conditioned vehicle. How much English your driver speaks is another matter. A hotel car will set you back a wee bit more with perhaps a more significant vocabulary range. As one guide explained to me, “Here, driver speak English is not popular.” This is about as good as it gets.

Airport survival tips and Hanoi duty-free shopping prices

Getting in to town from the newish Noi Bai International Airport is a doddle. Airport Taxis are just US$15 to town (though some will ask for US$20) and they are parked right at the front entrance as you exit. Taxis from town to the airport are cheaper at around US$10. Noi Bai boasts air-bridges to connect to jets (dispensing with the creaking buses), and glassed-in immigration officials. A handy sign on all the glass booths used to offer a word of caution for visitors. “Do not pull the glass,” it read. Quite right. Alas, it has gone, a sign of breathless upgrades at the shiny new terminal. Departures at Noi Bai are fairly painless too. The departure lounge, which is a bit stark, if comfortable, resembles a giant, abandoned warehouse.

There are just a couple of duty-free shops, trinket stalls (British colonial sola topi sun-hats and the like), one cafeteria and one library with three or four books in English, like the riveting Our Great Spring Victory. It also stocks contemporary fare such as Selected Writings on Utilitarianism by Jeremy Bentham and the collected works of Thomas Hardy. Change your dong BEFORE you clear immigration.

Hanoi duty free shopping prices are about what you’d expect anywhere in Asia. A Johnnie Walker Black Label one litre bottle is US$32 and a 12-year-old Chivas also US$32. Here’s you’ll find Bally, Ferragamo, Burberry, Longchamp and Aigner. Christian Dior’s 50ml eu de parfum J’adore retails for US$80, a Chanel Allure 7.5ml parfum is US$104, and a BVLGARI 50ml Rose Essentielle eu de parfum is US$85.

Airport staff, like people everywhere in Hanoi, are exceptionally polite. I caught them in the middle of a tearful Korean soap opera that had just about everyone glued to the large-screen tellies around the terminal. I had to apologise to the ladies to have to tear them away to reopen their shops and turn on the lights. They wept some more when I enquired about further discounts.

If you’re flying out of Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com.vn) bear in mind that its Airbus A320s have a 3-3 configuration in economy with a HUGE middle seat. I kid you not. Middle seats B and E are at least three to four inches wider than the rest. Don’t ask why. On the A321s sporting the new corporate livery and deep blue upholstery, pick Exit Row 8 Seats ABC and EF. Seat 6D right behind business class has terrific legroom and no seat in front. For legroom, also try Exit Row 21. Remember the large middle seats. Offer your wife the window, graciously, then lean back in seat B, don your sola topi and snooze.

(Source: Smarttravelasia.com)