Greene Greene Grass of Hanoi: Sofitel Metropole

Published 06 January 2011   

VE HANDOJO retraces the steps of Graham Greene in the elegance of Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, and found that writing hotel reviews is not that much different from writing fiction.

It was my lifelong dream to travel around the world by myself, packed with a typewriter – iBook wasn’t invented when I first had this vision in the eighties – and write novels about places that I had been, and people that I had had affairs with. In every version of that dream, a nice hotel room was always included. In the eighties, it was a room with a view over the mountains. In the nineties, an ocean view. Now as the first decade of the 21st century is coming to an end, my favorite view turns out to be over a town with an attitude.

A town like Hanoi – emerging early with old folk jogging in the parks, Taichi-ing around Hoan Kiem Lake, people honking their motorbikes 24/7 all over the streets, cyclo riders racing with the dented cars, and pedestrians getting lucky on the zebra crossings. On a hot day, youngsters go to Kem Trang Tien to go nuts over cheap ice creams, or sip super delicious Vietnamese coffee in the local version of Starbucks, Highlands Coffee.

In the evening, The Old Quarter is filled with shoppers on the hunt for excellent lacquer paintings, homeware, and souvenirs, as well as fine silk at bargain prices. Some will be lucky enough to get lost in one of those alleys to find the popular Bun Bo Nam Bo – an authentic local hangout serving only one dish: pho bo, or Vietnamese rice noodles topped with beef and bathed in richly spiced herbal broth.

This is the town where legendary British author Graham Greene reported for Paris Match, and completed his masterpiece novel, “The Quiet American”, in 1951. He stayed at the Metropole Hotel, hung out in the hotel bar, built networks with Seymour Topping of Associated Press, Tillman Durdin of the New York Times, and the like. In 1989, that particular hotel went under a major, three-year long renovation, and was reborn as Sofitel Metropole, under Accor Hotels management.

The history of this Old Lady of Hanoi started when two private French investors, Gustave-Emile Dumoutier and Andre Ducamp, built it in 1901, as Grand Hotel Metropole Palace. Naturally, Metropole became part of the history of Hanoi, if not Vietnam in general.

Upon staying there in 1920s, English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, Nöel Coward, got a curfew sign: “We were not allowed out of the hotel as there was a revolution in progress.” Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard were honeymooners there in 1936. In 1944, during the last days of war, the hotel was a temporary home of Japanese prisoners of war. Ho Chi Minh himself came to visit guests of the Vietnam Communist Party meeting in 1960. Twelve years later, Jane Fonda stayed in the hotel for two weeks, and made her infamous broadcasts to the US troops. Heavy bombing made the guests hide in the bomb shelter built within the hotel.

The ‘hard-core’ training and history of Sofitel Metropole doesn’t come from nothing. Since 1997, there hasn’t been a year go by without a prestigious award for Sofitel Metropole. This year alone, the hotel scored a spot in the Gold List of Condé-Nast Traveler, Top 500 Best Hotels in the World by Travel + Leisure, Asia’s Best Hotel in Hanoi by Asiamoney, and it was also listed in Forbes 400. Surely, it is the most esteemed address in the city.

Just like Greene himself, the hotel “suffers a bipolar syndrome” – in a good way, that is. Metropole Wing (110 rooms) and Opera Wing (254 rooms) share different personalities; the former reflects the historical grandeur, while the latter offers neoclassical elegance. Crossing the swimming pool with chic shops around it made me feel like I was transporting myself back and forth between these two characters – a very substantial experience for an aspiring writer.

It comes as no surprise that Sofitel Metropole devotes herself to the magic of the author. The Graham Greene Suite is a spellbinding lodge, and the Graham Greene cocktail at Le Club Bar is a highly regarded mix of gin, dry vermouth and cassis. Most recently introduced is the Graham Greene Menu, blending together the authentic cuisine of the past with modern flavours.

The façade of the hotel is classic white French colonial with green wooden louvres. Liberal use of wood and marble, combined with fine fabrics and beautiful ceramics, breathe an exotic ambience. Preserved French architecture with pretty detailing harmoniously clashes with heavy touches of Vietnamese flair. As far as the tradition goes, so does modern technology that equips the rooms.

Sofitel Metropole also hosts legendary Sunday brunch in Le Beaulieu Restaurant – simply the best French fine dining in the city. Like the hotel itself, this institution has been open for over a hundred years, and has been serving the Sunday brunch since the 1990s. Its La Terrasse du Metropole is a fine replication of a typical Parisian sidewalk café where you can sip Bordeaux, smoke cigars, and enjoy the city view. For pastas and steak, head to the avant-garde Angelina. Spices Garden serves authentic Vietnamese cuisine.

A hundred years of training brings flawless service in an atmosphere that is as intimate as a Vietnamese lady’s smile, and as sophisticated as a madamoiselle’s grin. What more could a guy like Graham Greene ask for, then? During the three-nights stay in the room with a view over the city, my affair with these “two ladies” has been an inspiration of some new Indonesian horror movie screenplay, Facebook notes, and, most importantly, hotel reviews. How would that be far different from some Pulitzer prize winner’s? In the case of Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, it wouldn’t be much different. How can one write anything bad about her?

Sofitel Metropole Hanoi
15 Ngo Quyen, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: +84 4 826 6919
www.sofitel.com

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