Hanoi happy at return of new-age colonialists

City talk | Cheng Huan 15 Apr 2019

Bangkok can be unpleasantly hot and the pollution even more unbearable. Japan hardly seems worth it for a meager three days away. What about nearby Hanoi?

It's a more cultural city than frantic Ho Chi Minh, and its people are famously welcoming.

I also heard that Hanoi city center was spruced up for the recent summit between presidents Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump of South Korea and the United States with more flowers and cleaner roads.

But how about the weather?

An app on my iPhone promised cloudless skies, and a rival weather app confirmed the sunny forecast.

The decision was made, reservations were arranged by American Express, and three days in Hanoi it was to be.

Cathay Pacific's little brother Cathay Dragon whisked me there swiftly, smoothly and safely, though I must say the airline's cleanliness and cuisine remain problematic.

Is it true, as I read somewhere, the seats and carpets are deep-cleaned only twice a year? It certainly looks that way.

Another report I've read said that the most bacterially infected parts of a plane are not the toilets but the tables because - horror of horrors! - they are never cleaned.

The grand dame of Hanoi hotels is the Metropole.

It is a renovated hangover from distant French colonial days and now inevitably part of the Sofitel hotel group - "inevitably" because Sofitel is French and proof, I suppose, that the French cling to dreams of their lost empire as much as the British do with their Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong.

It came as no surprise therefore to hear plenty of French spoken in the hotel - no doubt by visitors nostalgic to see the remnants of the brief French occupation of Indochina, which lasted 67 years from 1887 until their humiliating evacuation from Vietnam in 1954.

The Metropole is so iconic a hotel with flawless service that staying there is just about compulsory.

A further tip is to join the Sofitel Legend club to gain use of the seventh-floor club lounge for free drinks and a third place to have breakfast - the hotel has two more restaurants serving breakfast.

Hanoi's Metropole hotel has thrived, and doubled in size, alongside Vietnam's resilient economy - an economy that, like China's, was created under a communist government.

It was somewhat ironic that Trump and Kim chose to meet in Hanoi because Vietnam has been a big, though no doubt unintended, beneficiary of Trump's tariff war on mainland Chinese imports.

Savvy businessmen, mainly from Hong Kong, have been busy shifting their factories from China to Vietnam to escape American tariffs.

Small wonder then that over three days in Hanoi I saw more American tourists than any other nationality.

Despite the very bitter 19-year war that the two nations fought, culminating in as humiliating an American defeat in 1975 as the French suffered in 1954, the Vietnamese have taken to liking America as much as Americans have taken to liking the Vietnamese.

Old Hanoi is but a short walk from the Metropole, as are the Museum of Fine Arts, the city's top restaurants (apart from the equally good ones at the hotel itself) and a short taxi ride to that top tourist draw, the famous 1,000 year old Confucian Temple of Literature.

At the 100-year-old Opera House (an obvious copy of the one in Paris) it's worth devoting a few hours to watch this year's show called AO.

It's an inventive mix of modern dance, acrobatics, and live music about rural life and culture - a kind of Vietnamese version of Cirque du Soliel that, I thought, was even better.

As for the weather, the dark clouds loomed constantly overhead, it was cool and rained and the sun never appeared.

Like so much else on the internet those weather apps are, it seems, spreading fake news.

Cheng Huan is an author and a senior counsel who practices in Hong Kong

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