Armchair Traveler Series: Hanoi, Vietnam

JW Marriott Hanoi, the “Dragon Hotel”
Photo by Marriott

Curses to the coronavirus, for flying anywhere stress-free for fun and relaxation is not an option. This time of “sheltering in place” allows me to catch up on sharing my travels. I leave the cockpit and transition to my blue leather armchair. Last fall, my husband and I travelled to Hanoi, Vietnam, for business and pleasure. Check it out!

Once upon a time in a land far, far to the east, the king of the dragons married a mountain fairy. Their descendants, the “children of the dragon and grandchildren of the fairy, ” spread across the land, inhabiting the seashore and the highlands (https://scroll.in/article/830807/why-the-vietnamese-are-called-the-children-of-the-dragon-and-grandchildren-of-the-fairy). Their first-born son became the king of the first dynasty of Vietnam. Out of this creation story has come a deep respect for the dragon, the symbol of Vietnam. One of the best places to see the dragon’s significance is in Hanoi at a very special hotel.

Where to Stay?

The JW Marriott Hotel Settling Down the Dragon’s Body at Sunset
Photo by Bruce Holmes

Another legend says that in the 11th century, the king travelling in his royal barge landed in the area known today as Hanoi. He saw a golden dragon rising majestically into the sky. Taking that as a fortuitous sign, the king designated the site the home of the new capital, calling it Thang Long, meaning City of the Soaring Dragon (https://www.vietnam-culture.com/articles-221-34/Tale-of-Vietnamese-Dragon.aspx). Today, explore this myth by checking in to the 5-star JW Marriott Hotel Hanoi, the “Dragon Hotel.” This award-winning hotel’s symbolic design is that of a dragon ascending from Vietnam’s coastline (https://www.vir.com.vn/jw-marriott-hanoi-awarded-best-design-in-asia-28200.html).

The JW Dragon Waking Up to a Sunny, New Day, Its Head Peering Over the City
Photo by Bruce Holmes

This “Dragon” is a very hospitable dragon. In fact, the hotel is so well thought out, a traveler could stay inside for the entire trip and never get bored. It has luxurious rooms and suites, eight tantalizing restaurants and lounges, tempting boutiques, a state-of-the-art fitness center, an inviting pool, and an indulgent spa. You can easily and happily pass the day working out, swimming, and rejuvenating in the spa.

The Food at the JW’s French Grill: Oh Là Là Là Là !

After your righteous exercise regime, you can splurge on a memorable meal. If you want to eat at Tripadvisor’s #1 rated French Restaurant in Hanoi, the JW Marriott’s French Grill is une merveilleuse expérience gastronomique (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293924-d5259465-Reviews-French_Grill-Hanoi.html). My husband and I experienced a meal there with eight friends. All the dishes were declared delicious; I can’t single out one that was better than the other. A highlight, though, was the “The Lemon” dessert. Not only was it luscious, the confection looked exactly like a real lemon. The photos below show that food is art at the French Grill.

Patagonian Toothfish: truffle, creamy polenta, mushroom, chestnut cream
Roasted Lobster: salmon and shrimp ravioli, vanilla beurre blanc

While it’s tempting to stay in the Dragon’s comfortable lair, of course you are going to venture outside and discover the area. If you want a place to overcome jet lag before taking on the busy city, I heartily recommend an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay, a two-hour drive east of Hanoi, where you will encounter more dragon mythology: Ha Long means “descending dragon.”

Cruise on Ha Long Bay

Vietnam in its early years was constantly fighting invaders from the north. Another legend says that the Mother Dragon and her children were sent from heaven to help the navy conquer their foes by incinerating them with blazing fire and hot, heavy emeralds. The emeralds scattered across the marine battlefield, eventually rising from the water to become the 1600+ islands and islets that dot Ha Long Bay. In solidarity with the Vietnamese people, the Mother Dragon and children became mortals and stayed to work in the area.

Today, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and popular tourist destination. Along with our friends, Dan and Judy, we booked a cruise with Paradise Cruise, so we could see the dragons’ geological jewels up close (https://www.paradisecruise.com/halong-bay-travel/the-legend-of-halong-bay.html).

These limestone jewels stretch across about 600 square miles.

Forgoing the off-board trips, we stayed on our ship, Paradise Elegance, to relax and unwind in one of the most unique and beautiful locations in the world. We enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch and then retired to our comfortable cabins with their private decks to watch the marine life mosey by: kayakers, floating villages, caves, Tung Sau Pearl Farm, and the emerald formations. Finally succumbing to the time zone change, we peacefully napped.

We chose to stay onboard, relax, and savor the scenery. No guilt here!

My husband and I awoke at sunset in time to join the spring rolls cooking demonstration on the top deck. Bruce, who doesn’t usually enjoy potentially “hokey” experiences as I do, gamely agreed to join me. He was won over when the bartender put classic gin martinis in our hands. Cooking class on! Actually, it was fun, and we got to eat the savory results and finish with a local apéritif.

The evening culminated with a relaxing sit-down dinner and a perfect night’s sleep. I woke early the next morning and joined the tai chi class on the L’Odyssée Sundeck, delighted to see Dan and Judy there, too. We exercised as the rising sun’s rays sparkled across the blue-green waves, forming white diamonds scattered among the emerald islands. The slow, rhythmic stretching kindly revived my muscles still sore from a 30-hour trip from home to Vietnam.

A beautiful two-tone soup started the evening meal.

Back to Hanoi

Meeting Bruce for breakfast, we learned of a pleasant surprise: Our Vietnamese friend and host had arranged for us to have massages at the ship’s spa, La Parfum. By the time Bruce and I finished that kneaded (pun intended) experience, I had no aches and pains. Thus, we debarked, physically and mentally prepared to drive back and experience Hanoi.

Actually, Judy and I were going to experience Hanoi with a guide; Dan and Bruce had to work. Note: Take a taxi, hire a driver, but do not, I repeat, do not attempt to drive in Hanoi. The two motorcycles below are an exception. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there is a swarm of them flying around, over, and in front of your car and the crush of other cars around you. How the locals navigate through buzzing traffic should be considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Seeing just two motorcycles was such an anomaly, I had to take a photo. A hundred more motorcycles soon caught up with them.

Old Town Hanoi: Kilomet109 Boutique

Our first stop was the fashion boutique, Kilomet109, an innovative eco-friendly shop marrying ancient traditions with modern techniques (https://kilomet109.com/home/). The designer, Vu Thau, is the creative force behind this impressive brand, The New York Times reports that “Kilomet109’s dyeing [which includes yam root and indigo], weaving, batik drawing and calendering (a finishing process) is done by nearly three dozen women artisans in four separate ethnic-minority communities across northern Vietnam…” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/fashion/craftsmanship-fashion-vietnam-kilomet100.html). These easy-to-wear pieces (blazers, tops, pants, dresses, etc.) are surprisingly affordable considering how labor intensive the processes are to make them. Prices are comparable to the Polo Ralph Lauren line. I was too busy ooo-ing and ahh-ing to remember to take photos. Mea culpa!

French Quarter Hanoi: Hanoia Lacquer Boutique in the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel

Our next stop was the Hanoia Lacquer Boutique located in the historic Metropole Hotel (https://hanoia.com). Drawing on the ancient tradition of painting lacquer on wood, Hanoia makes vibrant home decor and jewelry inspired by Eastern culture.

The Hanoia Boutique: Photo by Hanoia
https://vcdn-english.vnecdn.net/2019/06/24/Picture1-1-1-4023-1514450326-6945-1561346471.jpg




Earrings for My Daughter-in-Law: The design reflects the ancient iron window grillwork in Old Town Hanoi. Photo by Hanoia. https://hanoia.com/product/hang-dong-earrings-blue-sapphire.

Through shopping and needing a little lift-me-up, Judy and I enjoyed happy hour at the Metropole Hotel’s Le Club Bar (https://www.sofitel-legend-metropole-hanoi.com/dining/le-club-bar/#the-bar).

Waiting for a Drink and a Snack

We then progressed to meet our husbands and three of their business associates at a very special dinner at a vegan restaurant. Don’t turn up your noses; this was one of the best meals we ever had.

Old Town Hanoi: Uu Dam Chay, a Vietnamese Vegan Restaurant

The advantage of having local hosts is that they introduced us to the “real” Hanoi. They took the guesswork out of choosing where to tour and where and what to eat. We wouldn’t have found Uu Dam Chay Vegan Restaurant on our own, nor would we have known what to eat (http://uudamchay.com/en/). Our hosts ordered for us, and ordered for us, and ordered for us, resulting in quite a scrumptious feast that we couldn’t finish. Below, you will see samples: spring rolls, sushi, stuffed tomatoes, fruit salad, and other un-nameable dishes. That’s not true. They have names: Delicious and Memorable.

After finishing dinner and arriving back to the hotel, we went to bed, sadly knowing that we had only two more days in Hanoi.. We had no clue, however, about the surprises that were to come the next day.

A Culture of Gift Giving

The beginning of the day dawned as expected. We knew that Bruce was working at the hotel, Dan was giving a lecture to aerospace engineering students, and Judy and I were attending the lecture at the university. As a retired teacher, I enjoyed seeing the interaction between Dan and the students.

A student answers a question with the help of an interpreter.

Returning back to the hotel, the surprises and gifts started. We had designated the rest of the day as a “down day, ” and I had no idea how relaxing this time would be. I had a message that our host had arranged a an appointment for me at the luxurious Spa by JW. Gratefully, I chose a massage with lemongrass essential oil (sigh!), preceded by a long visit to the hot tub and sauna. I had to pinch myself as I was having my second massage in three days. Let me put in perspective how often I have a massage: I have been home for seven months, and I have not had one since.

Admiring the Pool After My Massage

Last Day Revelations

The next morning, rested and relaxed, I started to pack, for we were flying later to Croatia. The phone rang, and I learned that thanks to our host, seamstresses were on the way to take my measurements to make an outfit for me. Wh-.-wh-aaaaaat?! Now, my incredulousness was causing me to babble incoherently.

Two seamstresses and an interpreter arrived, bringing a selection of colorful silk and brocade fabrics. I discovered that when I returned home, I would receive jackets and the áo dài, Vietnam’s traditional long gown worn with trousers. What an honor! I must have babbled “thank you” a dozen times. I could not believe my good fortune.

I love the traditional design of this beautifully tailored jacket.

Saying goodbye to the seamstresses, I rushed off to meet Bruce for lunch with our host and his business associates in the concierge suite. There, Bruce and I learned that Dan, Judy, and we had one more trip scheduled: a visit to Ha Mahn Thang’s art gallery in Old Town. Mr. Thang is one of Vietnam’s exciting young artists. In his words: ” My works usually weave images from my own cultural history and pop culture with the social exigencies I find in contemporary life…” (https://hamanhthang.com/about-me).

Enjoying Tea with the Artist

I especially admired his large abstract canvases that on close inspection showed traditional motifs of birds and trees inspired by those found on antique wooden screens. I wish I owned a magical expanding suitcase that would have allowed me to take home the rose and teal painting in the photo above. Before we left, generous Mr. Thang made tea for us and gave each couple an autographed copy of his biography.

H. M. Thang’s Gift to Us

When we arrived back to the hotel, the surprises kept coming. The Vietnamese gift-giving culture is generous and sincere. Our kind host gave us a piece of original art, Vietnamese coffee, and a special lotus-infused green tea called Trà Sen, a fermented tea that comes from ancient trees that at one time were reserved for the royal family. All of these gifts made us feel like royalty in a fairy tale.

Good Night, Vietnam!

Unfortunately evening had arrived, we needed to leave for the airport, and it was time for the fantasy to end. There would be no more regal dragons, calming cruises, bountiful banquets, and hospitable gifts. Our four-night trip left us with gratitude and the wish to return. Adapted from the immortal words of Robin Williams: “Good Night, Vietnam!”

2 thoughts on “Armchair Traveler Series: Hanoi, Vietnam

  1. Man I miss Vietnam’s food. It’s just not the same as the Vietnamese food in my area.

    Ha Long Bay was really pretty but it was kind of sad how oily the water looked up close. We did go kayaking but we weren’t allowed to swim in it.

    Like

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