Minutes before my husband and I embarked on the long journey from Sapa to Halong Bay, I was informed that our boat cruise was cancelled. Halong Bay had been closed due to an impending typhoon passing through Northern Vietnam and no one knew when it would reopen. Great.
Luckily we had already booked a hotel in Hanoi at the end of the trip and our wonderful travel agent, Darian Culbert, managed to get us a booking a couple of days early. We would wait out the typhoon in Hanoi.
After two days of mountain trekking in Sapa, two overnight train rides in three days and a 5am arrival in the pouring rain, I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to enter a hotel. Especially this one, Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. Expensive by Vietnam standards but not too bad by Dubai’s, it was worth it.
Originally built in 1901 and modernized over the years, this iconic French-colonial hotel has been host to a laundry list of well-known presidents and celebrities. Waiting behind its impressive white facade is a luxurious, oasis in the heart of Hanoi. They kindly checked us in early and we slept peacefully under a mountain of soft bedding as the rain fell outside.
We woke later that morning anxious to explore the famed streets of Hanoi. Chaotic and leisurely, cluttered and refined, historic and modern, Hanoi is like no other city I have ever visited. The traffic alone is a site to behold. Imagine a busy high speed highway in Los Angeles or New York with cars weaving impatiently between lanes. Now replace most of the cars with twice as many motorcycles/scooters and imagine it all in slow motion. The result is quite comical! The motorists don’t move very fast but the density and unpredictability makes it difficult to cross the road. My advice? Just go and assume the best or you’ll never get anywhere.
The first few hours were spent wandering in and out of the art galleries that lined Trang Tien Street near the hotel. Galleries large and small offered colourful displays of everything from abstract to traditional. The art scene is Hanoi is very active and you are sure to get a good deal when you choose the art yourself. I couldn’t resist all of the eye candy and ultimately bought a painting by Le Minh at Thanh Binh Gallery.
Eventually we wandered all the way to Hoa’ Lo Prison. I’m not really a museum person but despite the disturbing nature of this one, it is worth a visit. The prison, sarcastically known as the “Hanoi Hilton” was built by the French in the late 1800’s and eventually used by the Vietnamese to detain Prisoner’s of War during the Vietnam War. Senator John McCain was among the American POW’s detained here. Told from the Vietnamese point of view, the prison’s history is vividly told in scenes, videos and murals throughout the museum. Most of the prison has been torn down but what remains is very interesting and a little bit eerie.
The sky had turned dark with rain by the time we emerged from the prison and moments later it turned into a torrential downpour. We dashed for cover in the nearest store as the locals casually pulled colourful rain ponchos from their back pockets, prepared for just such an occasion.
In hindsight, we should have put more thought into the contents of our shelter. There are much more interesting places than an ALDO shoe store in Hanoi to wait out a storm but at least it faced a busy intersection. From behind heavy glass doors that had to be bolted to the floor, we watched the rain come down and the streets fill with water. Half an hour later, when the rain showed no sign of relenting, a young woman offered to show us to a restaurant she knew just around the corner. Without hesitation we agreed that beer and food were worth venturing into the windy, wet streets for and followed her.
An afternoon and a few pints later, the rain finally subsided to reveal that the Avalon Cafe had a perfect view of scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. Tucked away on the upper floors of an office building in downtown Hanoi, we never would have found the cafe on our own but it turned out to be a great place to both weather the storm and evaluate the aftermath. Below us, the lake had overflowed into the streets leaving motorcycles and people stranded in a few feet of water.
We slowly made our way back to the hotel, dodging puddles and fallen trees along the way.
The evening was quiet and after a nice dinner at the hotel, we settled comfortably into oversized chairs at the Bamboo Bar by the pool. Something about the dim lights, the open air bar and the humidity that hung heavily in the air that evening made it feel like the set of an old hollywood movie. We ordered a cocktail and when the rain began to fall around us, we ordered another one. The rhythmic sound of raindrops and a piano somewhere in the distance completed a beautiful evening.
The next morning, the hotel lobby was crowded. Halong Bay was still closed and the hotel was unexpectedly filled with people who had been sent back from Halong Bay and others who were still anxiously waiting to go. Hopeful that it would open the next day, we consulted our (slightly damp) map and made the most of our time in the city.
The city of Hanoi began over one thousand years ago as a series of 36 intersecting streets. Those same streets still exist today and are known as the Old Quarter, my favourite part of the city. Each street is named for the goods that were traditionally sold on that street such as roasted fish, silk, fruit, jewelry and shoes. Now you can find a little bit of anything and everything as you wander. Cluttered with people, motorcycles and bicycles, street signs, electric cables and awnings, the Old Quarter is uncharacteristically charming. It is the kind of place you could happily lose yourself in for a few hours and we did just that.
At one point, when the blue sky turned grey we wandered into the tiny little Fat Cat Bar. We had learned our lesson the day before and if it was going to rain, I was at least going to have a dry seat and a cold drink in my hand. We were quickly joined by a happy British fellow who had just landed in Hanoi that morning. “I fell in love five times already today”, he said with a big smile. Together the three of us enjoyed a few beers and a few laughs (as Canadians and Brits tend to do) and idly watched life unfold around us. Tourists casually wandered in and out of little shops. Vendors prepared curious looking street food (that I wasn’t brave enough to eat). Women wearing pointed straw hats stopped by to sell trinkets. And when it rained we didn’t even mind.
Although we did eventually get hungry and reluctantly moved on. A quick consultation with our Luxe Guide and we ended up at nearby Madam Hien. Situated in a European style villa originally built by the architect who designed the Hanoi Opera House and later home to the Spanish Embassy, Madam Hien is a quaint little restaurant that specializes in traditional Vietnamese food. As we waited for our food, glass of wine in hand, it almost felt like a sunny afternoon in the Spanish countryside. Then the food arrived and reminded us we were in the middle of Hanoi. Shared plates of Bun Cha (grilled pork with vermicelli), Vietnamese spring rolls and the best crab and pork dim sum I have ever tasted (which is saying a lot considering we had just spent a week eating our way through Hong Kong) quickly filled our table but didn’t last long.
Last but not least, we visited the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre which had been highly recommended by the hotel concierge. Water puppet theatre is an ancient Vietnamese art in which puppeteers manipulate wooden puppets from behind a large screen so they appear to be dancing across water. Together with an open-pit orchestra the “puppets” tell traditional stories and legends. In its oldest, simplest form, this is how villagers would entertain each other when their rice fields flooded. For tourists, it is a unique and charming way to spend an hour of your time.
When we finally arrived back at the Sofitel later that evening there was a message waiting for us. Darian had good news… Not only was the infamous Halong Bay open again but he had managed to find us our own private boat! Thanks to Darian, our hotel oasis and a surprisingly intriguing city, the typhoon hadn’t turned out too badly for us after all.