Hanoi: Maison D’Orient
Prior to coming to Vietnam I assumed winter would be low season but alas I was mistaken and it’s the complete opposite meaning a room is slightly more tricky to come by. I sift through the guidebooks and websites looking at possibles and highlight a few.
One responds to say they’re full. Another takes forever to get back to me and is for that reason out of the equation and then there is Hien at Maison D’Orient who quickly comes back to me and more importantly is courteous and keeps a room for my impending visit.
When I arrive in the early hours the glass frontage of the building is closed and the way in blocked by a pot plant, the lights however are on and would prove welcoming. I tap on the glass and a young reception hand appears. She is warm and friendly and says I can check in straight away which is a bonus as it’s most common to check in from the afternoon.
There are some initial teething problems. I think the room is used as a staff quarter when it’s vacant as the bed is not made and someone’s clothes lay draped on it. They apologise and say I can wait downstairs at reception. She takes the key. In my haste I forget my phone charger and have to return. Remembering she has the key I have to run downstairs to find her and so on. Run of the mill in action.
It is otherwise good timing as breakfast is just beginning. The friendly assistant Michael appears dressed in a traditional Vietnamese loose fitting shirt of faded orange. Despite his easy going demeanour he is razor sharp as he informs me that this mornings breakfast is not free but tomorrow’s will be.
For its size the hotel breakfast is pretty impressive with juice, toast, fruit and cake, tea and coffee. You can also order eggs in a number of varieties with or without bacon. Another option is the Vietnamese soup.
My en-suite room is windowless but ok for my needs. There is a table lamp and desk which can be viewed through a glass shower wall. Should the need arise you can take arty photos (see picture) afterwards. The room comes with a kettle and complimentary water, tea and coffee though everything else is at charge. There is also a flatscreen TV. What it doesn’t have however is a well placed plug for said kettle. That was really the only minor problem. Everything else is impeccable and immaculate.
So what to do with daylight in Hanoi? As it’s closest, I start by a simple stroll to St Joseph’s Cathedral which is in the midst of being dressed up for Christmas. I follow up with a walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake taking in the view of Tortoise Tower. In the immediate neighbourhood of the hotel are all manner of eateries, galleries and some of the old buildings have been converted into cool glass fronted cafes.
With any given city I visit comes the dual purpose of seeing the sites coupled with sizing it up with a potential ‘could I live here?’ or ‘would it work as home?’ Hanoi is a rare case when I merely walk care free and it is if anything very much a foodie city.
Even though my belly is still well sated after breakfast I am being bombarded by no end of street eats or cool cafes in which to indulge. I end up on a plastic stool on the corner of Trang Thi and Tong Duy Tan with a Banh Mi in my hand. These can have many ingredients, each in a nice mini French baguette; mine is omelette and pate.
The temperature for the time of year is pleasant and even though it’s a reasonably small city I’m ready for an afternoon nap (the lack of sleep after my train journey soon catches up with me). As time is short my next quest is to sample the Bun Cha which is fabulous. It’s coupled with a Vietnamese tea which is so so but good to try while the opportunity exists.
My second and final full day in the capital starts with an amble round the locality, round the corner from the hotel is a woman pulverising fish! Hanoi is most definitely alive and in your face, I have been in Asia for a while now and still it’s amazing to see the life blood directly than my own country where everything is sanitised and done behind closed doors.
Next up is the Temple of Literature. It has more in common with religion than literature so I don’t go in as my shorts are inappropriate attire for such sites but no matter I’m more interested in the building and can see that from outside, the temple is en-route to my next destination The Fine Arts Museum – aside the ambience of the city the drawcard of the whole trip.
The museum lies in the leafy embassy district, I always find these mysterious enclaves of nations within nations interesting in the same way that I find a countries cultural centre or even airlines interesting; they are in a small way representative of their country of origin.
The museum building is no less grand covering three floors, the first of which covers ceramics and sculpture, hardly my main area of interest yet here the emerald buddha (a replica) is mesmerising as the Bodhisattva is terrifying!
It’s the paintings that are more akin to me though, particularly Le Ba Dang’s abstract ‘Idea on Uncle Ho’ from 1974 and Le Huy Tiep’s semi-surrealist desert-scape ‘Central Vietnam’ which though from 1981 is in line with the cultural romanticism of the time, think Brideshead Revisited’s North African scenes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gallipoli.
Perhaps it is that which grabbed me along with my own memories of flying across the dunes of Arabia not long after. There is in addition a secondary building which is featuring an exhibition of work from young ASEAN artists, much of which originates from Thailand.
Outside the clouds are gathering and the temp chills a degree or two for a long walk up the eastern flank of the lake to the northern end of the old quarter. Consulting my notes I can see that next on my list of things not to miss is the banana bread at Nola.
This keeps the thread of arty Thursday running – if only I could find it! I walk the entirety of Ma May Street with no sign. Swinging round the narrow lane for one more try and on the way back down dodging many motorbikes and tricycles I see the slit in the building that doubles as the door. No wonder it almost escaped my vision.
Inside Nola is more or less a gallery of artefacts and views. It’s difficult to select a place to sit. The olde world verandah on the second floor has been commandeered by someone with a laptop. In the end I sit overlooking the chaotic street below. Checking I have enough funds, the dong can get confusing with all its zeros.
It is like being in Italy during the days of the Lira; everything costs millions. A Kit Kat (from a convenience store) is 13,000. I place my order and wait. The coffee takes a while to appear and when it comes is devoid of sugar and powerful enough to wake up half the neighbourhood! Thank God for the banana bread which cushioned the impact!
Upstairs is a roof garden coupled with another gallery next door (I am not sure if this is part of Nola or not). On exiting my ascent up the stairwell I am confronted by what can only be described as the blue thing which attaches itself to walls, crawls along the roof and would probably not be out of place in a Stephen King movie.
It is part of an exhibition called ‘Resolution’ by two different artists’ one a photographer and the other an installation artist hence the crawling blue thing. I’ll leave it to your own interpretations.
I only have two days’ at the inn before the unfortunate reality that I have to leave this oasis of calm compared to the calamity and chaos outside hits me. The hotel is fully booked, and the friendly Michael doesn’t seem to want to offer an alternative recommendation.
Yet I wouldn’t say he was being malicious just a little cloudy in the same way the Chinese can be. I ask around but it’s clear nowhere else has rooms at the same price for my required dates and I didn’t want to spend the time available looking at hotels.
On my last evening I stupidly pass on the swanky 4p’s pizzeria in favour of the Tropical Cafe – my bad but it does kill more time as it’s further away. My final walk is to Thien Quang Lake and then to the opera house. I’m glad I took the time and effort to squeeze in this classic building.
The next morning was the familiar wibble-wobble of more eggs, packing, saying goodbye to my host at the hotel and formalities with airlines and airports. The road to it is fairly uneventful save crossing the red river. Not sure I’ll be back but if such a time eventuates I hope the Maison D’Orient awaits.
*I did make it back to Hanoi and you can read about that here.
See my review of Vietnam Airlines on my Remember That Flight blog.
My stay at Maison D’Orient was at my own expense so my opinions are my own. With thanks to the manager Hien and the staff. The above is an affiliate link.
Strange Gods – Plenty
As Long as I Can Hold My Breath – Harold Budd
Oxygene Part 2 – Jean Michel Jarre
Leave a Light On – Duran Duran
Photo Credits: KH