Hanoi is a destination that is not often on the bucket list of many Singaporeans. But with proximity and frequency of transfers on our side (the flight is just over three hours long and SilkAir has daily flights), there is no excuse not to pay a visit to this fascinating city, which still retains much of its old world charm. Even on a tight schedule of 48 hours in the city, you'll still be able to experience the romance of the French Quarter and make the trip to Ha Long Bay for a restful night onboard a luxury cruise.
There are some things about Hanoi you probably already know, like the infamous pho joint where the late Anthony Bourdain took then US President Obama for a meal, or how the Hanoi Hilton — the nickname for the Hỏa Lò Prison — is a must-visit for history buffs. But there are loads of other new and undiscovered gems along the way. If you're seeking a more luxurious experience in Vietnam — think smooth transits and swanky accomodation — you'll be glad to know that there are cruises and hotels that cater to this. Here's our guide to 48 hours in Vietnam.
Accommodation in Hanoi doesn't get any better than at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi — it was even the hotel of choice for US President Donald Trump's visit last year... but we digress. It's no wonder the hotel, which was built in 1901, has played hosts to hundreds of dignitaries and celebrities, from Jacques Chirac to Jane Fonda to folk singer Joan Baez who sought shelter in the hotel's bomb shelters over Christmas in 1972.
Staying in the Metropole Hanoi is a trip back in time in the best way possible. Built in a colonial and neo-classical style and with a charming pool and garden area, this oasis of calm holds many secrets and artefacts that will intrigue the historian in you. The in-hotel Hermès store and chocolatier are some of its other delights.
While we stayed in the more modern, new wing of the hotel complete with all the 5-star amenities one could desire, guests who want the full experience can book some of its more famous suites that have been remarkably preserved for posterity. Film buffs may want to sleep in The Charlie Chaplin Suite — the legendary actor visited the hotel during his honeymoon in 1932. The Metropole Hanoi even has his favourite drink, the Charlie Chaplin cocktail, a stiff blend of dry gin, apricot brandy and lime (served with lime sorbet) available for guests.
Literary enthusiasts might favour the charms of the Graham Greene suite, where the British author wrote The Quiet American. It overlooks the quaint streets below. We would also highly recommend booking in a complimentary Path of History Tour bunker, where a local guide takes you deep into the underground bunkers located beneath the hotel pool, and divulges some of the hotel's most fascinating stories and encounters.
There's nothing like a good massage to help you relax and unwind, and the hotel's Le Spa du Metropole is certainly impressive. The 400 square metre space overlooks the garden and the pool area, and besides the fact that each room boasts the utmost privacy, it uses high quality brands like Sothys and Ytsara. If you can, request for head trainer Nhuan. We tried the 60-minute Vietnamese Journey treatment, which uses Vietnamese-inspired massage techniques and a warm herbal cushion to release tension, and emerged completely re-energised and transported. It was definitely one of the best massages we've had in some time.
Within the hotel, there are plenty of options for food and drink. If you're yearning for traditional French cuisine, Le Beaulieu hits the spot with a seasonal menu that incorporates favourites like foie gras, lobster bisque and Normandy rabbit, and tableside cooking for an experential treat.
We would also recommend sampling the drinks in the hotel. Try a pho cocktail — an intriguing mix of cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, lime juice, sugar syrup and coriander at Angelina's Lounge. Or the famous egg coffee which orginated here.
If you want to venture out of the hotel for a bite and hanker after ambience, pay the Ngon Villa Hanoi a visit. Decked out in a beautiful, rustic chic décor in a palette of pale blue and wood, you'll find local favourites like Hanoian green papaya salad, deep fried oysters and Southern sweet soup, as well as an all-you-can-eat buffet option if you want to savour a little bit of everything. Or take in the sights at the rooftop area in the evening and enjoy a drink.
Head for a show in the legendary Hanoi Opera House, which is a short five-minute walk from the hotel. If opera and theatre isn't your thing and you would rather have a taste of local tradition and customs, we would highly recommend the drive out to the new Quintessence of Tonkin show.
Slightly over an hour's drive from the city, the show, which employs professional performers as well as local farmers who took over a year to learn their parts, combines cutting-edge production with impressive sound, lights, dance and water puppetry as well as the use of traditional instruments to tell the folklore and history of Vietnam. It's like nothing you've ever seen. Do note that the one-hour show is mainly in Vietnamese, though some subtitles are provided.
There are cruise ships and there are luxury vessels like the Paradise Elegance. This spacious, steel junk boat, is one of the most intricately designed on the bay, boasting 31 cabins, five decks, a restaurant, bar, spa and sundeck. The boat itself is a new vessel that set sail in March 2017. (Its sister boat, the Paradise Elegance II, was launched in June 2017).
The journey starts with an early morning departure and a three-hour drive to Ha Long Bay from your hotel. Rest assured the comfortable leather seats, cool air-conditioning and strong WiFi will make the hours pass swiftly. Enjoy connectivity while you can, as the tall limestone formations dotting the bay make it hard to access even mobile WiFi once you've started sailing.
Upon transfer to the boat, you're led to your cabin, which is comfortable and roomy enough to relax in and has a small balcony that overlooks the breathtaking bay. We especially loved the shower area, which is surprisingly spacious. Even if all you want to do is rest in your cabin, or read on your balcony and enjoy the stunning views and tranquility of Ha Long Bay, it will be a day and evening well spent. Unlike day cruises, this gives you the opportunity to dock overnight in the bay and wake up to one-of-a-kind views.
All meals are provided onboard the ship, and while breakfast and lunch is served buffet style with a spread of local and international cuisine, certain mains like pho or poached eggs can be ordered at breakfast.
Dinner is a more elegant à la carte affair that allows you to pre-select your main course and dining time. Again, there is a choice of Western-style or Vietnamese fare. The menu includes king prawns grilled in spices and caramelised pork and spring coconut. We were pleasantly surprised by the food, as this was not the usual 'cruise ship slop' but refined, tasty fare. A vegetarian diner who travelled with us, was also accommodated with a variety of dining options.
There's a spa on board, but because this is a relatively small vessel, do expect a slightly humbler room and massage bed, compared to what you would get in a luxury hotel. Nonetheless, we were more than happy with our Vietnamese Traditional Massage — a fellow journalist on the trip found hers outstanding. Schedule it in just before bed for a restful night's sleep.
Although no activities are compulsory and passengers are free to simply stay onboard or relax, there are opportunities to explore the surrounding areas at an additional cost. We would highly recommend taking the short trekking trip to the nearby Dark & Bright Cave and to go kayaking in the emerald waters of Tonkin Bay.
These caves do require climbing hundreds of steps, so do come properly attired. Inside, you'll find pathways and lighting that make it safe for exploration. Almost akin to being inside alien movie sets, the caves and grottos are spectacular to behold in person, especially after admiring them from the safety of the boat. Similarly, kayaking is restricted to a certain area of the bay near a pearl farm — you are no longer allowed to explore further out — but the plus side is that it is easy and safe enough, even for novices.