Hubert Burda Media

CAPITAL ESTABLISHMENT

Ensconced in Hanoi's space-age JW Marriott hotel, we can't help recalling our last visit to the Vietnamese capital, and wondering where this dynamic country is headed..

CAPITAL ESTABLISHMENT

IT'S 17 YEARS ALMOST to the day since I last visited Hanoi. Back then Vietnam still lay in the shadow of two devastating wars, and though I’d seen strong signs of recovery far to the south in the country’s commercial hub, Saigon (or to use its largely ignored official name, Ho Chi Minh City), I’d flown north to find the capital still mired in the past, a city of timeworn colonial architecture where phalanxes of cyclists pedalled gently through tree-lined streets. I’d stayed in the lovely old wing of the Metropole hotel and, peering out of my bedroom window at first light onto the deserted boulevard, had wondered for a moment whether I’d woken in Paris in the 1930s. That air of time warp persisted even as I was leaving town, which I did by taking a short flight to Vientiane aboard a creaking Russian Tupolev jet, whose alarmingly decrepit ’50s interior seemed like a pastiche of modernity.
Now in late November 2013, as my Vietnam Airlines Airbus emerges from the cloud to swoop low over the watery landscape surrounding Hanoi, it looks at first glance as if nothing has changed – until I spy a multi-lane road pointing straight towards a haze that I assume is hovering above the city. We taxi past a row of fighter jets housed in concrete shelters, right where they stood all those years ago, and arrive not at the dingy Soviet-era terminal building of yore but at an edifice distinctly more modern – and, judging by the surrounding construction work, one that’s being rapidly extended.
Immigration takes mere minutes (I recall standing endlessly in line on my last visit) and soon I’m being whisked towards town on the very same expressway I’d spied from the air. And then the bus descends from the elevated highway and we’re immediately surrounded by a swarm of angrily buzzing motorbikes that seems to collect us in its momentum and carry us, stoplight after stoplight, kilometre after kilometre, across town.
I’ve come to the Vietnamese capital to stay at the JW Marriott, the first big international hotel to open in the city for years. And as we inch towards our destination through the late afternoon chaos, it’s clear that our route is taking me into an urban landscape that could hardly be more unlike the one I remember. Towers of steel and glass sprout at both sides of the road, and when we eventually turn off the highway it’s at a huge inverted pyramid (I’m told it houses the new National Museum). Beyond that, spread out across a low grassy mound, is the hotel.
The Marriott people tell us the long, eight-storey-high, glass-walled structure – apparently it’s known in the business as a reverse-skyscraper, or ground-scraper – is designed to resemble both a dragon and the Vietnamese coast, and perhaps to some eyes it does. To me, though, it’s the mother ship, an enormous space station lying ready to be blasted into orbit, with what appears to be its bridge cantilevered out at either side of the forward upper deck. Can this really be the Vietnam of shy smiles, lissome ladies in ao dai and faded French elegance, or have I inadvertently boarded a plane to China – where there’s little nostalgia for the past – or perhaps even another planet?
Fortunately, on entering the JW Marriott Hotel Hanoi, everything is as it should be. The earthlings who greet me are not only Vietnamese but every bit as delightful as I’d hoped they’d be, and they also have the nous to lead me and my luggage straight to my room almost as soon as I’ve stepped into the lobby. I’m on the second floor, in what I think is called a “Deluxe Lake” room, and what a splendid space it turns out to be, with a vast bathing area with free-standing tub, a pair of washbasins, toilet and shower cubicles, a wardrobe that also opens onto the vestibule and sliding doors on two sides that either close it off entirely or make it part of the bedroom (and also enable TV viewing from the bath, if only my glasses didn’t steam up).
The sleeping and living areas are equally palatial, if muted in tone, with dark wood louvres flanking the sheet of plate glass that in daylight reveals a lake immediately below, and beyond that the ultra-modern metropolis that’s rapidly taking shape on what only recently was farmland. It’s both restrained and modern, with a perhaps inevitable hint of colonial chic.
My bed is on a similar scale – and wonderfully cosy once I eventually fall into it – and there’s a good-sized work desk with plenty of sockets ready for every kind of electrical plug imaginable, along with a comfy armchair and footrest on which I stretch out to read and immediately fall asleep. The room, which is bigger than several suites I’ve stayed in, is also easily larger than my entire apartment – and that’s doubtless one reason why, when I wake up during the night for a pee, I find myself bumbling about in the corridor, having slid the doors closed and forgotten how to open them again.
A poolside evening reception shows off to stunning effect what’s probably the hotel’s most imaginative feature, the long rectangle of shimmering turquoise water lit with candles and dazzling against its stark surrounds of concrete, steel and slate. But we also discover other unexpected sides to the property, such as the cool, multi-function Studio, which can be used as a private meeting, dining and relaxation area, and Antidote bar, where hip bartenders and DJs mix cocktails, sounds and all with surprisingly youthful attitude. Naturally there’s a French Grill – the former colonialists’ cuisine is a de rigueur feature of almost every smart hotel in the country – while the Chinese Palace should be up and running by the time you’re reading this.
And then, of course, there’s Hanoi itself. The old and colonial cities, which are effectively one and the same, are around 5km from the JW Marriott, roughly a 30-minute and US$10 taxi-ride away. As Beijing is to Shanghai, the Vietnamese capital isn’t anything like as freewheeling as Saigon to the south, though you’d never know it from the motorcycle madness that’s taken over its streets. Otherwise, the wonderfully atmospheric centre is miraculously intact and once the visitor has mastered the Zen art of crossing the road, it’s easily (and best) perambulated on foot.
Starting at the Metropole, I take in the opera house and art galleries around the corner, head for the old city via Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain), and finally – after a steaming bowl of beef pho noodles – find myself perched upon a plastic stool at “Bia Hoi Corner”.
Sipping a chilled glass of beer and with motos – their riders rarely older than 25 – buzzing about me in every direction, it’s a great spot to ponder the turbulent past of this most engaging country, as well as the immense promise of its future. But mostly it’s to marvel at how far Hanoi has come since last I was here.
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