Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | May 9, 2010

Martinis at the Metropole

The Metropole

We wrapped up our biking trip to Laos and Vietnam with a stay at the iconic Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, a stately colonial building nestled in the city’s old quarter.  It first opened its doors in 1901, a joint project of Frenchmen André Ducamp and Gustave-Émile Dumoutier.1 The hotel has a storied past that mirrors much of Vietnam’s history itself, with control bouncing between the French, the Japanese (during WWII), back to the French, and finally landing under the control of the communist government. Over the years, several notable guests have stayed at the hotel, including celebrities such as John Denver, Jane Fonda, and our pal Don Johnson, as well as dignitaries such as Boutros Boutros Ghali, Bush the Elder, John McCain, Queen Noor and of course, Great Uncle Ho, Ho Chi Minh himself.2 Graham Greene is also said to have stayed at the hotel while penning The Quiet American. Invading forces have come and gone at the Metropole: our little group of Aussies, Canadians and Americans was merely the latest occupying force. We were quite possibly the loudest occupying force, as well.

The hotel has a regal, almost aloof turn-of-the-century feel to it. It is a block of white set in the center of the city, with tall ceilings, high windows, and understated decor.  It is quiet, it is graceful. The Metropole serves as a bunker sheltering its guests from the noise and bustle of Hanoi outside its sound-blocking doors. Most importantly, it does what all good colonial vestiges do: makes you feel like you are somewhere else, someplace more like home.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that stepping into the Metropole makes you feel like you have just stepped into Paris, but it is probably not too far off the mark. At the very least, you certainly no longer feel like you are in Hanoi. A mixture of French and English fills the air. There is such a mix of the two, in fact, that we were routinely greeted with “Madam-Sir,” which I can only assume is a badly translated “Messieurs-Dames.” Every time I heard it I couldn’t help but smile.

The bar is filled with dark wood, pale walls accented with wainscoting, subdued lighting and bright white moldings. Fans spin slowly overhead. Nat King Cole plays on the concealed speakers.  We order martinis, because it feels like a place where one should order a martini.  Truth be told, I am new to the world of martinis.  I always thought they were the province of middle-aged, fading businessmen.  They were old, they were tired, they were of another era.  Then my friend Jen ordered one when we were in California a few years ago.  It came with a blue-cheese-stuffed olive. I love blue-cheese-stuffed olives.  Perhaps I should give it a try? I asked for a sip.  Then I immediately ordered one.  I was hooked.  I boldly declared “I love martinis!” (The next morning, I recanted, firmly disavowing any love of martinis, but that is another story altogether.)

So, as a martini convert, I had to get a martini at the Metropole. It seemed to suit the environment.  What’s more, after so many days of ordering meals and drinks where I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get, ordering a martini seemed like a slam dunk. There is, of course, some variation in what constitutes a martini, but generally speaking, the original is a pretty straight forward formula.  I knew what I was going to get (a martini). I knew what kind of glass it would come in (a martini). I knew, roughly, what it would taste like (a martini).  I even knew it would come with olives (because I made sure to ask for extras).  Poor Matt tried to order a Gibson.  No luck.  At the Metropole, you stick with martinis.

The problem was, it felt a little bit like cheating.  Travel in a foreign country is supposed to feel foreign, after all.  But as a sat there savoring my soaked olives, I felt anything but foreign. I could have been in Chicago or New York or London. For an hour, the fact that I was far from home simply receded from my mind.  And that is the goal of a place like the Metropole, isn’t it? To carve out a familiar place in a strange land. Metropole presumably derives from metropolis, from the Greek for “mother city.” So, yes, the Metropole is supposed to feel like home.  Messieurs Ducamp and Dumoutier certainly intended to reference Paris as the Mother City, but in this context, any western large city would suffice. And clearly, it worked. We sat, we drank, we wrapped up our trip. We began planning our next one.

The next day, we bid goodbye to what was left of our dwindling group. The bikes were gone, as were the guides. The Canadians had left a day earlier, the Aussies were heading out that morning. Even Eric, our lone Frenchman, was on his way home. No one was left but Matt and I. We spent one last day touring around Hanoi with Mr. Tuan, then we returned to the Metropole (“Bonjour Madam-Sir!”) for one last cocktail.  It was quiet, almost deserted.  The tables around us were empty.  The fans still spun slowly overhead, Nat King Cole still played in the background but no one else was there to hear him.  It felt as if the evacuation orders had come through but we had missed the last of the transports.  We were the lone holdouts of the invading force.

It was, sadly enough, time to go home.


  1. Looks like you guys had an awesome trip. I envy you. Welcome back home then!
    David (@davhacq)

    • Thanks, David. It was a great trip, but it is always nice to come home, too.

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