The grande dame is the centrally located Sofitel Metropole, the new 5* Intercontinental on West Lake is a great option although about 10 minutes distant from the center, and both the Hanoi Hilton and Melia are accessible and comfortable. They all run $200 + per night. The Church Hotel at 9 Nha Tho, near the Cathedral, is about $70 per night and a sister hotel at nearby Hang Gai 95 has just opened. Two new downtown hotels are the Opera and the Golden Silk – both ultra-modern but over the top glitzy with crystal chandeliers and mirrors galore. My favorite budget hotel, the $35 a day Freedom Hotel at 57 Hang Trong Street, has died and joined its ancestors, but an excellent substitute is the Lucky 2 Hotel at 46 Hang Hom at $55. Perfect location in the heart of the Old Quarter – 5 minutes by foot to Hoan Kiem lake and to the Cathedral area, friendliest staff possible, absolute security for guests and their belongings. Ask for one of the sixth floor rooms with a balcony and city views, and yes, there is an elevator.
Thoughtful moments: To appreciate the beauty and vibrancy of Hanoi and its people, walk around Hoan Kiem lake, then park yourself on a park bench and observe. For non-denominational feelings of peace and reflection, visit the One Pillar Pagoda at Quang Trung. To realize that while the Western world was mired in the Dark Ages, Vietnam had an active university, visit Van Mieu, the Temple of Literature. And to appreciate Vietnam’s history and culture, visit the History Museum, the Ethnology Museum, and the Fine Arts Museum.
Hanoi has terrific food, both in restaurants and on the street. Here are some of my favorites:
Vietnamese: Garden cafe, 36 Hang Manh (regular and veg) tel 38243402; Ashima, 44 Phan Dinh Phung (hotpots) tel 37344600; Chim Sao, 65 Ngo Hue (seating on cushions, ethnic specialities) tel 39760633; Press Club, 59A Ly Thai To tel 39340888; Au Lac, 13 Tran Hung Dao (upscale) tel 39333533, A La Carte at Hang Bun 21, in the very north of the Old Quarter, tel 39275655.
Italian: Pane e Vino in alley off Trang Tien 29; Mediterraneo, 23 Nha Tho tel 38266288
Baan Thai at 3B Cha Ca St, 39232336
Vegetarian: Tamarind Cafe at 80 Ma May St, Com Chay at 79A Tran Hung Dao St
Upscale: Verticale on 19 Ngo Van So Street gets my vote for the most amazing culinary experience in Vietnam (and maybe Asia) thanks to chef Didier Corlou. Buying spices in the entrance floor of the French villa will remind you, when you’re back home, of the wonderful tastes. Sadly, Corlou’s second restaurant, Mme Hien, serves bland and uninteresting Vietnamese dishes. Stick with Verticale. La Badiane on 10 Nam Ngu offers French cuisine with lovely garden dining. See also Wild Lotus on Nguyen Du St, and Spice Route at the Sofitel Metropole.
Street food: Bun Cha on Hang Manh, 1 corner north of Hang Bong – the best spring rolls and grilled meat in Hanoi! For non-meat lovers – Amazing crab rolls with all the local fixings, every day between 11am – 2:30 pm, at the stall on Hang Ma st corner of Hang Dong. Great food stalls on Quang Trung, opposite the One Pillar Pagoda. Fanny Ice Cream is not to be missed – try the cinnamon (que) and young rice flavors. And pho ga, the national dish of chicken soup, is best sampled at Quan Com Pho or Mai Anh, both on Le Van Huu Street. Ask for ‘quay’, a dumpling, to be added.
Joma bakery and cafe at 22 Ly Quoc Su is wondrous – banana bread, pastries, great coffee and spacious large a/c rooms and a terrace, all with wifi. Marilyn, with a balcony overlooking the Cathedral, is perfect for quick snacks. Puku, at the very top of Hang Bong street (on ‘Food St’) is open 24/7 and serves the best cappuchino in Hanoi, as well as live music and cafe food.
If you’re staying for a few days and love fruit, stock up on whatever is seasonal. Apples, grapes, anona (custard apples), pineapples, watermelon, bananas and oranges are all in abundance. Sidewalk vendors are everywhere or look around the small shops just across from the old Hang Da market.
For stocking up on staples – water, beer, crackers, snacks and also dairy products – milk, yoghurt and imported cheese – try Hapro, a supermarket near Hoan Kiem lake, hidden behind cafes and shops on Le Thai To. The Wine Cellar at 59 Hang Trong has an excellent variety of international wines.
I travel for about six months every year in Asia, the Far East, the Middle East, Europe and the US, for both business and pleasure. Most of my travels are solo, which is how I get to spend time with locals and fellow travelers and experience the culture at first hand. I also try to achieve at least a minimum level of spoken language in each country.
After constantly being asked for travel recommendations by friends, acquaintances and their friends and acquaintances, I decided to post the information online, and make it accessible to everyone. Every recommended place, person and service on the site has been personally experienced, and the information is constantly updated. I hope you too get bitten by the travel bug.
To acquaint yourself with Vietnamese contemporary fine art (and avoid the pitfalls of impulse-buying second rate artwork ) visit my website: www.artnet.com/razran.html
Another website which is a must for Hanoi visitors is The Grapevine, an online treasure trove of cultural info – up to date notices of exhibitions, concerts, and reviews, served up by the incomparable Brian Ring http://hanoigrapevine.com/
Two international cultural venues in Hanoi should not be missed: L’Espace at 24 Trang Tien, where the French Cultural Center offers a rich schedule of films, art exhibitions and music, and the German Goethe Institute at 56 Nguyen Thai Hoc, which also offers a rich selection of art exhibitions and films.
Shopping in Hanoi is delightful. Clothing, gifts and souvenirs are beautifully made and reasonably priced. Silk material, at $3 per meter, is a bargain in the Dong Xuan market, upstairs, and in the Hom market, south of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Clothing: The shops on Hang Gai (Le Minh, Kemly, Tan My, Thuy Ky) are best for standard items – shirts for men and women, pajamas, scarves, etc. Khai Silk is the big daddy of clothing shops, which is why I prefer the littler guys – Ami at Hang Gai 35 for linen shirts and men’s ties, Hien Silk at Hang Gai 100 for an excellent selection of silk scarves. For boutique items and made to order - highly recommended if you have at least 3 days in town and/or have something you want exactly copied - check out the area around the Cathedral: Bambou Silk (Mrs Loan) at 10 Nha Chung St tel 39288168, Marie-Linh at 11 Nha Tho St tel 39288773. An Australian shop, Things of Substance, has nice clothing in Western sizes, 5 Nha Tho tel 38286965.
Souvenirs: lacquerware is everywhere. Check out shops on Hang Trong and around the Cathedral. For beautiful decorative stoneware objects – vases, boxes, trays, business card holders – the place to go is Van at 44 Luong Van Can, tel 39285249. Hanoi Moment at 101 Hang Gai and Marena at 28 Nha Chung both offer well made crafts.For feel-good antiques priced at under $300, the address is Minh Thuy, 32 Hang Duong, tel 38258706.
Banks: HSBC at Hang Trong corner of Nha Tho (Cathedral) and ANZ at 14 Le Thai To. Both have 24/7 ATM service, and their location, on Hoan Kiem lake, is perfect. The HSBC main branch is at 83B Ly Thuong Kiet Street, in the Pacific shopping center.
Travel agent: Handspan at 80 Ma May. Their Halong Bay overnight boat trip is wonderful. For flights, the Thai Air office in the Hanoi Lake Building at 28 Thanh Nien Road, near West Lake, offers famous Thai service as well as unbeatable business fares to Bangkok, LA and London. Air Asia is the new budget airline that flies from Bangkok to Hanoi for ridiculously low sums. I haven’t tried it, but lots of my friends have. It’s perfect if you don’t have much baggage and are not on a tight schedule.
Cinema: the still unofficial Cinemateque at 22A Hai Ba Trung tel 39362648 screens golden oldies and film festivals you won’t find elsewhere. Opposite the American Club and down an alleyway, definitely worth searching for. The French cultural center at 24 Trang Tien Street screens French films, as well as showcasing local artists.
Face, hair and body care: QT (just moved, their previous address was 28 Le Thai To Street, tel 39286116) is the place for ultimate pampering, and ask about their seasonal discounts. Hanoi Beauty and Spa at 45 Ly Quoc Su is a recent addition with equally good manicures and pedicures at $4 each. My favorite massage place is Yakushi Clinic at 6, Alley 28, Xuan Dieu, a 2 minute walk from the Sheraton. The venue is serene and spic and span, and the masseuses super professional. A one hour massage is $10, best to book at 04 3719 1971.
Bookworm has a huge selection of new and secondhand English books, in the Old Quarter and also in their West Lake branch.
The land of the thunder dragon is indeed a very different Asian experience. With rare exceptions, you will not be allowed to travel on your own so will find yourself at the same watering holes (festivals, tourist menus, treks) as the other handfuls of tourists currently in the country. I was extremely lucky to rate an invitation and therefore with my hosts could find and frequent places recommended below.
Arrival by air: Druk Air only. A picturesque small airport nestled within the town, and 45 minutes of curving road to Thimphu. The r/t flight from Bangkok is $815, so why not upgrade to business for another $100. Try to be seated on the left for incredible views of the mountains. Atlas Travel Services – email@example.com – offered efficient and pleasant service. Smoking is not allowed in Bhutan, but you are allowed to bring in a few packs of cigarettes for personal misuse. If you’re used to wine with dinner, bring in a bottle or two of your own from the dutyfree shops in Bangkok airport. Local supply is iffy.
Recommended Thimphu restaurants: MK restaurant, upstairs in Centerpoint Building (near Lugar Cinema) offers excellent Tibetan bhathup (minestrone) and momos; Cypress Restaurant, also in the center, serves delicious Indian thalis and chai; Seasons is where you go for al fresco pizza, breakfasts and cake. Karma’s cafe is the only place for your caffeine fix - upstairs in Tashi Rabten building, above Zangthopelri complex, tel 17181920.
Outside Thimphu: I passed up the Hotel Zhiva Ling near Paro, with prices ranging from $350 – $600 per night (and my happiness quotient rose accordingly). The Kichu Resort, with locations both at Paro and at Wangdue, was a tranquil alternative at a fraction of the price, with the nearby river lulling us to sleep. In Punakha, we escaped the omnipresent set tourist lunch and ordered an adequate fish curry in the Kuenga Hotel. And if you are near the Wangdue Dzong (monastery) and feeling hungry, look for the unassuming ‘canteen’ in the alley just above the dzong, packed with locals, and dig in.
Sights to see: the monasteries and fortresses - dzongs, lakhangs,;the mountains and forests; the unhurried and traditionally garbed people; the festivals (tshechus). Climbing to Takshang (Tigers’ Nest) is a high altitude achievement, but worth every gasp. Chimi Lakhang, the fertility monastery, is set in rice fields and supposedly efficacious.
Udaipur, Rajasthan - for the atmosphere. A walking city, with picturesque alleys lined with silver jewelry shops. Lodging: Hilton Trident fine, Jagat Niwas Heritage Hotel more authentic and centrally located. Lake Palace dinner a must.
Jaipur, Rajasthan- wonderful marketplace, with some of the best street food in India: chili pakoras and lassi so thick, it’s eaten with a spoon. If the guide Sandeep Singh Goyal is available, and hasn’t yet been married off by his Brahmin family, grab him tel 091 291 2439500, firstname.lastname@example.org. Handi restaurant does terrific grilled foods, Maya Mansion MI Rd, opposite the GPO. Shapura House is a 3* comfortable heritage hotel in a quiet location www.shshpurshouse.com.
Narlai Village, Rajasthan – because of the amazing, one of a kind Rawla Narlai heritage hotel tel 02934 260425). The secluded location, the richness of the ex-Maharaja palace and authentic furniture, the service par excellence and the surrounding treks make this not to be missed.
Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh – for the beautiful erotic carvings on the Hindu temples. The Taj Chandela email@example.com is wonderful, reasonably priced, serves delicious outdoor buffet dinners and check out the ayurvedic massages near the pool.
Agra, Uttar Pradesh – for the Taj Mahal, of course, and for the nearby Fatehpur Sikri which is almost as beautiful.
Mysore, Karnataka - to see the palace, open and lit up once a year on the festival with elephant parades. The Taj is serene and upscale, the Darshan Palace is ‘deluxe lodging’ by local standards, and at a quarter the rate. www.hoteldarshanpalace.com. Fabulous food and ambiance is to be had at Parklane in their indoor garden restaurant firstname.lastname@example.org. They have rooms as well.
Madhumalai, Tamil Nadu - a wildlife sanctuary between Mysore and Ooty, with jungle resorts. Dinner and drinks were served on the porch of our bungalow, and the trekking in the countryside is terrific. On motorbike, we prudently reversed (fled in panic) when faced with a defiant mother elephant and her baby. Monkeys galore, but our night safari didn’t find any tigers. www.bluevalleyjungleresorts.com
Ooty, Tamil Nadu – a hill station to escape the heat – but risk unending summer thundershowers. Interesting old buildings – church, library, etc. Stay (but book ahead, only nine rooms!) and eat at King’s Cliff on Havelock Rd, Strawberry Hill, email email@example.com.
Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu - the former capital of French India. If I had to choose one place in India to relax for a month, this would be it. On the eastern coast, rich in French architecture and enjoying Bay of Bengal breezes, Pondicherry is unique. If you’re ok with veggies and no guests after hours restrictions, Park guest house, run by an ashram, is popular and on the sea firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m more of a hedonist so where I stay is Villa Helena at 14 Rue Suffren, and just writing its name makes me homesick. It’s a sprawling French villa, divided into five suites, beautifully decorated with local fabrics. Breakfast and drinks are served in the shady courtyard, along with newspapers and books. email@example.com and reserve in advance. Excellent espresso, cappuchino and croissants are served at Daily Bread, #54 Ambour Salai St. In Pondi, the best shopping for jewelry, fabrics and clothing is at Kasha Ki Aasha Gallery Boutique Cafe, in a beautiful French building at 23 Surcouf Street. Check out Kashas products at www.feel-india.biz.
A half hour’s drive north of Pondi, along the worst dirt road in India, is Auroville, a community based on Utopian peace and protection of environmental and organic causes. The visitors’ centre is worth seeing, and in their shop you will find the best and most fashionable cotton clothing in India. They have a shop in Pondi, on Nehru St, but the selection in Auroville is much bigger.
Mamallapuram,Tamil Nadu – between Pondi and Chennai, this small town has two wonderful sites: the Shore Temple and ancient rock sculptures.
My first month-long visit to India was in Rajasthan, with a friend and colleague, and most of the traveling was done with private car and driver. It’s not the way I usually travel, but the distances between places were long, the weather was hot and humid, the roads were in terrible condition and we had business-related baggage which we didn’t want to lose.
My second month in India was spent on motorbike. I took a train from Mumbai to Goa where my son was waiting for me, we hung out on the beach a few days and then crossed India by bike – on his indomitable Enfield – via Mysore, Ooty, Mamalapuram and all the way to Pondicherry on the east coast. I saw India from up close, coasting through rice fields and stopping at dhaba shacks for chai. With no fixed schedule and no advance reservations, living out of a backpack, this was India free and easy. We took a train only once (the 12 hour overnight train to Chennai) when we packed the bike on the train with us. Otherwise, it was 8 hours a day on the bike, in leather jackets and helmets. Two spills, two almost-accidents (one with an elephant), and a trip of a lifetime.
My most recent month in India was spent between Leh and Ladakh in the very north, and Dharamsala in Himachal, with Amritsar in Punjab sandwiched in between. I flew with Jet Air between Delhi and Leh, then trained back to Delhi to catch the overnight Golden temple express to Amritsar. From there, I continued with private car and driver to Dharamsala, and at the end of the month, returned to Delhi by overnight sleeper bus, Jet Air back to Mumbai and home.
India by air is western, but India on the ground is a bazaar. Jet Air is a terrific airline – on time, new fleet, efficient crew and great food. I wouldn’t fly in India with anyone else. Trains are a different story. The main stations are huge and disorganized, with several different lines to wait in before walking away with a ticket. They are also dirty and noisy, although they do boast porterwallahs who carry your bags on their head so you never have to deal with carrying them yourself. I have always traveled second class a/c, which is comfortable and you meet interesting people. The only awful trip was a 12 hour overnight to Chennai, when all the tickets were sold except for Katkal (last minute) tickets in third class. Uncomfortable, unpleasant company, unsafe (for a woman), filthy toilet and not a wink of sleep. Note: As a precaution, bags must always be secured under the train seat with a metal chain.
Driving in India in the big cities is madness. Streets are unmarked, maps are rudimentary and for non-residents, taking taxis or motor rickshaws is the only way. Every airport has a counter for paid in advance taxis to your hotel, which makes life easier.
New sleeper buses now travel between Dharamsala and Delhi, and if you don’t mind stopping at pitstops for overpriced food, blaring Indian music and the driver’s free dinner, all is well. The buses leave you off 10 minutes from the Delhi train station, where taxi and rickshaw drivers fight over the privilege of driving you to your destination.
I am not a fan of India’s big cities, and that’s an understatement. Yes, there are beautiful buildings and gardens and temples, the bazaars are colorful and the food amazing, but you can find all these in smaller cities and towns, without the surrounding urban squalor. Rural squalor in India is somehow more palatable. But the gateways to India are mostly in the big cities, so here are my recommendations for spending a day or two in transit.
Mumbai: near both airports, Le Royal Meridian www.leroyalmeridian-mumbai.com is a haven of tranquility, for a layover or just to reenergize before continuing on. A bit further into town, on Juhu Tara Rd, and with nearby streets to walk around, are the medium-rated Ramada Palm Grove www.krahejahospitality.com, with complimentary jacuzzi and steam room and great massages, and the luxury JW Marriott firstname.lastname@example.org with a wonderful bookshop cafe. In town, delicious food is served at Chetana veg restaurant and bar at 34 k Dubash Marg, tel 2284 4968, and at Leopold Cafe (since 1871!) on Colaba Causeway, around the corner from the Taj. Upscale and upper priced, but with great food and wine, is the Moti Mahal restaurant in the north of the city, in Bandra, tel 91 22 26408577, at junction of Gurunanak and Waterfield Rds. An excellent guide in Mumbai is Mrs Madhavi Marwaha tel 0091 9987399683, email@example.com.
Chennai: Taj Coromandel, at 37 Mahatma Gandhi Rd. An oasis of luxury: feather quilts, an unbelievable buffet breakfast, and service extraordinaire. www.tajhotels.com Note: I have been in many guesthouses, in India and elsewhere, but the worst was undoubtedly Broadlands. Filthy, badly lit, surly service and to be avoided at all costs. If you go anyway (some people are masochists) ask for directions to the nearby Hotel Sree Bhavan restaurant at 339 Triplicane High Rd, which serves some of the best food - achingly cheap but fabulous – in India.
Delhi: Hotel Broadway (3*) on 4/15 Ali Assaf Rd, near the train station, is clean, safe and convenient for visiting the markets of Old Delhi (Chandni Chowk for jewelry) and catching long distance trains, but its claim to fame is the fabulous restaurant, Chor Bizarre, written up in the NY Times and elsewhere (tel 91 11 23273821, firstname.lastname@example.org) The cuisine is superb, the decor amazing and in spite of their name (thieves’ bazaar) prices ultra reasonable. They also offer walking tours. Do not miss!!
In New Delhi, Connaught Circle can keep you busy shopping for a day or two, but beautiful and expensive one of a kind jewelry can be seen – and purchased – at Indian Arts Palace (since 1840!), at 19E Connaught Place, tel 23416203.