Rue Catinat in the 1930s, with the Hotel Continental at right.
Part IV of Tales of Asia features the cities of Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi, capitals of French Indochina in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the most dynamic cities in today’s Vietnam.
Join me as we travel back in time to:
Take a guided tour through the French colonial architecture of Old Town Saigon, uncovering what remains today from the French era, what remains unchanged and what has changed drastically.
Explore la Rue Catinat in Saigon – the Orchard Road and Champs Élysées of the 1900s – 1950s, with its fashionable cafés, boutiques and specialty delicatessen. Peer into the lives of the French in Saigon.
Learn of how the French brought their Culture and Civilisation Francaise to Hanoi, only to come up against a far older and more enduring influence – that of the Chinese. [Spoiler: I reveal the strong link between quốc ngữ － 國語 － and Chinese Han characters.]
Explore the Sino-Vietnamese heritage of Old Town Hanoi (河內), including Hoan Kiem Lake (湖還劍) the former Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, the Temple of Literature (文廟), and the 36 Streets (三十六行).
Take a pleasant wander through the French quarter of Hanoi, ending off at la Terrasse of the splendid Hôtel Métropole.
The iconic and fabulous La Terrasse cafe restaurant, at today’s Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi.
Hôtel Métropole in Hanoi is one of the most beautiful hotels on this Grand Tour of Southeast Asia, and it is easily also one of my favourite hotels of all. Opened in 1901, it was the grande dame of the Hanoi social scene; and over a hundred years later, as the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, it remains the city’s most illustrious hotel establishment.
Hotel Metropole sits at left in a postcard from the early 1900s. The square it sits on was known as Square Chavassieux. Across from the Hotel stood (and stills stands) the Residence Superieure.
Stepping into the hotel is like stepping back in time – the atmosphere is chic, glamorous, chic and steeped in nostalgia. Wrapped up in a seasonal quilt in Winter and supping at one’s aperitif in the famous Bamboo Bar inside the hotel’s central courtyard, one feels transported to Paris during the Belle Epoque (1870s – 1910s). The hotel is lit up with a thousand christmas lights, and the lilting melody of French chansons waft through the air.
Another memorable and unique experience the hotel offers is a spin across town in one of its 1950s vintage Citroën cars. Sailing through the streets in this vehicle, with hundreds of ordinary Hanoi-ans peering curiously at one from their motorcycles, it is hard not to feel like a turn-of-the- century colonialist, ostentatiously descending onto the town for a sumptuous dinner and subsequent merry-making at the cabaret.
Que la vie est belle!
[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore – Kinokuniya, Times and MPH – as well as at museum shops and the airport. As of mid-June, it will also be available at major bookstores across Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, at Waterstones and Blackwells in London. It is further available on http://www.amazon.co.uk and http://www.bookdepository.com]