In Search of Lost Time: Marion Branellec de Guzman Explores Hanoi's Must-see Sights
It would have been very easy for a city like Hanoi, one of the most ancient capitals in the world, to fall victim to melancholy and give in to the brutal passage of time, and yet there is almost nothing in the local atmosphere that speaks to this. What you find instead is a cinematic stillness—a reverence for the thousand years that have passed and for the time it now finds itself in.
In Hanoi, long and storied memories of colonial rule, war, and reunification are lovingly preserved in its six great districts: Hoan Kiem, The Old Quarter, The French Quarter, Ba Dinh, Ha Ba Trung, and West Lake. Of these, it is the first three that hold essential experiences for travellers. They are a charming and lively showcase of the city’s noisy history combined with its warm and thriving present. Setting foot in any of these neighbourhoods, you immediately sense that you’ve arrived somewhere different. French colonial masterworks such as the Grand Opera House, a smaller version of the Palais Opera Garnier in Paris, and St. Joseph’s Cathedral, whose façade and twin bell towers are an homage to the Notre Dame Cathedral, serve as symbols of the transporting power of Hanoi.
Marion Branellec de Guzman, who flew to Hanoi for the first time for this cover shoot, describes the city as colourful, peaceful, warm, and with a big sense of community. “You feel its history,” she says. “There’s a mix of old world and new world, and you sense that everybody has come together to take care of the city.” Well-preserved heritage structures, absolute cleanliness, and wide and clear roads were also among the features that made a great first impression on Marion, who manages the marketing arm of the French-Filipino company Jewelmer. If anything, her work with pearls must have taught her to be more conscious of what must be preserved in our natural and historical environments.
Of course, travelling to this new land comes with the benefit of a new perspective, something Marion appreciates above all. “When you step outside your own home, you’re able to see that there are other ways life can be lived,” she shares. “You are reminded of how small you are, and you remember how cool it is to be lost in another world.”
For an intimate experience of this, Marion had to look no farther than the iconic Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, her home for a few days in Hanoi. Nestled in the French Quarter, the legendary landmark first opened at the turn-of-the century in 1901, and has since been a favourite gathering point for the political and cultural elite, not only of Vietnam but of the world. Among those who have walked its stately corridors and added to its enchanting backstory were the writers Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham, and the actor Charlie Chaplin. Today, as in every moment of its history, the Metropole offers every comfort a modern traveller could possibly need while at the same time bathing its guests in the opulence of years gone by. “You definitely feel the French influence,” says Marion, “It all starts when they greet you bonjour.”
One of the things Marion had been looking forward to was observing French culture in motion in Hanoi. After all, she and the city share a part-French, part-Asian heritage. “One thing that is quite important in French culture is the eye for detail and design,” she shares. “The other is joie de vivre, the enjoyment of every moment.” She certainly found both of these in the French Quarter, a district that is a treat for the eyes and for the soul. The artful layout of its tree-fringed boulevards, Indochine-style government buildings, and traditional museums and pagodas capture very well the spirit of the city’s old nickname, the “Paris of the East.”
No portrait of daily life in Hanoi would be complete without some mention of motorists buzzing by and tourists carefully crossing the road. The day to evening swarm of scooters is as much a permanent cultural fixture as the city’s narrow side-streets with local rickshaws, goods-laden bicycles, and perennially full sidewalk eateries. Turn any corner in the Old Quarter and you’ll most likely find yourself in the middle of one of these everyday scenes, which have endeared Hanoi to many a traveller. It’s also likely that you’ll find a souvenir or two—perhaps some beautiful horn accessories or pottery, traditional Vietnamese coffee drips, local paintings or silk lanterns—to bring home from this part of the city, a historic commercial district considered to be the spiritual heart of Hanoi.
There are 36 streets in the Old Quarter named after a special trade such as paper, silk, jewellery, or bamboo. Its modern wares are still sold out of traditional pipe houses, each carrying an antique sign. Here is where you’ll discover that Hanoi is a patient city, the kind that will let you take the time to wander from street to street. “There’s so much you can explore while walking,” says Marion. “The markets are a fun place to get lost in and an easy place to shop. I never felt like the shopkeepers were pushy, and so I was able to look at things peacefully in this great atmosphere.” You never know what you might find on each street, but one thing the locals here have in common is a certainty about the quality of their craft. “I was amazed at all of the artwork that was available and it was lovely to see all of the artists and merchants being so proud of their work,” Marion shares. In the city’s outskirts, there are also charming options for travellers to explore, such as Bat Trang Ceramics Village, less than an hour’s drive away from the Old Quarter.
Food-wise, one option for the adventurous is to try the local fare curbside, sitting at an iconically low dining table. Whether its your first time or not, you’ll want a sip of creamy, sugary egg coffee; a taste of the ubiquitous pho, which is a broth made with rice noodles, meat, and herbs; or a bite of banh mi, the local version of a sandwich-style baguette. There’s also the Bourdain-annointed, Obama-tested bun cha: a bowl of grilled fatty pork, pork meatballs, rice vermicelli, and a fresh mound of herbs served with a dipping sauce. This dish, believed to have roots in Hanoi, is only served at lunchtime.
Otherwise, there is no shortage of wonderful restaurants and cafes which reflect Hanoi’s romantic atmosphere. The Green Tangerine is a beautiful and beguiling gem in the centre of the Old Quarter, considered to be one of the best in the city. For great coffee, visit the Ylang Gardenista, set-up greenhouse style, with a collection of terrariums and a glass-enclosed terrace that offers stunning views of the district of Hoan Kiem. Wherever you may find yourself, Marion urges, “Give everything a try! It’s easy to eat here without sacrificing taste, and every meal is different.”
Finally, a short distance away, the district’s centrepiece, Hoan Kiem Lake, bustles with local life and activity. Hoan Kiem, “The Lake of the Restored Sword” in the vernacular, is one of the city’s busiest locations because of two landmarks that are steady tourist draws: the red Huc Bridge and the silver and jade Ngoc Son Temple. But being in the business of pearls, it is easy for Marion to recognise a gem. “In the middle of the city, you have a beautiful and photogenic place that feels natural and tranquil,” she says. “When I took a walk around the lake, it felt like I was exploring. There was always something new to discover.”
Preparing to be photographed at the lake one morning, Marion caught a glimpse of the neighbourhood waking up and observed that it did so with such a sense of togetherness. “At seven o’ clock in the morning, a group of people started to play a game of Dá Câu [Vietnam’s national sport] that continued for a very long time,” she describes. “Back home, it’s the game we know as sipa, usually played alone, so of course it doesn’t last quite as long. I suppose that’s the lesson.”
Forgetting for a moment the burgeoning metropolis that is Hanoi, take a close look at Hoan Kiem and you’ll find that, like the rest of the city, it is shrouded in nostalgia. Hoan Kiem is the image locals remember when they are elsewhere, the vast and unending circle in the centre of everything, where the children of Hanoi continue to spend many carefree days learning how to ride their bicycles or play chess with their elders. On a beautiful summer day, it is hard to tell if you’re thinking of a memory or watching a scene unfold in the present time. Perhaps this is the great achievement of Hanoi.
- Photography Sara Black
- Images (Additional photos) courtesy of sofitel legend metropole hanoi
- Hair raymund defeo and thea dionisio using Phyto, Acca Kappa, and Laura Mercier
- Make-Up raymund defeo and thea dionisio using Phyto, Acca Kappa, and Laura Mercier
- Production Mia Borromeo
- Styling Mia Borromeo