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Vietnam Archives

With certain exceptions, our travel style involves cheap and cheerful hostels, cozy apartments and hotels at the inexpensive end of the scale. (Our Tripadvisor reviews tend to be biased toward our more expensive experiences, as I haven't reviewed many of the cheaper places.) Yet we've wandered through a few fairly nice hotels, either because they were attractions in themselves or out of pure curiousity. In the unlikely event that I one day try to re-experience this trip with a budget two orders of magnitude greater, these are the places that I'd love to book.

I should note that these are not necessarily the nicest hotels that we know of in any given city, but the best that we've seen on this trip. For example, if I could stay for free at any hotel in London, I'd rather see what the Savoy is like than the Metropolitan. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever been amazed by any hotel so much as I was by the Taj Falaknuma in Hyderabad, where you can quite literally sleep like a prince. For reference, I've included some prices of the nicer, lottery-winner level rooms.

La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco (Churchill Suite, ~$2,200/night): Located near the medina (and only a few blocks away from our current apartment), La Mamounia looks less Moroccan and more European than its website suggests. Wandering through its halls, the colonial influence is easy to discern, but this is classic colonial, not a cookie-cutter continenal hotel. In the evening, when the hurrying throngs have whipped up enough dust in the market to inspire previously unknown allergies, La Mamounia is a clear, quiet and clean oasis. We dropped by to try a drink at the Churchill Bar, which was both overpriced and somewhat disappointing: despite displaying several nicer brands of alcohol, a Manhattan with a price tag over $20 was mixed with Four Roses. Setting aside the mediocre drinks, the Churchill and Italian bars are both elegant and comfortable, and I was impressed by the attentiveness and professionalism of the staff. If you're looking for a "low-cost" way to enjoy this location, the Sunday brunch is only about $150. If you try it, tell me how it goes. (That said, we encountered a first for a high-class hotel on this trip: free wifi in public areas.)

The Metropolitan, London, England (Park Suite, ~$1,000): We stopped for a drink at the sister of the Bangkok Metropolitan after picking up our Tanzanian visas from the nearby embassy. Far from the most extravagant hotel in Mayfair, let alone London, it nonetheless has a top-class bar which continues the Metropolitan tradition of knowledgeable and skilled bartenders. Worth it just for a tipple.

The Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, India (Grand Presidential Suite, price on request, upwards of $4,350): Pity Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, who had this palace built in the shape of a scorpion (for astrological reasons), only to realize that he had gone over budget. He ended up giving the palace to Nizam VI, the then-ruler of Hyderabad. The Nizam thoughtfully gave Vikar-ul-Umra the entire amount spent on its construction, saving him from financial catastrophe.

Taj Hotels have leased the palace and converted it into an extravagant fantasy. When we dined here one evening at a family gathering, we were able to watch as one of the guests arrived. A horse-drawn carriage drove him from the gates to the front courtyard. At this point an employee--although courtier seems more accurate--hoisted a gold mace and escorted the new tenant as if he were royalty up the marble steps to reception, as another attendant dropped rose petals before him from an upper balcony. Kitschy, yes, and perhaps they only do this for certain guests, but it fits with the setting. The Grand Presidential Suite, "once the sanctum sanctorum of the Nizam himself," is the most opulent option in a hotel filled with extravagant choices, and features a private pool.

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Photo by friends J & J

The Oberoi, Agra, India (Kohinoor Suite, ~$5500): The bar at the Oberoi possesses a unique alchemical secret: it can transform the most staid and ordinary cocktail into one of the best of your life. The Manhattan recipe? Take a standard combination of rye, vermouth and bitters, and serve suffused with scarlet light filtered through tall, ornate windows that frame the sunset-pinked marble of the Taj Mahal. The Oberoi's view of Agra's unquestioned wonder of the world must be seen to be believed, and only hotel guests are allowed to have their drinks served on the balcony.

Unlike La Mamounia, the Oberoi's style speaks more to Agra's mughal heritage than colonial refinement, lightly reminding the visitor that he is elsewhere rather than giving hints of the comforts of home. We didn't get much further than the bar and the opulent lobby, itself an orgy of marble and stone, but supposedly each room has its own view of the Taj Mahal.

I found these at a shoe shop in Hoi An, but they didn't have them in my size and they couldn't make me a custom pair in time. If they're replicas of some existing brand, I can't find them on Amazon, either.IMG 0377

Hoi An's old town, a UNESCO world heritage site, is famous for its custom clothiers, and justifiably so: a ten minute walk through the narrow streets will take one past the wooden entryways of innumerable custom shops, offering everything from suits to casual clothing, silks to shoes. We visited for Tet, the lunar new year, and figured that we could hit two birds with one stone: see the cultural events and cheaply restock on journey clothes, as half a year of travel and varying laundry conditions had left much of our wardrobe ragged. Hoi An's reputation among travelers in Vietnam is simple: a cheap place for custom work.

It worked, for a certain value of working. Quite a few new outfits were made for us for only a couple of hundred dollars, including two suits and a pair of custom leather shoes for me. But "hit or miss" proposition does not begin to describe shopping for custom clothing in Hoi An, and several of our purchases, while cheap, have ended up being not so much of a bargain. Hoi An clothiers range from the utterly unscrupulous to the pleasant but corner-cutting, and care is required to make sure that you get what you want. Having been on the bad end of a few "bargains," I'll leave the following advice, as well as a few reviews of good and bad vendors.

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Chilling out at a lakeside bar in Hanoi, in a Kimmy's suit

Critical Information

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If you are doing a lot of international travel, take the time to learn the words for "men" and "women" in the local tongue. There will come a time when you are faced with two doors, and they will not be as helpfuly illustrated as the ones below.

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Restrooms at the Wonder Restaurant in Da Nang, Vietnam

Happy Year of the Cat

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A spectator strolls past a glowing cat-shaped parasol in Hoi An, Vietnam

One constant that we've noticed throughout our travel: wherever one is in the world, a young boy of about four to six in possession of both a similarly-aged boy and something to beat him with is going to thwack his companion. This was certainly true when we went to the Ramayana Ballet in Yogyakarta and sat in the same audience with a large school group. Audience members were handed an explanatory program the size of a paper placemat. Every audience member between six and ten in possession of an Y chromosome proceeded to roll the program up and use it as a cudgel. (The girls giggled and texted on their cell phones.)

This is as true for two young brothers on a small skiff being rowed by their older sister. Here is what it looks like in a brief intermission between thwackings:

Vietnam Chidren

And this is the not-so-tranquil moment:

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Name Dropping

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One of the few differences between the "Don't Leave Home Without..." section early in Lonely Planet's Cambodia and the same section in LP's Vietnam guide is: "Other hand things to bring are business cards, as Vietnamese deal them out like a deck of playing cards."

I had a stack of business cards from my old job, but they wouldn't be of much use while traveling, as all of the contact information was for that office. And anyway, "business cards" didn't seem quite right; I'm not engaged in any particular business at the moment, except that of traveling.

While re-reading Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, I came across what struck me as a timely suggestion. My talented friend Debbie offered to letter-press the idea into lovely thick card-stock, while adding her own touch by inking the edges red and gold. You can read her design blog for the full story, including the relevant literary citation, but here's the results.

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Good Hanoi blogs

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A shout out to a few blogs that we've found while navigating this city:

  • Sticky Rice: A Hanoi food blog, and a great guide if you need to find great places to eat and new things to try. He tweeted us directions to a great streetside pho spot.
  • Our Man in Hanoi: Wry commentary on life in the capital from a training and communications man for hire. He's got a strong voice telling a fascinating story. (One sign that he's good with online communications: he shows up on the first page of a Google search for "Hanoi.")

It did make me a bit homesick, though: this photo of Mr. Stewart often perches above his New York studio, which I would walk past every now and then on the way to a restaurant. (If memory serves, it reminds passersby that if they're looking for the Penthouse Club, it's on the next block.)

I am a bit surprised to see the Daily Show star chosen as a model of sartorial excellence. Then again, the female celeb on the opposite side of the doorway is Lindsay Lohan.

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Vietnam, after a brief stay in Thailand

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Greetings from Hanoi. We've arrived as the city prepares for Tet, the celebration of the lunar new year.

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There's much to catch up on since our last entry.

Facebook silence

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Incidentally, Vietnam is the first country in which we're experiencing difficulties accessing a website due to what appears to be government policy (although the government has not confirmed this). Facebook is blocked.

The Facebook ban seems to be a bit hit or miss. On the one hand, Vietnamese cellphone companies advertise that their new phones are perfect for updating Facebook. Likewise, many restaurants and shops ask that their customers "friend" them. A few internet reports suggest that the block is easy to get around, but I'm not very fond of the idea of circumventing a restriction imposed by my host country. So if you aren't able to contact us on Facebook, it's not that we're ignoring you: we just can't log on.

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