The summer before I had my first child, I spent a month in Vietnam. Carrying our few belongings on our backs, my best childhood friend and I stayed in an unremarkable string of $15-per-night hotels and guesthouses. We paid little attention to where we slept, spending most of our efforts exploring colorful streets whirring with motorbikes and searching out the best bowls of pho and banh mi stands. In Ho Chi Minh City, we stayed in a small family-run joint, where I spotted a bug the size of a raven crawling up our bedroom wall. During a three-day kayaking tour through Halong Bay, we fell asleep to the sounds of howling monkeys–on a tiny island, in a primitive hut, on a thin mat on the ground, mosquito netting but no bedding. It was that kind of trip.
But it was the heat in Hanoi that broke us. It was 115 degrees–plus a soggy, sweltering humidity–and I had a full-body heat rash. We booked the first air-conditioned room we could find; I no longer remember the name of the generic mid-rise. It didn’t matter. Later (after changing out of our sweat-drenched clothing), we stumbled across the Metropole–Hanoi’s most historic hotel, tucked away behind the beautiful Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Just beyond the most frantic part of the Old Quarter, the French colonial hotel sits regally on a quiet, tree-lined street, barely removed from the fruit sellers in conical hats, locals crowding sidewalks on tiny plastic stools, kids jumping rope on hot pavement, and rickshaw drivers hollering for customers. To this day, I regret not staying in the place where Charlie Chaplin spent his honeymoon, and Graham Greene reportedly penned parts of The Quiet American, which I was toting around in my backpack. Instead, we grabbed a Vietnamese coffee in the wood-paneled bar with white marble tile and big, leafy plants before heading back into the heat. I’d go back for that hour alone. It’s that kind of place.