In­do­chine Dream

In a Hanoi villa steeped in colo­nial-era glam­our, a so­ci­ety host­ess is cre­at­ing travel ex­pe­ri­ences with a dif­fer­ence, writes Adam White

Thailand Tatler - - LIFE TRAVEL - The author was a guest of Jour­neys to the East; jour­neys-to-the-east.com

You might think of a home­s­tay as the kind of ex­pe­ri­ence best left to back­pack­ers on a bud­get. But as I brush past—and al­most top­ple—a row of sec­ond-cen­tury an­tique vases on the way to breakfast, I re­alise that not all home­s­tays are cre­ated equal. I’m the guest of Loan Foster, who might just be Hanoi’s most ac­com­plished host­ess. At var­i­ous times a busi­ness­woman, ar­chae­ol­o­gist, in­te­rior de­signer, fixer, restau­ra­teur, an­tiques dealer, and hon­orary con­sul for Uruguay, Loan is a prod­uct of Viet­namese high so­ci­ety. Ed­u­cated in the ly­cée sys­tem be­fore the fam­ily em­i­grated to France, Loan re­turned to Viet­nam in the mid-1990s as the 19-year-old Amer­i­can trade em­bargo was lifted. Flu­ent in seven lan­guages, she was one of the first to set up busi­ness as an in­ter­me­di­ary be­tween the Viet­namese govern­ment and the multi­na­tion­als look­ing to get into the coun­try.

In 2014, Loan set up Jour­neys to the East, a be­spoke tour op­er­a­tor, with the ex­press ob­jec­tive of prov­ing that there is some­thing to Viet­nam be­yond the tried-and-tested routes, or the back­packer ex­pe­ri­ence. The com­pany offers fully cus­tomised itin­er­ar­ies and the kind of unique ex­pe­ri­ences that can only be ar­ranged when your host knows ev­ery­one worth know­ing.

Loan’s time as a be­spoke guide to her coun­try dates back to 1995, when leg­endary hote­lier Robert Burns, the founder of the Re­gent group, asked Loan to re­search lo­ca­tions across the coun­try for lux­ury re­sorts. The ex­pe­ri­ence reawak­ened Loan to the beauty of her moth­er­land at a time when few knew any­thing about Viet­nam. She has since shown off her coun­try to the great and the good—in­clud­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton and Jac­ques Chirac—and now she’s show­ing it off to me.

The fam­ily com­pound sits in the ex­clu­sive en­clave on Hanoi’s West Lake, in a col­lec­tion of three ad­join­ing French colo­nial-style build­ings Loan has bought over the years. The houses and every­thing in them are tes­ta­ment to Loan’s aes­thetic, one that cher­ishes the coun­try’s past: tra­di­tional and colo­nial alike.

One house, Villa La Rose, serves as a home­s­tay for guests of Jour­neys to the East. Be­hind the walls of the villa, the ideal base from which to ex­plore the Viet­namese cap­i­tal, the din of motorbike horns fades away. Colo­nial win­dows and pil­lars beneath lofty ceil­ings frame the an­tiques dis­played in nooks and niches, while the walls are hung with the work of lead­ing Viet­namese artists. The rooms are ap­pointed with an eclec­tic mix of unique an­tique pieces. From tra­di­tional French dressers to Chi­ne­ses­tyle screens and colo­nial-era make-up ta­bles, they were all col­lected by Loan her­self, who scoured the coun­try for un­sung trea­sures of Viet­nam’s past.

It’s a beau­ti­ful place to stay, but Loan’s own home next door, Villa La Res­i­dence, is in a league of its own. The ground floor is a mu­seum-wor­thy treasure trove of an­tiques set among colo­nial­style arches and walls painted a uniquely rich Viet­namese yel­low. An­cient Bud­dha stat­ues stand be­side price­less Chi­nese vases, an­tique day beds, Bleu de Huê porce­lain and rich lac­quer­work. Art deco Lalique chan­de­liers hang over 2000-year-old Dong Son bronze drums. Loan points out the light fix­tures and the wooden ceil­ing fans, which were res­cued from Hanoi’s leg­endary Metropole Ho­tel as it was un­der­go­ing ren­o­va­tion. “I have four chil­dren, and none of them have bro­ken any­thing,” she laughs. “Only my staff!”

The best is yet to come. Loan leads me up­stairs, into a liv­ing room that takes my breath away: a stun­ning slice of tra­di­tion in the mid­dle of mod­ern-day Hanoi. Or­nate pil­lars hold up an ele­gantly pitched wooden roof and doors, all adorned with in­tri­cate carv­ing. It’s anachro­nis­tic yet per­fect, a mod­ern liv­ing space in­side a his­toric frame. The tim­bers en­com­pass­ing the room are from a tra­di­tional an­ces­tral hall dat­ing back to 1865 and once owned by an in­flu­en­tial court man­darin. Loan was in­spired by a trip to Hangzhou, China, and her dis­cov­ery of the wooden tea­houses that line that city’s own West Lake. And so she set out to the vil­lages of Viet­nam to find one. When she fi­nally came across the build­ing in a vil­lage an hour out of Hanoi, she dis­cov­ered the vil­lagers had no use for such an old wooden relic—in fact, they were about to knock it down.

“I hired the whole vil­lage. They took down the house and numbered every piece”

So Loan bought the en­tire build­ing. “I hired the whole vil­lage,” she re­mem­bers. “They took down the house and numbered every piece,” and they were all care­fully trans­ported to Hanoi. With no space to re­assem­ble it on the ground, Loan came up with an in­ge­nious so­lu­tion: turn it into a sec­ond storey. It’s this eye for the orig­i­nal, and her abil­ity to hon­our the his­toric in a new con­text, that makes Loan such a good tour guide.

Early one morn­ing we pile into a car for the three-hour jour­ney to Ninh Binh, south­west of Hanoi. The land­scape on the way is flat, less im­pres­sive than the dra­matic val­leys and lush greens of cen­tral and south Viet­nam. But as we get closer, the jagged out­lines of karst moun­tains be­gin to jut up across the land­scape. The scenery also grows more in­dus­trial; the beau­ti­ful lime­stone peaks are a ready source of lime for the ce­ment fac­to­ries that dot the land­scape, which oc­ca­sion­ally seem to dwarf the moun­tains them­selves. How­ever, as we ap­proach Ninh Binh it­self, the fac­to­ries dis­ap­pear and na­ture re­asserts it­self. Our base, the bou­tique Tam Coc Gar­den re­sort, is sur­rounded by a vista of karst peaks ris­ing from the ubiq­ui­tous rice pad­dies.

We hop on to nar­row sam­pans rowed by seem­ingly tire­less boat­women, who pad­dle us through the nar­row wa­ter­ways of Ninh Binh and into silent val­leys, the only sound the slap of oars on the water and the oc­ca­sional mon­key in the hills. We ex­plore wa­ter­logged caves and feel the swoosh of bats over­head, and climb the 450 steps of Hang Mua Peak, catch­ing our breath as we take in a 360-de­gree view of the sam­pan-dot­ted wa­ter­ways be­low.

On our fi­nal evening in Ninh Binh, we board a sam­pan as sun­set ap­proaches for an ex­pe­ri­ence that only some­one with Loan’s level of ac­cess can pro­vide. The river is quiet now, with­out the tourists who can clog the wa­ter­ways dur­ing the day. A bot­tle of cham­pagne chills in an ice bucket as we push off. An­other boat sets out along­side, but this one with a mu­si­cian and his two-stringed dan nhi fid­dle. A lilt­ing melody floats across to us as we glide in the dim­ming light. We pop cham­pagne to toast the setting sun, and the rich greenery around us dark­ens to blue. The mu­si­cian falls silent, as if over­awed by the moun­tains that hem us in. The fi­nal notes are ab­sorbed by the water, and all is still.

Then, in the dis­tance, the low thrum of drums, draw­ing us on­wards. Cym­bals take up the rhythm. We round a bend in the river and are greeted by a row of flam­ing torches light­ing the way. Drum­mers wait in the twi­light and as we alight, they lead us through pad­dy­fields to the 700-year-old Thai Vi tem­ple. We step into the court­yard and the tem­ple’s pavil­ion glows a warm or­ange; lanterns from Hoi An il­lu­mi­nate a ta­ble set for a very pri­vate din­ner.

Over dish af­ter dish pre­pared by Loan’s per­sonal chef—the whole team has come down from Hanoi for the evening—we’re treated to tra­di­tional songs and dances by per­form­ers from the nearby vil­lage. It’s late, but the tem­ple watches over us in the warm light of the lanterns. We drink to Viet­nam, to hos­pi­tal­ity— to dis­cov­ery.

View from the Top Peak in Ninh Binh, whose 450 un­even steps to the sum­mit re­ward you with a view of sam­pans wind­ing through the karst land­scape of Tam Coc

Treasure Trove Loan Foster’s pas­sion for her home­land is re­flected in the won­der­ful col­lec­tion of arte­facts lov­ingly dis­played in her Hanoi home

Loan Foster has played host to the great and good, in­clud­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton and Jac­ques Chirac

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