Wednesday, November 25, 2009
So, I am going to be brutally honest here, which is, alas, why you pay me the big bucks and I guess why my research has some value to it. St. Helena-- the main commercial shopping district of the destination portions of the Napa Valley, has an adorable downtown shopping district. Alas, it is a very fancy TT...no, not Tourist Trap, as I usually mean with those initials ...but a Tourist Town. It is cute beyond words. It is charming beyond description. It is adorable as in dreams of those who do not know better.
Much of the merchandise is over-priced; many of the vendors come with more attitude than a Las Vegas hooker. Well, it's just an expression I made up...I've only met Las Vegas hookers on CSI. And I met a Frenchman once, who was, ooohlala, tres rude. And I speak French. (I find the French can be rude until you prove you speak their language.)
I am not suggesting you drive past this town. I am confessing that there are a handful of excellent stores that are not only worth visiting but may inspire you to greater creativity. There are places to eat and even art works to inspect. There's an excellent wine shop. There's no public rest rooms.
But first, to make certain we're all in the right place at the right time, we will practice saying the place-name. Saint Hah-LENA. As easy as this may seem, it is hard for me, partly because I often think in French, and to me this should be HELLanah.
Next I will reveal a terrifying truth: the best store in town is a hardware store, Steve's. Honest. Hardware & Housewares; two storefront connected inside the store itself or on the street. Don't miss it. In fact, I will soon be doing some Shopping Detective blogs about items I found there. But I digress.
Downtown is about two blocks long, with stores and venues on both sides of the street. There is one movie theatre and several bakeries and eateries. While the clothes for sale in assorted shops are nice, and offer a genuine bit of insight into the local look, they are not much to flip for. There are two shops selling very expensive lingerie which either says a lot about the community (remember the TV show Falcon's Crest?) or the visitors to town. Beats me.
There are also several shoe shops; one is famous for its killer heels while I personally prefer Flats, 1219B Main Street, which has shoes up to size 12 for women. Yesss!!!!!
There are a handful of really good stores. Please note that while many stores do sell olive oil, none of them is the place to go. Stay tuned for my secret olive oil source Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacture, 835 Charter Oak, St. Helena; [tel.]707/963-4179. This is away from the Main Street cutie pie district. It's worth the search.
Now, the best of show in downtown St. Helena:
* STEVES HARDWARES& HOUSEWARES, 1370 Main Street, everything but the kitchen sink and they will probably order that for you;
* MUSE, pictured above, for yarn and fiber crafts;
* MAIN STREET BOOKS,1315 Main Street, real books for real people made with real paper and even real binding and glue, not a Kindle in sight;
* FIDEAUX, a doggy couture shop with wow for woof;
* GOODMANS,1331 Main Street, casual clothes for men and women bought with just the right eye for the destination;
* WOODHOUSE, 1367 Main Street, locally made chocs;
* ST. HELENA WINE CENTER, 1321 Main Street, more than local choices;
* ST. JEAN DE LUZ,1219 Main Street; French tabletop with extraordinary embroidery facility-- there used to be an even better branch in Carmel-- check it out;
* OLIVIER, 1375 Main Street olive oil and olive prods-- this is visually pleasing and charming; another shop in Tahoe.
Much more on all of this in Born to Shop California Wine Country.
As I make up the charts for interviews and visits of the sources that will form the bones of the new Born to Shop California Wine Country, I use every printed guidebook to have a look-see at opinions on each property. After all, there are 400 wineries just in Napa Valley and I will not be covering all of them. I also need the right mix of wine bars, regular retail, farm stands, olive oil purveyors, chefs and hotels.
One of the leading properties to catch my eye was Long Meadow Ranch, which I understood was going to be one fancy farm stand.
Sooooo, when I booked an inspection, I actually wore jeans and wellies and barnyard clothes. Silly me. The address I was given was neither farm nor ranch nor veg-stand, but a construction site of the soon to be opened Farmstead, a collection of restored buildings at the edge of St. Helena, across the street from the restaurant Tre Vigne and a sneeze from the original Taylor's Refresher (burger joint).
Farmstead consists of a tasting room, which will open in December, in a restored gothic farmhouse and a newly-built stand alone restaurant created by Executive Chef Sheamus Feeley, who for the past eight years did kitchen concepts for the Hillstone Group out of their nearby Rutherford Grille. The restaurant will open to the public in January.
Since he has lived in Napa for many years, Feeley is familiar with the local lifestyle and is creating a restaurant for the community. His major innovation is that there will be no corkage fee for guests so that tourists can bring in a bottle they have bought in their explorations of the destination and local vintners can bring in their own wine for friends and family. Naturally, there will be a wine list--with a modest mark-up, Sheamus stresses. The standard markup for wine in these parts is three times cost, which Sheamus finds way too high.
Long Meadow Ranch, written LMR, is a vertical operation that has wine and wow. They grow their own grass-fed cattle, they grow their own produce, make their own olive oil and in between all that also have wine. Between the Tasting House and the restaurant, Sheamus will have a garden for visitors to actually see the process of bringing food from earth to table; there will also be demos as well as a nursery selling organic feed and farm products.
Watch this spot; obviously I will be reporting as both venues open to the public.
Most people who think they know a little about wine or the Napa Valley area know about Stag's Leap; a few even know about the Stag's Leap Wars and the fact that Stags Leap has become its own appellation, partly because of those wars.
Few people, on the other hand, have heard of Shafer Wines, which is in the Stags Leap appellation and is most famous for a specific wine, which costs over $200 a bottle. I can't claim credit for discovering Shafer-- my new friend and noted wine expert Ben Weinberg from Unfiltered Unfined gave me his personal list of vineyards he thought should go in the Napa portion of Born to Shop California Wine Country. Since he gave me only three suggestions, and Shafer was top of the list, and because some of their wine is Stags Leap District, I scurried over there...thirsty.
Shafer is not the kind of place that attracts herds of tourists or twenty somethings in tight designer jeans. They have an appointment-only policy and seat 12 people at a long table for a formal tasting. And yes, the main reason you go here is to taste the $200 wine as part of the $45 tasting fee. You also need to know that reservations must be made waaaay in advance, possibly months ahead of time. Those twelve spaces are coveted.
There are wines that sell for $48 a bottle and some for $80 a bottle, but the one that the world is talking about is called Hillside Select, which is very hard to get in the first place, sells out on release, but is sold after the tasting (two bottle per person limit) and retails for $215 per bottle for the 2005.
If you've always wondered what a $200+ wine tastes like, you can find out without having to buy the whole bottle if you sign up for a tasting event. You should also know that this is considered a 'cult' wine, in the league as Screaming Eagle, the one that sold for $500,000 a bottle (it was a big bottle) in 2000.
The tasting room is simple, the property is unmarked off the Silverado Trail (#6154), and the atmosphere is pleasant but not razzle-dazzle. All of the people at my tasting (and yes, it was all couples) had gray hair and were probably around 60. I guess these are the remaining Baby Boomers who didn't lose their money in the stock market. They were thoughtful, intelligent and asked complicated questions with knowing confidence. They also invariably drained every drop from all six of the glasses they were served. I wondered who would be driving since I was incapable of drinking more than a sip or two from each glass.
Each place setting had a glass of water, an 'owner's manual' take-away journal about the vineyard and access to a basket of water crackers in the center of the table. When the 'bonus' wine was served in the front of the house, a tray of chocolate truffles was passed. There was one per person on the tray. I counted.
There were no nibbles, no wine/food pairings, no chefs. You were admonished not to feed the dog. This was obviously serious business on all levels-- the tasting was first class as was the push to buy the product. The wine tasting session was well led, conducted smoothly and with considerable style and grace, but it still reminded me of a hotelier making a sales pitch to a group of travel agents. But there was no power point...just powerful sips of righteous grape.
Unlike most other vineyards, the $90 for the tasting fee (two people at $45 each) cannot be applied to the purchase price of wine. Shipping could be arranged if you live in a state that allows this. With the crowd passing out their gold cards, I fled to something more casual.
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, nearby, is a division of Fosters Wine Estates America and one of the ways to know if it's Stag's, Stags or Stags' (hey, don't laugh, this is what the lawsuits were about) is to find out if this is the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars which won the 1976 Paris tasting as featured in the movie Bottle Shock.
Once at the proper leap of faith (5766 Silverado Trail), you are where it all began for California wines-- the first of the award winning wines back in the day, the fight for land and territory and names and rights and the very business of having a few strangers over for a look-see. This is a property that was actually created as a resort and functions around hospitality, dating back to the 1880's. Not to get totally confused, there is Stags' Leap Winery at #6150.
But I digress and muddle the wine and the brain. The subject is not roses but rather Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. Like Shafer, this winery is also upside a long driveway that is unmarked save a few street numbers; it too requires reservations for a tasting and costs even more per person-- $45.
Here you settle back into a locally quarried stone /craftsman style bungalow-mansion (The Manor House) and admire the architectural details, the outside verandas, the Victorian toilets inside the house itself (pull the chain to flush) and take in the wine list. A resort in 1892, the property is as lush as the wines. Thankfully, wines here begin at $20 per bottle but average $35-38. The more expensive wines are $75 a bottle.
If all this is confusing, check out the Stags Leap District Growers, which is an organization of all the wineries in the appellation (including Shafer). Then, before you leave, hop on over to Frog's Leap, 8815 Conn Creek Road, in Rutherford.
So here I am at the Napa River Inn, overlooking -- yup, you guessed it-- the river that runs through downtown Napa. I'll be heading back to Tiburon soon to start cooking and preparing for the holiday feast, but wanted to explain the Napa Bottle Blog and how it works; how you access the information.
The Napa River Inn, btw, is extraordinary-- it's a historical hotel in a downtown redevelopment area called Riverfront-- there's condos, shops and the hotel-- called a luxury boutique hotel-- that stretches through several brick buildings, wrapping around the river bank. At night, there's little lights blinking from my terrace to add romance and charm to the halready sophisticated scene. I thin one of the best things was being asked to sign a no-smoking contract when I checked in. I've heard of no-smoking rooms, but this hotel is serious about protecting its image and integrity.
The hotel is built into an old mill complex from the 1880's and includes several buildings-- as well as a theatre, a bakery, a Victorian candy shoppe (!), several venues for meals and the Napa General Store, which is a terrific store and reason enough to come to this part of town. The store serves meals and features merchandise by local artists and craftspeople in a large, barn like setting with heaps of charm.
My room is at the end of one of the buidlings, a really large studio with fireplace, king bed, terrace, big flat screen TV, desk and lotsa amenities. For turn down service, I was given a bucket of ice and some chocolate wine bottles to munch on.
Because I am doing research for Born to Shop California Wine Country, I am spending several days a week in Napa and the surrounding valleys, meeting with winemakers, chefs, artists and locals (wait til you hear about my Wine Whisperer)...as well as checking in and checking out the various hotels that seem like a good fit for readers.
I began this in October and reported many blogs' worth on www.petergreenberg.com where you can follow my visits to about ten different vineyards.
The reporting now switches over to this site, so to continue the search for information on all fronts, the next month or two will provide plenty of story.
But first, a toast. We're drinking a Tavel rose with our Butterball-- not quite a California wine. But I wish you all the best holiday season possible and send love from the bottom of my grapes.
Friday, November 13, 2009
All of Gaul may be divided into three parts, but hoteliers will tell you that Viet Nam is divided into three great hotels: The Metropole in Hanoi, The Park Hyatt in Saigon and then that fancy resort place-- I swear I will look up its name for you-- outside of Hoi-An. Oh yes, the Nam Hai.
We came to Saigon to try the new InterContinental Asiana Hotel which we did and very much enjoyed. But for our last night in Nam, no place else would do except the drop dead contempo but swank Park Hyatt Hotel located in the heart of downtown across the street from Opera Square.
Before I actually tell you what we did and saw (and bought) on our last day and night, I want to explain how it is that our trip worked out the way it did with three nights on arrival in Saigon and then three nights in Hanoi and one final night in Saigon. There's a lesson to be had, I'm not just foaming at the mouth (or keyboard).
This trip began as a mileage run so that Sarah and I could keep our Untied Airlines Premium status, we had 19,000 miles and needed 25,000 before the end of the year. A promotional deal offered roundtrip airfare from SFO (San Francisco) to Saigon for $628 per person, so we grabbed it, knowing it was also time to get in some final checks before Born to Shop Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing & Viet Nam is printed (contact amazon.com for the January publication) and that we could work out the program for our next InterConti Born to Shop & Spa tour (March 2010, see www.suzygershman.com for details), well, it took about three seconds to click on 'buy these tickets now'.
Looking at a map makes it seem that Phnom Penh is just a sneeze from Saigon; research said there was luxury bus service as well as an InterContinental Hotel. What more could a traveling woman want? We also decided to take the boat to Angor Wat and thought this would be a fabulous adventure for our tour group.
To make a long story short, life is too short for anyone to do that trip (7 hours bus; 7 hours boat) and so we ended up booking into Hanoi for more Born to Shop research and a return to one of our favorite hotels in the world, The Metropole. This turned out to be a brilliant idea since there were many changes needed in the manuscript and research is my middle name.
But let me get to the point (enfin). As it happens, Saigon is closer to Bangkok and many other cities than Hanoi. In fact, Hanoi is rather far away-- it's a very long country. Some of us even remember there are distinct north and south parts, but that's another war. The subject is airfare war. Seems that Air Asia and Viet Nam Airlines are having one of those battles and offering really inexpensive fares everywhere. The only thing is, Air Asia can only be booked online and you have to know to go to their site, www.airasia.com.
When I priced Saigon (SGN) to BKK on the usual airfare sites, I got $525 USD which was not acceptable. (Bus fare + boat fare to PP and Angor Wat is $40 USD per person) Had I known to go to the Air Asia site, we could have been in BKK for fifty bucks each way. Not that Hanoi wasn't fabulous. But that's just a little shopper's tip for you. Air Asia serves Saigon and Hanoi with a variety of flights. Promotional flights to launch the new gates in Phuket (HKT) cost $40 each way from Saigon (and back).
Not to be outdone, Vietnam Airlines has offers called 'Big Deal' that include r/t airfare plus two nights hotel as well as airport transfers. From Saigon you can go to BKK, KL, HKG, Beijing, Singapore, Siem Reap (Angor Wat) and other fine destinations. These rates are valid until the end of this year, 2009;www.vietnamairlines.com.
And yes, I have flown Air Asia and I have written about it. This is the Southwest of Asia and is very much worth knowing about.
So there we were in Hanoi when we get word that our noon day flight to Saigon has been changed and we will not arrive at the Park Hyatt much before 4PM and I have a 7PM public appearance. We do not like this at all and change our flight, so we arrive in Saigon at 9AM (see previous blog) and can fully enjoy our last tango in town...and the fewer than 24 hours we will be at the Park Hyatt Saigon.
One of the reasons we needed to get to town was to pick up our clothes from the tailors we had tested. We tried two different tailors: one suggested by a woman we were dumb enough to trust and one suggested by our spiritual leader Hong E.
Tailor #1 is in the heart of downtown and I will only mention their name so that you can avoid them: T&V. They are across from the Sheraton Hotel near Opera Square; to say the things they made were a total disappointment is being polite.
My Vera Wang (from Kohl's) cami came out looking like a 1950's maternity top-- and I spent $19.99 per yard on the silk in New York! Although I brought the trim with me, and included it in the bundle with my silk, the trim was not added on as promised. I was given a $2 refund for that error.
The Eileen Fisher top that was copied at Tailor #2, Lan Vy, and was a total triumph. The original was over $200; this venture turned out to be so successful that the cost has been successfully amortized. We also bought the silk in Saigon, so the cost was $5 per two meter swath. Lan Vy is your basic hole in the wall tailor shop not far from the Ben Thanh Market, 217 Le Thanh Ton, District 1; [tel]0902-843-779. Needless to say, they don't speak English. But who cares???
Sarah had two shirts (identical, different fabric) copied from a Ralph Lauren original that were well done, but not a 100% triumph and we each had a man's shirt made from a sample brought from Tom Lahey's closet.
Of the two man's shirts, one was perfect and the other had ink marks all over it that will surely come out in the laundry, but are annoying to see. And I will have to use the professional laundry, not the Westinghouse in the garage. Cost per man's shirt, fabric plus labor was $35 USD. The Eileen Fisher wannabe's were $5 each in fabric and $12 each for the tailoring. Sarah's blouses were $20 each for the fabric and $15 each to make.
About two doors away from the tailor shop (#2) is another shop, let's call it #3, a tailor who makes men's clothing and who sells only shirtings and suit fabrics: Quang Minh Chau, 223 Le Thanh Ton; firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a great source for fabric and the linen selection alone is worth the price of the air tix to Nam.
Before our day was finished, we stopped back at all our favorite stores and went to what's called The Tax Free, a building called Tax Free Something or Another, right there also at Opera Square.
This seems like a very boring duty free store on the ground level and you may be discouraged from spending time here based on your first impression. This impression is wrong. In the back of the street level portion there are DVD's to be had-- less than $1 per movie. Upstairs, there's three levels of the same stuff you find at Ben Thranh Market. But here's the deal-- the Tax Free is clean, air conditioned and only a few cents more expensive than the market.
We ate all our meals at the Park Hyatt ( a must do meal spot) in their open Italian kitchen, had no time for swim or spa as we had to lay out our treasures on the bed and admire them (pictured). We then quickly dashed out to the InterConti for a press event. We'd have danced all night, except we had to be at the airport at 4AM the next day to fly home.
What becomes a Legend most? Well, the Sofitel hotel group has named Hanoi's Metropole Hotel as their first Living Legend. Among the many reasons is the 24 hour butler service which turned into a slice of heaven when we placed an order for continental breakfast to be delivered to our room at 4:15 AM.
It seems our flight from Hanoi to Saigon was changed, squeezing down our time in Saigon to an unbearably small, few hours and so we were able to change our tix, provided we caught a 7AM flight. With the Hanoi airport at least an hour out of town and the need to be in place at least one hour before the flight, we were in our hotel provided van at 5AM and enroute.
Seems that this is an important hour for action in Hanoi-- the moto traffic was intense, especially around Long Bien, the wholesale fruit market located next to the Long Bien train station...and then the flower market, just a piece down the road. The night was still black but the colors of the fruits and flowers and the clothing of the merchants were delicious. We were mesmerized by the sights of Hanoi waking up and getting to work. We were in love with our butler. Indeed, the butler did it-- thank heavens.
While we were waiting to board, we explored the terminal which was not very interesting but did have a few unusual offerings, such as sacs of fresh fruit. I could not decide if these were for temple offerings (safe journey) or for snacks since peanuts are already taken by Southwest Airlines marketing teams. Certainly the gorgeous colors of cumquats, persimmons and bananas in various net baggies were a reminder of the street scenes we had just witnessed.
Hanoi and Saigon are further apart than you may think; so to pass the time (two hour flight) Sarah and I played The OPI Game. This is a fashionista wordsmith's easiest and silliest way to pass time-- we take the destination we are visiting, pretend it is the theme destination for an OPI nail polish collection, and proceed to make up appropriate names for product. Here's our list at touch down in SGN:
Russian to DaNang
Ho Chi Minh Red
Naplum in the Morning (my personal fave)
Hue Hue (another good one)
Sand on China Beach
When you wake up in a large room in The Metropole Sofitel Hanoi and sun is streaming in from the garden, it's already a perfect day. When your room-mates are snoring or buried beneath their down or fiddling with their crack-berries and you know you are first up in the luxury bathroom, it's a more perfect day. When you head downstairs to the colonial portion of the hotel and take in the buffet breakfast (take in visually and orally) and meet with new friends you have just met in The Lounge, then it's a very perfect morning. And that's just the start of the day.
Sofitel, the most upmarket of the French group Accor's hotels, has just named The Metropole as their first Legend, which is emblazoned on the back of the key card. The Legend hotels are iconic hotels all over the world that have upgraded to new standards and have a luxury story as well as a historical story to share. Accordingly, there have been zillions of dollars of renovations at the hotel and assorted upgrades in service such as a 24 hour butler. That may strike you as a silly little item until you happen to need croissants and fresh coffee at 4AM in order to make your 7AM flight.
Among the best things about The Metropole is its location-- you can walk to most of the main shopping districts. Since taxis only cost $2 and cyclos $3 (you pay more for manpower)-- it's more fun to not walk. I love a good cyclo (say see-cloh) in the morning and love to sit in the breezy little cabin while someone pedals me through the traffic with unnerving intimacy...it's jsut you and the cars that whizz by right in your face, almsot mano a mano.
I used to always go 'to the church' and walk from there, but now that I have learned my way around better, I target different addresses for the cyclo driver in the various parts of town that I want to shop and hop off without the extra walking. With the help of a map I can usually find my way back to The Lake or to Hang Gai Street, the center of the touristic shopping universe.
I took my first cyclo of the day to Hang Bo Street because this is the heart of the trimmings district and I wanted to find some chiffon-y fabric for the blouses I was having made in Saigon. I saw exactly what I wanted at Hobby Lobby in San Antonio, but that was then and now is now. In the end, I could not find what I wanted so I just wandered around and enjoyed the colors, the glitters, the people and the moto action.
Hanoi is, of course, famous for its 36 guilds which are different medieval trade unions located at different streets. Most of those trades have packed up, but new ones have moved in-- so you have a street of shoes (Ly Than To)at one point and a street of silk else where. Hang Gai is the street of silk, the most touristy and well developed retail stretch in town for silks of all kinds, including but not limited to clothes and bed quilts. For a first timer, this is the main place to shop until you wander into the Lacquer area and get bound up in art galleries. But then, art galleries are taking over the town and are not limited to one street.
I ask my next cyclo driver to take me to the restaurant The Green Tangerine, which is right of center and not directly in the tourist flow...although The Green Tangerine is a well known eatery and this area is especially popular at night. I like the little street (Hang Be) because it has a few DVD shops. None of these sells programs or software, just movies, CD's and TV shows. You pay more for DVD-9 (better quality); most items are sold in boxed sets. Although I bought a few kiddie movies for a friend, I later saw they were free on my TV set on-demand at home. Oh well...it seemed perfect at the time.
On the way back to The Metropole, I asked the driver to stop at the corner so I could pop into my favorite art gallery in town, Hu'Ong Xuyen, which is directly across from Citibank and the hotel, on the opposite corner. This is sort of a dumpy looking gallery, not nearly as chic as most or as touristy looking as many. I have been coming here at first because it's across the street from my hotel and more regularly because I have been buying-- serious art by the same artist, who is now up to $750 USD a canvas and beyond me, as well as smalls such as flowers in vases for $15-20 per canvas and small greeting cards, $3 each.
Lunch on my perfect day always includes a return to Spice Gardens for lunch and then a trip to the Metropole's new spa, which has not only a menu of treats but a music menu to accompany your treatment. I picked 'French Songs' although there was no singing, just muzak like noises to soothe away my aches while I got a full body massage of well-being. Sarah had chosen a foot treatment that included being poked with a stick, which she said was quite refreshing.
The Metropole Spa is part of the hotel upgrade and sits behind the swimming pool and alongside the Spices Garden restaurant. You enter a tiny lobby and then weave your way across polished teak floors and old French colonial wrought iron into light and airy spaces and a sitting room decorated with miles of blue and white porcelains. This is the oasis for escape in the middle of a noisy and sometimes frantic city.
Recovery from the relaxation was slow, so I poked around the two different retail areas of the hotel-- the designer strip at the front of the hotel's colonial doors, which includes a Louis Vuitton and a Ferragamo store and the back arcade with a branch of Hermes as well as the hotel's own La Boutique, which is pricey but well chosen for local gifts and crafts. There's also a deli and gourmet food market (l'Epicerie du hotel) with hotel made yummies from the famous French chef who toils behind the ovens.
The late afternoon was spent on my favorite street in Hanoi, a one block wonder called Nha Tro, with a branch of Song on the corner. It's just down from The Church and easily found. Song was created by an Australian designer and is one of the best stores in Viet Nam (there's also one in Saigon). There's a number of home style stores on this strip that sell very elegant table top, far more interesting than anything found in Saigon. And don't miss Sparkles for funky handbags, Grace for embroidered home style and May for little gift items such as velvet eyeglasses cases and flowers for the suit jacket, $4 each.
The day was so busy that I had no time for the final perfection-- a trip to the Dong Xuan Market, which is where we usually go for fabric when we are using our Hanoi tailor. Alas, we did all tailor errands in Saigon this trip. We did make it to the Night Market, which is not a great market, but is wonderful for atmosphere in twilight with crowds and twinkly lights and motos and enthusiastic local shoppers. It doesn't get much better than that.
For the Anal Retentive: this story is out of order. It is about a store in Saigon, not Hanoi...but I do not know how to work this program well enough to put it where it belongs.
Now then, there are times in your life when you travel and go some where that touches your mind and spirit so dramatically that it is like a religious experience. The first time I went to Oaxaca (Mexico) I could not write for several days; I felt as if I had seen the face of God and it was simply too difficult or too sacreligious to write about it. I eventually got over it, but the power of the first days has stayed with me.
I had the same feeling when I visited the boutigue cum art gallery called Mai on Dong Khoi Street in Saigon, in the lobby of the Continental Hotel.(This is not to be confused with the InterContinental Hotel, which is several blocks away.) The dramatic window displays and the dancing dragonflies on the store's frontage give you a clue that you must step inside, if only for a look-see. Once inside, you find an Anthropologie meets Takashimaya New York experience of incredible decor and merchandise.
Everything is designed by Mai; there is a clip book of press cuttings you can ask to see if you want to know more about her. I did not need to know more about her as a person. I saw that she had done elaborate embroidery work on army issue fatiques and went wild with the creativity of it all. Prices begin at $300 USD and go up, but the embroidered velvets, the commie posters, the artistic walls, the skinny short shorts-- all are astonishing.
The war is over. Long live Mai.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Every time I visit Hanoi I go to Bat Trang, about 10km away. Every time I get here I am reminded that the correct pronounciation is Bat Chang, which makes me think of ka-ching. If they had cash registers, that's what they would say.
Bat Trang is the world's brick center (the world, yes) and VN's pottery and ceramics center. It's a tiny village, with a tourist ox cart, and heaps of dishes. Normal people would spend half a day here, but we have been many times and knew what we wanted. So we stayed for about a half hour and bought what we wanted and then headed back to the hotel.
Although the plates were $7 and the bowls $4, the car and driver cost $80, so perhaps there were no bargains. But as the Visa ad says-- experience: priceless. Besides, Sarah and I each brought a roll of bubble-wrap from Walmart ($4 per) and saved our newspapers daily so we were born to pack. Note that we arrived home w/o breakage.
Some day I will perhaps retire to this area and open a UPS station because people would buy ever so much more in Bat Trang if shipping was easy. There is Fed Ex and UPS and even DHL in Saigon,and I guess there are also offices in Hanoi, but my little sub station will make me rich in dong. The flash of $4 vases and $20 flower basins is just too alluring to let it all go by in a moment's worry about the 20k weight restriction on Viet Nam Airlines.
So please come back next time you're in Hanoi, I'll be just out the newly rebuilt Banana Highway (I will be rebuilding it-- and naming it-- myself) and I plan to open a tract development ( Bat Trang Heights? The Groves? Yes, that's better!)and a Safeway. Houses will be equipped with all the standard features...plus dishes.
As any traveler knows, buffets are big business in most hotels-- even though it seems wasteful (what do they do with all that extra food?) it must also be profitable. We enjoyed several fantastic buffets at he InterConti Asiana in Saigon and then began to make the rounds again today here in Hanoi.
We ate the breakfast buffet in the Club Lounge then hit the streets for some retail adventures. I have only a few $1 bills left, so I am not seriously shopping (although that goes pretty far in VN) but I was curious to see the difference in merchandise from Saigon to Hanoi and to understand why it is that I like Hanoi so much more than Saigon. Saigon ain't bad, but she's not home. Or something.
Frankly, the goods simply seem more sophisticated here. That's all. The streets are funkier and the merchandise is fancier. Go figure. Song is similar in both Hanoi and Saigon, truly one of the best stores in the world, but many of the stores here-- without counter-parts in Saigon-- sell much more elaborate and high end merchandise-- velvet beaded eyeglass cases ($4) at May, placemats with raffia fringe and pearls ($32)at Mosaique and even more magnificent horn salad servers for less money ($14 here). I bought a few gifts and avoided my regular tailor so as not to be tempted. Oh yeah, I bought a copy of This Is It for $1, which is about what it seems worth...as I had the store play a few bars so I could check on the quality.
For lunch, we did the buffet at Spice Gardens, the newly renovated but same old yummy Thai/VN restaurant in the Opera Tower of the Metropole. This has been my favorite restaurant in town ever since I started visiting Hanoi, about ten years ago. There are fresh salads as well as clay pot cooked meals. Everything is locally grown.There are a variety of different stations, so you make the rounds and keep loading up plates. This is not a cafeteria style buffet but a nosh-o-rye kind of buffet. The majority of the diners at the restaurant are locals, showing you just how good the cooking is. The flat price of $22 USD covers everything but drinks.
Then after all that food, I needed a little exercise, bien sur, so I did a stroll around the hotel and checked out the area immediatley surrounding the front and back of the hotel. Since the Metropole has the original part of the hotel from 1901 and the Opera Tower, a much newer addition located behind the historic part, alongside a designer shopping arcade and just behind the swimming pool and spa, the property takes up one entire city block with excellent stores all around. This is not only the premier hotel in VN as well as Hanoi, but also one of the best locations vis a vis the action and where you want to be.
It was shocking to discover that in the course of the one year since I was here last, almost everything I know and love about this particular block in Hanoi has been torn down. Au Lac, a great cafe, is gone; the Chi Vang Emroidery store has moved to 63 Hang Gai and the magnificent colonial house where they did business is now gutted...probably to become another art gallery. In fact, the area has more and more art galleries by the minute.
By 3PM it was time for the Metropole's Chocolate Buffet. This event is held daily from 3-6pm on an all you can eat basis and costs $15 per person-- who said there aren't any bargains left in the world?
Try this on for size: home made chocolate ice cream, macaroons, tarts, panna cotta, choux (small sized eclairs in rounded shape), four kinds of brownies as well as chocolate banana brioche bread pudding... and that's just a portion of one tabletop. There's a bar filled with trays of bonbons and truffles as well as more chocolate concoctions...even chocolate eggrolls. The usual chocolate fountain was flowing, and there was a white clad chef to custom blend your own hot chocolate from a choice of six different kinds of chocolate, white, milk or dark, Valrhona or not.(Pictured)
And I already know that the scale in the room lies so we're not even going to talk about that.
Monday, November 9, 2009
After three nights in Saigon, it was time to move on. I have been sad about giving up Phnom Penh, but locals tell me not to fret. Hanoi is an old time favorite; we were last here exactly a year ago so it's important to check on changes.
The domestic terminal of the Saigon airport is much more low-key than International and very 1975 in terms of decor. Indeed, travel within VN is fairly easy. We arrived at the airport many hours ahead of our flight jsut for good luck and sat around the airport contemplating the fact that the gift shop was selling Durian To Go. How can a fruit that is against the law to transport on a bus in Hong Kong be sold in a net bag for easy travel in the Saigon airport?
Our Viet Nam Air flight, a spiffy 777, was rather full but not totally jam-packed. The flight from Saigon to Hanoi is two hours as this is a distance much further than you may assume. Bangkok is closer. As if Phnom Penh, but enough about that haunting booboo.
We pulled into the hotel-- where Sarah and I have stayed numerous times-- and were met at the door by Tran, our butler. KVF had booked our rooms here and go all out. This is my first time to stay in the 'new' portion of the hotel-- a modern tower behind the historic part. KVF booked one large room and ordered and extra bed so the three of us could share. The hotel scattered around extra Hermes amenities and we decided to share th butler, although we don't quite know what to do with him. Cost for this room-- which happened to be the last available room in the hotel when we were booing through the Accor sight-- is about $365 per night and we get the lounge, internet use, cocktails, etc.
I myself am fond of watching the TV commercial (thoughtfully on a loop) that shows the hotel in 1901 when it opened. The mdoern tower came on about 12 years ago-- our room is somewhat in the colonial style with a touch of Victoriana goes Starck. We have a jaunty clawfoot tub at an angle with a view out the window or to its own flat screen TV-- thre's a separate glass shower stall and a lot of beds. Seeing ourlaundry dotted all over the place is an artist form you may want to miss.
Art here is amazing and one of my first stops was to my favorite gallery, across the street from the hotel. I bought a 'serious' painting last year; this year the asking price on the same artist's work is up 40%.
The gallery is n the corner of a man throughfare which I have always called Book Street for thenumber of book stores. Turns out it's also optical heaven with almost one dozen opticians. Glasses frames began at $11 a pair.
We made a dinatoire out of the snacks in the lounge, visited with some American photojournalists and hit the sack. I was asleep at 7:30 PM. Love that jetlag.
Now we're off to Hang Gai the street of silk shops. Had all my tailoring done in Saigona nd have spent my wad, but tit's great to visit old friends...and find out if i can find Adobe9 Professional.
There are fotos, I just haven't been in a situation wherein I could upload, download, etc. Yeah I know, next time I travel with my own computer.
There's nothing more boring than a journalist who uses the same stuff over and over, so note that content on this site, on www.petergreenberg.com and in Born to Shop books is unique to the page or screen and each has its own style and format for information...and pix.
Thank you for your understanding.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Sarah and I were up at 4AM on Sunday, unhappy that there was no chance for the Sunday New York Times since it wasn't even Sunday in New York. We decided instead to eat breakfast at 6AM, then I went to write. By 8AM we were at the concierge desk asking if there were any special Sunday markets. I was dreaming of Vanves (Paris).
"Have you been to Ben Ty?" asked the concierge.
"Went there yesterday."
"Really? In the 5th District? I thought you went to Ben Thanh."
Oops, that bad ear of mine.
I don't even know where Saigon's 5th District is and had already been lamenting the fact that the 1rst District is so modern and sophisticated, with little local funk to it. Off we went, totally across town for about a one half hour tour of real people and their hoods. Just watching the families out on their motos was enough to make you stare or gasp. Sarah spied a family of five on one moto. I liked the family of three, with the two year old child up front on Dad's lap, very calmly sipping from a juice box while Dad tore through the traffic wtih a vroom, vroom, vroom.
The market area was an enormous village of commerce unto itself; we wanted to jump out of our moving cab just to get into the action. Like proper ladies, we waited for the driver to pull up to a market building decked out with blue and white tiles and a tower and a hammer and sickle flag. We understood immediately that this was the wholesale market as most items were packed in celo in groups of ten or 12.
Our first conquest was 'silk' charmeuse, as I have been actively copying an Eileen Fisher shell that I recently bought in Manhattan for some outrageous sum. We bought two yards of four shades of nuetrally earth tones (mushroom, butter, burnt siena, dusty pumpkin) and paid $20 USD in cash. At the time, we thought the top could be made from one meter and we would each have four (we were wrong on the math). Never mind.
We bought props for our group-- packs of ten worked fine for this-- and were most happy with the flip-flop socks with one articulated toe; $5 for ten. We took lotsa pictures and fled when the revenge of the durian became too severe.
We went back to 'town' and met up at the InterContinental Asiana for our brunch date-- our friend Hong E has agreed to take us to her secret sources, but we needed to be strong so we ate from the massive buffet and stocked our plates with shrimp, lobster, sushi, roast beef, yorkshire pudding, tien ly flowers (similar to brocoli) and then hit the chocolate fountain for a low cal dessert. Vueve Clicquot was poured endlessly through the meal ($35 per person including Champagne) and we sobered up with coffee before we hit the road.
Alas, Viet Nam has no Starbucks (or no McDonald's).
We changed into our hot-weather hunting clothes while Hong E sailed forth in stockings, high heels, a shift and blazer with her Birkin on her side. She is a size 0 and a perfect example of the face of the new woman in Nam, gorgeous, stylish, smart and well-spoken with flawless English skills and Audrey Hepburn appeal.
First stop was Toan Thinh, a silk shop unlike others I had seen in VN, because the quality was so extraordinary. I asked if the silk had been screened in Japan (known for its high quality printing methods) but was told all the silk came from VN. Hmmmmppph! Why didn't they just make silk, not war?
The store is located at 180 Ly Tu Trong, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, which is to say it is in one of the shopping streets jutting out from the Ben Tranh Market and therefore easily reached by all. This is inf act the area we set out to find on our first day when the taxi driver from the provences got hopelessly lost.
The store had two floors of elegant and expensive looking silks with a few random bolts of home furnishings fabrics and a handful of bolts of pastel shades of linen. Sarah bought a gorgeous textured black silk for about $10 USD a yard-- a big splurge but the silk was stunning and let's face it, Sarah has such a good eye that she is immediately drawn to the best in town.
Hong E (whom I plan to rename Hannah except I know this is not pc of me) expertly led us around the area, side stepping the crumbling sidewalks in her stilettos. We were on the way to another fabric shop-- one for men-- but made a detour when we spied the merchandise in the windows of Dung Hien Optical (241 Le Thanh Ton) which boasted dozens of novelty eyeglasses frames in the window. I paid $5 for a pair of 60 for a girlfriend (no names, please) and then later regretted I didn't buy 30 for my son's next birthday. Hopefully I can get back there.
The mens' tailor and fabric store had suitings, shirtings and a wall devoted to a gelato inspired selection of linens. Fabrics were priced by country of origin; they suggested two meters for a normal man's shirt and in the case of my special order (for Santa Claus) two and a half meters. The fabric cost $25 USD. Then we went next door to Lan Vy Tailor (217 Le Thanh Ton) and unloaded our satchel of fabrics and samples.
Each piece of fabric and its accompanying sample are bagged and tagged. The customer is given a receipt with a swatch of each fabric sample. The items will be ready in a few days and delivered back to the InterConti Asiana for us on our return from Hanoi.
Hong E took us then to some favorite shops on Dong Khoi, the main shopping street, we were able to return to the Art Alley to buy the paintings we wanted (Hong E negotiated a better deal for us) and we collapsed for tea in the Asiana hotel lobby.
We ended our one perfect Sunday in Saigon with drinks on the rooftop terrace of the Saigon Saigon Bar atop the Caravelle Hotel and at the Hoa Tuc restaurant, tuc must mean tucked into a courtyard you won't find unless you know it's there. The courtyard property was once part of an opium refinery and now houses three restaurants a cooking school and a skin care studio.
We fell into bed just in time to catch Conan on CNBC and drift off dreaming of our new clothes.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
I will be giving a Shop & Show lecture (this much like Show & Tell from the first grade) to a group of journalists coming to the opening of the InterContinental Hotel Asian Saigon next week, so I wanted to buy merchandise that made the copy points reflecting the best buys in Saigon.
While this press group is only going to Saigon and Hong Kong, and not Hanoi, I did not know if any of them know merchandsie from Hanoi and I wanted to chose items that represented this destination and this time and place in shopping awareness...not things you could also find in Hanoi or things that were generically Viet Namese.
In my mind I somewhat knew the categories of goods that I wanted, but I wanted them sharp and a la mode. Trendy and to the point. As fresh as the croissants at breakfast. As whimsical as the hair scrunchy doodles pictured above.
We found some very trendy jewelery in the Ben Tranh Market and copies of the famous Matt Laurenza cuffs (over $1000 at Neiman Marcus) which were spot on and I went for some of the more obvious choices-- a faux Chanel wallet which I was assured was of excellent quality because it came from Korea. Korea has a pan-Asian rep for fakes; V-N does not. I fought like mad to get some buffalo horn salad servers for $20, which I knew was the right price, only to watch Sarah find a better pair at a TT for $15 and get hers wrapped in a gorgeous red silk box. She didn't even have to bargain. I think I have CHUMP written across my forehead.
At Ben Tranh, I chose embroidered laundry bags and looked at all the amazing embroidery in various styles. I swooned at stores such as Song, one of the msot famous of the chic boutiques with locations in Saigon as well as Hanoi, and Liti, next door-- more chic merch mixed with French antiques and flea market finds, but slightly different (76e Le Thanh Tan St. District 1). Then I squirmed over the high prices at L'Apothiquaire across the street. Naw, I didn't want Euorpean merchandise for my lecture, I wanted local.
We spent several hours on the main shopping drag, Dong Khoi and saw many marvelous shops. At Authentique I found some different kinds of embroidered tokens, zip bags with dragon flies as well as a little folding box for CD's or television zappers, $11-18. We ignored the likes the the newish Louis Vuitton or Gucci or other name brands and went to tailors and shoe shops and many of the stores that sell lacquer, be it in local finishes or inspired by the works of Picasso or Huntdervasser.
On our way into the Art Alley (truly an alley), we passed a French couple deep in negotiations over a tray of 'antique' Zippos. I went nuts. That was my war and I did not like the idea of anyone finding value in the remains of a few good men...or 58,000 of them.
I gently touched the man on the shoulder and said to him in Bad French, "Those are the things of dead soldiers, you cannot buy them."
Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, I used the word 'combattant' instead of 'soldat' in my tirade, making it sound like our forces were here as contestants on some really manic episode of the Amazing Race. The man shrugged and then pouted.
The couple then ignored me and continued to shop. I have spent a lifetime in flea markets, antiques stores and garage sales buying things once the property of dead people. But I never bought stolen Nazi art or felt the interest in a Zippo lighter.
Rest in peace.
Since our days on the road are so filled with adventure and emotions, I have decided to break apart the blogging into possibly useful bits of info and intelligence.
While our first day in Saigon began with perfection-- warm croissants from the oven, the best breakfast buffet of my life (we're at InterConti's new Asiana Saigon hotel which just opened), our day fell into abyss shortly thereafter as we ventured forth.
We have been to Saigon before; we somewhat know our way around town...at least, around District 1 and the main downtown areas. Therefore we met with the Chief Concierge for some In the Know insider's shopping tips (an InterConti specialty) and got the addresses of some tailors and fabric shops behind the famed Ben Tranh Market in the heart of District 1, downtown Saigon. The hotel got us a taxi and went over the directions in local speak and with map in hand.
In short order I spied the Saigon River (not a good sign) and admitted to the rest of the girls that I was lost. Sarah announced that we were driving in circles and waved the map in front of our driver. He attempted intellectual conversation with us in Viet Namese. My V-N vocab is fewer words than my usual ten words in ten languages motto (i'm still on a word a day program here) so we could only shrug. In desperation we began to shout Ben Tranh to the driver, just to get to the market and be somewhere.
We arrived, shoved $5 USD in his hand and took off, wondering what the hell he was thinking-- was it a cheat or did he truly not understand where we were going? We shopped, we bought, we calmed down.
Back at the hotel, I reported the incident to the concierge. In no time at all, he had found the errant driver, the driver had returned to the hotel with a refund of basically half of our money and his deepest apologies. Seems it was his first day on the job and he has just arrived in town from the provinces. Badda bing.
The hotel's location is so central that we walked to most other destinations. At one point, the Chief Concierge even walked us to the famous Pho 24 cafe for lunch (merchandise on sale there includes baseball cap with the words 'magnif-pho-cent') and we were out and about discovering all the changes in town on foot. We collpased for a quick late-afternoon nap and then went back to Ben Tranh Market around 5pm.
This time, the hotel car dropped us and our chauffeur of perfect English told us to only take a M-Taxi back home, or someone else would cheat us. The market closed at 5:30PM and we went into the twilight and the stream of outward bound moto traffic to find a cab. The last M-Taxi pulled off as we arrived at the taxi stand; there were no more in sight. It was rush hour. We figured how seriously could we get cheated by another taxi, an extra dollar or two?
And so we stepped onboard the no-name taxi with the meter running and our taxi card in hand, the driver pulled up to another taxi to ask where the Asiana is located. This hotel is so new that many drivers don't know it... or they think it is the Continental, a totally different hotel in the heart of town. At least someone knew where to go (we could have told them by then) and we arrived at the hotel.
The meter read 92 and therein begins the problems. 9200? 920.000? How about three bucks US, which is totally fair-- this was a short distance and totally walkable. I hand over thre dollars. The driver insisted on dong. Uhph.
I will not draw out the story since no one comes off as too bright. Sarah had her cheat sheet and we knew sort of what we were dealing with, but the driver screamed and insisted and plucked bills from our hands to the point of having a total equal to almost $14.
We were chagrined to admit any of this, as we felt a lot of the problem was our fault for not understanding how many zeroes go into the money and for not speaking Viet Namese. Finally we confessed it to KVF, our travelling companion. She admitted the same thing had happened to her.
May it not happen to you because for $14 you can buy dinner for two.
Friday, November 6, 2009
I am of the age when no one much wanted to come to Viet Nam and yet a handful of us girls began our milegae run on United with flights from SFO to SGN. Sure, they may have renamed it Ho Chi Minh City, but to airport people and most of us, this will always be Saigon.
It fell, but it's back...and how.
The trip seemed longer than ever before; I must be getting old. One ambien later, they were just serving the noodles and there were six hours to go...to Hong Kong. Once in Hong Kong we had two and a half hours in the airport, thankfully in a portion of the airport we know so well that we were already dreaming of more noodles at the Taiwan Beef Noodle Company.
Our companion Karen Fawcett, hereafter known as KVF, insisted we go to the Untied Lounge where we got free noodles. I nonetheless insisted on my bubble tea from the Taiwan Noodle Company and ordered warm almond. I was not pleased to instead get the half and half combo of hot tea and coffee and the reminder that when in a foreign country, always point to the carte. Even when people say they understand you; they don't.
I read the new Peter Mayle book on the flight from HKG to SGN. Naturally, or un-naturally as it seems with my Kindle, the Kindle died enroute from SFO to HKG and while I had charged it totally before leaving town, these little suckers do not hold the charge that is advertised. Maybe it burns at a different rate at 39,000 feet. I was reading a fascinating book about the American wine industry after Prohibition and World War II as background for Born to Shop California Wine Country but was happy enough that Sarah finished her book enroute to HKG and then lent it to me. It's also about wine-- The Vintage Caper-- and as a French resident. I find it is especially fun to read.
We arrived in HCMC, did the formalities and went to the luggage carrousels-- there being two different bins, one for premier travellers and one for hoi poloi. I would have thought us in the second category but there was a print out attached to a Unied Airline sign with the names of all the premier/ priority guests listed on it. We were named to Bin 5. Talk about your basic security leak. Needless to day, our luggage-- and everyone e;se's-- came to the other bin, #6. Mine was the last to arrive.
Watching the arrangment of 1/2 suitcases and 1/2 cartons made you wonder just what people were bringing back home...some boxes were marked Dell; others said Home Depot. I was certain I saw my manicurist with a box filled with acrylic nail powder.
Yet the team that really caught my interest was the group of monks, or monkettes, or whatever one calls a female monk. They had shorn heads, wore long brown robes and Eileen Fisher coats that were most chic. They went through the CREW priority lanes and claimed heaps of brown cartons at the airport. Possibly they are manicurists in disquise.
We were smart enough to ask the new InterContinental Asiana Hotel to send a van for us, since the arrival onto the street was much like that in Delhi. Midnight madness...with smoke. Half and hour later we were meeting Georg, the new General Manager and ooohing and aahing over the gorgeous new hotel, in a high rise downtown.
Sarah and I consumed everything in the minibar and then fell into our beds. Visions of tailors all over town danced in my head.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
It has been ages since my last blog and I apologize to you who follow. I am about to dive back into some Shopping Detective reporting, but meanwhile wanted you to know that I have been working on Born to Shop California Wine Country and blogging it for my old friend Peter Greenberg. The Napa Bottle Blog can be seen at www.petergreenberg.com, so I hope you'll join me there.