My Meeting Moment: Hanoi

How one event team brought the streets of Vietnam poolside

In Hanoi, Vietnam, the streets are filled with an organized chaos: people, performers, shops, food and drink all come together to create the city’s soundtrack. For some, the scene might be overwhelming—but it’s exactly this mayhem that makes Hanoi thrive.

At the JW Marriott Hotel Hanoi, David Duffy, director of event management, and his team thrill international guests by bringing this street culture to life at the hotel, often at the property’s lake. Recently, a large international law firm wanted to put its own spin on a street fare-themed event by hosting it at the hotel’s pool rather than the lake. And though moving the event from one body of water to another might seem like a simple switch, it took the whole hotel to bring the streets of Hanoi poolside. We spoke to Duffy on how he and his team pulled off such a feat. 

Why was this theme chosen for the event?

We recognize that when people come to these meetings or conferences, they don’t always have enough time to actually go off and explore. And if they do, they might just be a little cautious of the food because street food unfortunately comes with a reputation that it might not always be safe to eat. We thought it would be great to re-create the street scenes and what you might see. 

The bia hơi theme is something that we do quite often; it’s one of our popular welcome reception themes. In Vietnam, “bia hơi” is a street bar. When you look at pictures of Hanoi in the Old Quarter, these bars are quite iconic. They’ve really helped define the street foodie culture. So we have a lot of equipment and décor of what you might see on the street. For example, the traditional blue chairs and tables; the street signs; a lot of wicker baskets, which we often display food in; and lanterns.

Why was the pool chosen as the location of the event?

When we spoke with the client, they really liked the bia hơi theme but wanted to do it at our poolside location. 

One of the cool things about our hotel is that it’s in the shape of a dragon, and the pool is the head of the dragon. The design relates back to old Vietnamese folklore—a dragon fell in love with a fairy and gave birth to 100 children; 50 of those went off to the sea and 50 stayed on land. From the pool, you get to see the rest of the hotel’s design, and it’s a great talking point. 

What’s also cool about the pool is you get to see two sides of Hanoi. From one side, you’ll see the traditional view with the older style of housing and colorful rooftops. When you look to the other side of the pool, you’ll see the up-and-coming, developing business district with high-rise buildings. It’s a really good spot to see the contrast of the city and how quickly Hanoi is developing. For the client, it was perfect.

Did you have to make any special accommodations to move the event to the pool?

To have it at the pool, rather than the lake near the hotel where we often hold events, we have to take extra considerations. The architecture of the space itself is a big part of it. Because of the design of the hotel, the physical structure where the pool is has an overhang; there isn’t anything underneath it. So we have to work with engineering to calculate how much water we have to drain from the pool to support the extra equipment and the 250 people enjoying the event.

Everyone weighs a little different, but we have to make a calculated guess. Once we make that calculation, we can say, “This is the additional weight that’s going to be in that space, so therefore we need to drain the pool by X number of centimeters in depth to counterbalance it.”

I think this is a good demonstration of how it’s a total hotel team that makes an event a success. Quite often, it’s always about the chefs, or concierge. But the engineer and other back-of-house teams, the ones you don’t always get to see, they’re the ones actually providing the structure, space and environment for us to enjoy the food, drinks and overall event.

How did you infuse Vietnamese street culture into a poolside location?

We set up food counters and bicycles with all the traditional desserts. The bar was made from beer crates and bottles—exactly the type of thing you would expect to see if you were walking the streets in the Old Quarter. We had traditional Vietnamese music, as well as more contemporary music. For lighting, in addition to the sunset view, the lantern lighting really finished it off nicely. When you walk off the elevator and into the pool, it’s a real Instagram moment. We found that before anybody did anything else, they went and took pictures. 

The people of Hanoi are very hospitable, and the service element is something we try to incorporate right away. We have staff in the traditional Vietnamese dress, and they’ll be there greeting you with a beverage as soon as you walk in. In Vietnamese culture, they like to welcome you into their home, so this is us welcoming guests into our home. There’s a focus on the staff not just to serve food and clear plates but also to engage with the guests. If attendees look a little bit curious, our staff will tell them a little bit about the dish, or decoration. The event isn’t just about food and beverage, it’s a Vietnamese experience.

Since street food is such a big part of the culture in Hanoi, can you tell me a little bit about the menu?

The menu is crafted by our executive sous-chef, chef Cuong Trinh. Chef Cuong likes to let the décor be the food itself as opposed to nice bowls and dishes. 

Our kitchen staff has a lot of different culinary backgrounds, but for this theme in particular, we look to our Vietnamese staff to help craft the menu. It’s everything you would expect to find on the streets of Hanoi: pho beef, a beef noodle soup; bún chả, a Vietnamese dish of grilled pork and noodles that President Obama ate when he stayed at the hotel in May 2016; chả cá, a special Vietnamese dish of grilled fish; and nem rán hà nội, a type of fried spring rolls.

We know that some guests might not appreciate Vietnamese food, so we do complement it with other dishes as well. For example, if we know we have a large delegation coming from India, we can provide a small Indian food section because we have an Indian chef who can do that for us. We can provide more Westernized dishes for anyone who’s not too adventurous, but there is a big focus on local, Vietnamese cuisine that you’d find in Hanoi rather than other areas such as Saigon. We try to find the right local cuisine to showcase the local tastes and present it in a way that people feel confident to try it. That’s something we’ve really perfected over time.

Do you have any advice for meeting planners who strive to put on the types of amazing events you’re hosting?

Really understanding what your client’s expectations are is key. I know that sounds like an obvious thing, but all too often people make an assumption like, “Oh, the client will be OK with that.” But what we see or what we think is right might not be what the client agrees with. We acknowledge that the event needs to be perfect, and finding that is often in the details and understanding what message your client is trying to send to their guests. 

At the end of the day, when you get a thank-you email from the client, that’s all you need to know that you’ve done a great job. You know that your hard work is being recognized and enjoyed, and I think you know you’re in the right job when you get that feeling.