A Trip Down the Wartime Memory Lanes of Hanoi's Hotel Metropole

By That's, February 18, 2017

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By Amy Fabris-Shi

Hanoi MagazineIn April 1967, 13 years into the American War in Vietnam (commonly known as the Vietnam War), TIME magazine (then called LIFE) featured the first American photo-report from inside North Vietnam. Against the backdrop of Hanoi’s French-colonial Hotel Metropole, the haunting cover image showed locals standing chest-deep in shallow sidewalk manholes during one of the city’s frequent air raids.

That issue of LIFE is now on display inside an antique wooden armoire in the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel’s graceful lobby. It’s the starting point for an intriguing tour that takes visitors deep – quite literally – into the dramatic past of one of Asia’s oldest, and most storied, luxury hotels. 

Our docent, the hotel’s ‘Ambassador of History,’ is Mr Duc, a petit, suited gentleman who could have been a character in a Dickensian novel. Duc was 11 years old at the time of the infamous Christmas bombings in 1972 when American B-52s dropped 20,000 tonnes of explosives, mostly over Hanoi. His vivid wartime memories and expressive storytelling make us feel we have slipped back in time and are exploring the hotel in a different dimension from guests around us – merrily sipping afternoon cocktails and splashing in the courtyard pool. 

Hanoi War

War Hanoi

War Hanoi

War Hanoi

War Hanoi

Hotel Metropole Hanoi was opened in 1901 in the soon-to-be capital of French Indochina. Built on reclaimed swampland next to the colorful, crowded streets of Hanoi’s original settlement, the French colonialists master-planned a new city center defined by stately boulevards, manicured parks and lakes, and a grand theater modeled on the Opera House in Paris. With its elegant whitewashed façade punctuated by bottle-green window shutters, Hotel Metropole became the city’s high society centerpiece, and one of the most prestigious hotels in Asia.

Hotel Metropole Hanoi

Hotel Metropole Hanoi

Hotel Metropole Hanoi

Like our own Cathay (Peace) Hotel in Shanghai, Hotel Metropole attracted foreign adventurers on the grand Asia Tour. A familiar posse of gallivanting notables passed through its doors, including Sir Noel Coward, William Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, who penned The Quiet American at the hotel bar. In 1936, after (allegedly) getting secretly hitched with his latest co-star, Paulette Goddard, at Shanghai’s Cathay Hotel, Charlie Chaplin brought his third bride (accompanied by her mother!) to honeymoon at the Metropole in Hanoi before continuing to Halong Bay. 

The distinguished set sipped refreshing Nac Sodas (soda with a dash of cognac; a hotel signature) seemingly oblivious to the growing tensions beyond the Metropole's walls. During World War II, these could no longer be ignored and the hotel passed through a succession of French, Japanese and Chinese occupation. It was finally handed over to the Vietnamese government in 1954, and was renamed Reunification Hotel. But the battles were far from over. 

Vestiges of the Vietnam War are a haunting part of any visit to the country today, and Hotel Metropole played a unique role in this period of history, too. News footage of the war was broadcast around the world prompting the rise of impassioned political activism in the United States. Among the activists were actress Jane Fonda (nicknamed Hanoi Jane) and singer Joan Baez, both of whom were in residence at the Metropole during the 1972 Christmas bombings. 

Joan Baez in Hanoi
Singer Joan Baez returns to Hotel Metropole Hanoi after 40 years

Fast-forward to 2011. During construction works to extend the Metropole’s outdoor Bamboo Bar edging the pool (the definitive spot for a cocktail on a balmy night), workers unexpectedly hit deep layers of solid concrete beneath the lawn. An 11-month excavation revealed a hidden – and completely forgotten – bunker almost four meters beneath the hotel, large enough for 40 guests. 

In the final part of the Path of History tour, Duc leads us down steep steps beside the pool into the dimly lit bunker. The subterranean refuge behind a succession of thick steel doors is divided into four rooms, designed to avoid mass panic from spreading by separating the inhabitants into small groups. It was originally also accessible from the hotel lobby, and was fitted with ventilation systems and power supply. 

Hotel Metropole Hanoi

Hanoi Vietnam

Hotel Metropole Hanoi

Hotel Metropole Hanoi

The terror of that time seems to linger in the still, dank air of the fortified bunker. Thoughtful silence falls over our group as Duc explains how guests retreated here up to six times per day and occasionally had to remain overnight as B-52 barrel bombs thundered incessantly overhead. When he plays ‘Where Are You Now, My Son?’ recorded by American singer Joan Baez in this very bunker during a Christmas Eve attack with the sounds of an air raid audible in the recording's backdrop, cold goose bumps spring up on my arms and legs. Resurfacing into the jovial scene of poolside happy hour is quite a surreal transition.

Today, Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi wears its history with pride. Still one of Asia’s most beautiful grand dames, its sensitively refurbished interiors retain an old-world luxury with parquetry floors, delicate ironwork terraces and period furnishings. The original 1901 building and the more contemporary Opera Wing encircle a tropical courtyard with palm trees, glass pavilions and the thatched Bamboo Bar. It softly sparkles at night with pretty lamps and Chinese lanterns. 

Returning to the hotel after a day of exploration, we look for the manholes captured by the LIFE photographer in his 1967 wartime portrait. Sprouting from the former trenches are leafy platane trees; an uplifting metaphor for life overcoming fear in this enduringly enchanting city. 

15 Ngo Quyen St, 3826 6919, www.sofitel-legend.com

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