Hanoi and its Metropole Hotel have undergone quite a renaissance — but reminders of the Vietnam War are never far below the surface, as Duncan Forgan discovers
AS ANYONE WHO has fallen for its evocation of Indochine charm or witnessed recent introductions such as top-class restaurants, designer boutiques and even Bentleys will know, the Hanoi of today couldn’t be more removed from the battered city of the war decades.
Even so, as I wade around in the darkness beneath the Hanoi Metropole Hotel in a long-hidden air-raid shelter in its back garden, only recently excavated, it is possible to get at least a feel for how guests of the hotel experienced the conflict as the American bombs rained down upon the Vietnamese capital — the lack of light and the claustrophobia, if not the thunder and the terror.
Ten minutes previously I was bathed in sun by the hotel’s poolside in the company of the Ray-Ban-sporting jet-set types who are finding Hanoi an increasingly attractive proposition. Now I’m floundering clumsily through chilly water with only a pair of lurid green Wellingtons and a chunky flashlight to aid me.
When the hotel’s general manager, Kai Speth, handed me the props back at the poolside I couldn’t help but think that they seemed rather incongruous amid the colonial splendour of the finest digs in the city. But then not every luxury hotel has just been excavated.
A millennium may have passed since Emperor Ly Thai To named his new capital Thang Long (Rising Dragon) after a beast he apparently saw ascending from the russet waters of the Red River, but Hanoi remains steeped in lore.
From ancient dynasties, European colonialism, American siege and postwar privation to the blend of flash modernity, creative verve and timeless Eastern tastes at play here today, it is a town with countless tales to tell, the Metropole shelter being one of the latest.
Sealed at the end of the Vietnam War, the shelter was forgotten for decades as the country went about the long and painfully slow process of finding its feet. It remained in obscurity until last year, when a worker’s drill pierced its thick concrete roof during renovations of the hotel’s poolside bar.
Since then workers have cleared the flooded and low-ceilinged space to reveal a seven-chambered warren that stakes a fair claim to be one of the most unusual and historically compelling features of any hotel in the world.
After descending into the shelter via a slightly precarious ladder, I’m transported back through the decades. Having uncovered the bunker, the hotel plans to open it up for interested guests. For obvious reasons of health and safety, access and lighting will be improved and tours will be conducted in groups. Though nothing was found in the bunker apart from an empty wine bottle, a rusty paint bucket and a light bulb still in its socket, it is what remains intangible that fascinates the most.
The Metropole was used to house sympathetic foreign guests during the war; numerous dignitaries, foreign correspondents and celebrity luminaries such as Jane Fonda and Joan Baez took refuge in the bunker during American attacks. Baez, in fact, is believed to have performed a few numbers for a select audience during one raid.
‘If these walls could talk they would tell a lot of stories,’ laughs Speth with some justification. ‘Vietnam today is, of course, completely peaceful, but Hanoi was one of the most dangerous places on earth at the time of the war and it is almost impossible to imagine how our guests of the time would have felt down here during an American raid.’
An ominous door hides the wartime stories of Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel
Yet while the discovery of the bunker and its many intriguing associations are a boon for anyone interested in the recent history of Vietnam, Speth’s analogy could just as easily be applied to the city as a whole. The hotel itself is a case in point. Built by the French in 1901 and described, with typical Gallic fanfare, on opening as the ‘largest and best-appointed hotel in Indo-China’, the Metropole has been a constant during Hanoi’s tumultuous last century.
Previous patrons include Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Charlie Chaplin. It is impossible not to feel just a little bit special while residing here.
While the myriad luxuries of the Metropole are hard to resist, so are the heritage attractions that lie beyond the hotel doors. Hanoi’s blend of emerald lakes, ancient, narrow alleys and elegant, tree-lined boulevards make it easily one of the most evocative cities in Asia and, following my stint underground in the bunker, I’m more than amenable to some levity up at street level.
While the Metropole itself is located on the fringes of the newer, French, part of the city, it’s just a short walk from the hotel along the eastern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake to Hanoi’s main area of interest for history buffs — its Old Quarter.
This postcard shows the Metropole Hotel in its earlier days
At the northern end of the lake a group of middle-aged women vigorously practising their aerobics moves to the strains of techno music make an imposing but amusing obstacle. I am thankful, however, for an early opportunity to practise the evasive measures necessary for safe negotiation of the choked tangle of streets that lie on the opposite side of the road.
In many ways the Old Quarter is the Asia of popular Western imagination. If you’re looking for vibrant (and often stomach-turning) market scenes, vendors in conical hats and hidden pagodas patrolled by impassive cats and shaven-headed monks, then this is the place. It remains one of Hanoi’s most virile economic centres. The Old Quarter evolved from workshop villages organised by trades, or guilds, and even today streets are dedicated to a product or trade.
The Metropole Hotel today
WHILE IT CAN take newbies some time to get used to the honking horns and the constant jostling by passing motorbikes, cyclos and hawkers, perseverance is amply rewarded. My random walking tour takes me past Dong Xuan, the city’s largest market, where baskets of chirruping frogs serenade me as I stroll past colourful stacks of fresh produce and piles of glistening fish and raw meat.
Also of interest for heritage tourists looking to discover more about traditional life in the ancient quarter are the classic tube houses, so named for their long, narrow shape — a design that came about as the result of properties being taxed on the basis of their street frontage.
The best way of getting intimate with a city’s essence generally involves partaking rather than observation. With this in mind I end a long day with a replenishing bowl of pho ga (chicken soup with rice vermicelli) and some bia hoi, a light draught beer which, at VND6,000 (around 18p) a pop, is among the cheapest glasses of lager on the planet.
In the evening I investigate the newer Hanoi, a city of international-class restaurants and bohemian hangouts. I graze at the Asian/European fusion venue Halia Hanoi and the Argentinian steakhouse El Gaucho, before rounding the night off at Puku and nearby Southgate, where young Vietnamese and members of the growing expat community gather to drink cocktails and listen to an eclectic selection of sounds. Back at the hotel I take a nightcap at the poolside bar, and my thoughts turn to the discovery its renovation has uncovered.
From atmosphere, character and beauty above ground to the preservation of its often traumatic past below, Hanoi is a city that lacks nothing in depth.
Read more by Duncan Forgan