This guest post about the Sofitel Legend Metropole in Hanoi was written by my friend James. He runs a brilliant football/travel blog called From Boothferry to Germany. You might remember him from my post about Szczecin, Poland.
It looked promising; compact, humble and full of locals. I perched my lanky body on the kind of painfully short stool you’d find at a Primary School next to a group of locals, making sure they wouldn’t mind my presence on their table. Being unsure as to whether I had been taken advantage of, I asked the young lady opposite how much she had paid for a steaming bowl of noodles and soup.
50,000. Same as I had paid.
“Where are you from?”
The four young professionals on their routine lunchbreak prodded me into conversation. European guy, using savings to travel, just got into town and hoping to see all the city’s great sights bla bla bla.
“You should come to our work”.
Strange comment I thought. Their smart and purposefully anonymous attire suggested a bank or a tedious office. Is a Vietnamese office space any different to a German office space? But this very handsome young woman who had previously caused me to blush by complementing my chopstick skills had my attention. “Erm, alright”.
Pouring over my complimentary map of the city, her colleague quickly found their place of work. “Oh, we are location #1!” he exclaimed. I peered over.
Built in 1901, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi was the very first hotel built in the Vietnamese capital, and to this day remains probably the most prestigious hotel in the entire Indochina region. Commissioned by the French colonisers, the Sofitel Legend Metropole was designed to be a retreat suitable for any notable visitor to the city. A combination of superlative ambition and French taste has translated into an exterior appearance that is elegant and inspiring without being imposing or vulgar, with an interior design that is sophisticated and timeless, to which we will return shortly. The Sofitel chain manages some of the finest hotels the world over, paying particular attention to the historical and cultural relevance of their chosen locations as much as they do to quality of the services and facilities within. However, the “Legend” moniker is awarded to only a handful of hotels operated by Sofitel, as my serendipitously new-found friends were eager to explain to me:
“During the [American] war, a shelter was constructed underneath the hotel for established guests. The planes bombed the city very often and it was important to keep Hanoi’s important visitors safe in these moments. The government made plans to build an underground shelter that visiting politicians and celebrities could hide in during bombing, and as many of them chose to stay in the Sofitel Legend Metropole, it made sense to build a bomb shelter underneath the hotel. The air raid ringing across the city was their cue to get into the shelter without ever having to leave the hotel that they were staying in”.
“In the 60’s and 70’s the shelter housed such notable people as Jane Fonda and Joan Baez. What is amazing is that even though some people who had previously used it during the war are still alive, the shelter had been completely forgotten about by employees of the hotel and by the Vietnamese government. Sofitel undertook restoration works in 2011. While digging, workmen were astonished to discover a thick, concrete structure several feet below ground positioned right in the middle of the hotel. They alerted the hotel’s managers and over the course of several days, they had unearthed a bomb shelter, a complete shock to them. Not surprisingly, these constructions were kept a secret by the government, as civilians in Hanoi may have objected to the preferable safety offered to foreign visitors, and if the Americans had known of the shelter’s whereabouts, it may have become a specific target, compromising its security”.
“The Sofitel Legend Metropole was awarded the ‘Legend’ status when the historical importance of the hotel complex and its bomb shelter both to Hanoi and to the whole of Vietnam was understood. Normally it is not open to the public, only to guests. But we are quiet today. I think if you come to the hotel this afternoon, we can give you a tour. Would you like to come?”
We exchanged numbers, my four new best friends returned reluctantly to their magnificent place of work as I scoffed down my grub and I continued to the museum I had originally intended to visit prior to our serendipitous meeting. 4pm came. I flicked a message to my new acquaintance, Nguyen, who gave the all-clear.
Looking up and down the street, it was easy to identify the hotel from all neighbouring edifices. 3 stories of dark wooden shutters reaching out from slender windows topped an outdoor terrace of unmistakably French cafeteria furniture under a delicate, draping roof. The supporting metalwork structures and low-hanging fans were reminiscent of the artistic romance of pre-war Paris, the city they were quite possibly imported from. A cool coating of matt white added the impression of timelessness and style, a far cry from the extremely modern genre of hotels we so frequently see sprouting out of the ground in all developing cities. My entrance into the actual hotel was definitely a lot less impressive than those of guests that staff are accustomed to greeting; my dirty sneakers and fading Hull City jersey were welcomed by exceptionally charming doormen nevertheless. Compared to such previous guests as Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro, Angela Merkel, Lee Kwan Yew, Angelina Jolie, Ho Chi Minh and Bill Clinton, I dare say I looked a bit of a nobody.
Nguyen collected me and treated me with a masterful tour of the entire hotel. Each softly-lit room adorned with dark mahogany and gracious artwork was a joy to visit. The French taste for subtlety and attention to detail was maintained throughout; narrow rooms and low ceilings that glow with refinement instead of ostentation. We toured several basic rooms, the main dining areas, bars, pools, atria and finally, the bomb shelter.
As frequently as you try to remind yourself of its function and history, the stark contrast of the shelter’s appearance to that of the rest of the hotel is unnerving. Steep, damp steps of varying shades of grey plunge down into a humid box without a single redeeming feature. Several chambers of around 10 square metres in size are connected by another equally narrow passage. Taller visitors struggle to stand. Long stays within would have been joyless, suffering experiences. A single plaque cast onto the entrance acknowledges the significance of the shelter and its subsequent rediscovery. Inside the bunker, quite appropriately, you are cut away from the outside world in its entirety. For dramatic effect, a recording of the voice of a Vietnamese mother crying out for her soon is played inside the shelter, as is Baez’s song “Where Are You Now, My Son?”, part recorded in that very bunker in 1972. The sound is harrowing and, for speakers of Vietnamese, an uncomfortable reminder of their past. The effect is an ease with which contemporary visitors can place themselves into the shoes of those locked inside as the magnificent city of Hanoi suffered its fate; a desperation to get out, but a fear when you finally do.
We climbed out, myself more affected than my kind local friends who are becoming unfazed by going down there, and continued to walk around the remainder of the hotel. We parted ways (as I can only steal so much time from employees) and I’m still looking for ways to repay their kindness and generosity. Such a grand opportunity presented to me by such wonderful people that I have maintained contact with was my highlight of Vietnam, a country that many readers of Between Distances have already visited I’m sure. But if you go to Hanoi, don’t get your hopes up; the shelter is closed to the public, and a night in the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is not an option for budget travellers. I guess I got lucky.
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