In the summer of 1901, the Grand Hotel Metropole Palace opened its doors to the curious population of Hanoi. In its first ever published picture, the hotel shows the proudly flying the French tricolor and sporting the initials HM in a rosette at the top of the central section. The main entrance is exactly where it is today, to the right of its historical wing. Incense Travel introduces the literature of Mr. Andreas Augustin, who is author of over 50 books about legendary hotels.
December 1898, Monsieur Dumoutier – Tonkin’s chief education officer from 1886, received his partner André Ducamp – a wealthy man who had been travelling for six months investigating a range of possible investment opportunities from Hong Kong to the French dependencies in India. Now Dumoutier, the owner of a row of town houses in Hanoi, had offered him a partnership in an enterprise both men knew little about. But they were thrilled by the mere thought of it.
“Ten years ago it was hard to imagine a “Boulevard” here on this marshy soil. But on the other hand, that’s what the British have done in Singapore. All the lakes disappeared and building land was gained. Now, when I look at it again the whole concept becomes totally clear. We combine the houses and form one giant block. You have a total of 3,140 square meters. We can make this a grand hotel!” explained Dumoutier.
“Absolutely, mon ami”. Ducamp, the new business partner of Dumoutier, who owned the buildings along the elegant boulevard, nodded hefty. “You bring in the buildings and I am putting up half a million francs in cash. Remember what that English journalist wrote about Hanoi: “Hanoi will eventually surpass Saigon as the chief town of the French possessions in the Far East!”
“Here we go. And one day may be even Loti will write a book about us. All that’s needed now is a first-class hotel.” Said Dumoutier.
“It will be like a phoenix from the ashes,” replied Ducamp laughing.
“More like a phoenix from the swamps, my friend!” Dumoutier smiled.
“All that’s needed now is a first class hotel”.
“Fit for a metropolis”
“That could be the name, Metropole.”
“Sounds good to me!”
Actually Paul Doumer, Governor of Indochina from 1896 to 1902 predicted that Hanoi would eventually far surpass Saigon. Hanoi was the capital of Indochina, and an increasing number of visitors was only to be expected. Previously, visitors had been accommodated in official guest house, missions or private homes. Now they had the Grand Hotel near the little lake or the Hanoi Hotel, a two-storey building, and a few other minor hotels. But none of these were truly elegant or designed to meet the needs of the international traveler.
Dumoutier had a large hotel in mind, He had seen the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo with its huge ballroom and the new construction of the Raffle in Singapore. That was the sort of style he wanted to emulate. Covering two blocks along boulevard Ngo Quyen, it was to be almost larger than the Residence Superior just across the road. He possessed the land, but his position as a government official did not allow him to proceed any further. Then came across Andre Ducamp, a partner who would provide 500.000 franc to build the hotel. In Paris they would only have been able to build a 25-room hostel for that sort of money. But, as the land was already owned by Dumoutier and labor costs were ridiculously low in the colony, both men agreed that they would give it a go.
The climate in Hanoi was not nearly as hot as in Singapore, with occasional rain during the summer followed by pleasant autumns and springs, the winters were relatively cool and sometimes full of light rain. The request for building permission bears the number 3587, and it dated 1899. “Mr. Dumoutier, landowner in Hanoi, requests a building permit for the land he owns situated at the corner of boulevard Henri-Riviere and rue de Cuu-Lan”. The permit was issued.
The spot where 10 years earlier a small, muddy lake had provided an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, opposite the former site of the ancient Pagoda which had made way for the buildings along the street, a huge hotel now took shape. Its façade spanned over 80 meters, making it the largest hotel complex in the whole of Indochina.
All that was needed now was a name. It seems that the owners couldn’t quite make up their minds. Clearly the name should reflect the building’s grandeur and when the building opened in the summer of 1901, their choice left nothing to chance. It was christened the Grand Hotel Metropole Palace. Soon it would become known more simply as the Metropole. From the summer of 1901 on, travelers in Asia had one more home away from home.
In 1900 the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Raffles in Singapore, the Galle Face in Colombo and the Imperial in Tokyo were among the most famous hotels east of Suez. They all sported a different architecture, and the Metropole finally went for its very own design.
“The Largest and Best appointed Hotel in Indochina. Situated opposite to Government House, and adjacent to the Post and Telegraph Office, Banks, Treasury and Town Hall.
Every Comfort, Perfect Hygienic Arrangements, Lighted by Electricity, and all Modern Improvements. Dressing and Bath Rooms, with Shower Bath, adjoining each Bed-room. Drawing Room, Writing Room. Smoking Hall. Large and Handsome Dining Saloon. Cuisine of the First Order. Service Irreproachable. Excellent Wines. Splendid Café adjoining the Hotel.
Terms: From 6$ a day, including Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Bed-room. Light and Service. Special Terms for Families and long periods. Omnibus to the Railway Station. Carriages at the Hotel.
English Spoken. Man Spricht Deutsch.
Rooms should be secured by telegram in advance.”
The above advertisement was signed by André Ducamp, the founder and first director of the Grand Metropole Hotel, Hanoi, Tonkin. 1901
An advertisement in 1911, clearly positioned the Metropole as “colonial”, all rooms have bathrooms with shower, electric light and fans, salons, halls, smoking rooms and billiards, renowned cuisine and wine cellar, dinner concerts on Thursdays and Sundays.
On Sundays the leading citizens liked to take their families to the restaurant at the Metropole, which as situated exactly where it is today. Here one enjoyed what was reportedly the best French food in town. The restaurant was famous for its bouillabaisses Marseillaise, for a tender slice of boiled beef and its canard a l’orange. The French chef taught his Vietnamese sous-chef the traditional art of French cooking and, in return, acquired the skills of his Asian assistants. Over the years, Vietnam – originally influenced by Chinese and Indian cooking, then garnished with a French touch – developed a unique cuisine. There is more to it than Pho, Banh Mi or Bun Cha.
Wine, spirits and champagne were imported from France. From India and China came opium, popular among a small group of colonists. The smoking of a pipe of opium was a common habit among some civil servants. Some had 10 to 20 pipes per day and were said to appear “normal”. One could often smell the sweet fragrance of opium in the corridors outside the Metropole’s rooms.
In 1919 at Versailles, France, American’s President Wilson, armed with his Fourteen Points, arrived at the Paris Peace Conference that was to determine the new world order. Ho Chi Minh, who was then working as a kitchen helper at the Ritz in Paris, sent him a note asking America for help. Drafted according to Wilson’s own doctrine of self-determination, Ho expressed the Vietnamese people’s expectation of freedom and justice. He hoped for American assistance to end French rule. Wilson refused to meet with the young revolutionary and so an early chance was lost to solve the question of Vietnamese independence and to win an independent Vietnam as a Western ally.
On 28 April 1923, L’Opinion, a Saigon-based paper, criticized the hotel industry of Indochina in general and the Metropole in Hanoi in particular. The hotel is too expensive, the music too noisy, the food poor and, all in all, it is no longer up-to-date. Andre Ducamp had announced that a large-scale two-year renovation project to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Metropole was now in full swing. New lifts, the upgrading of all bedrooms and the refurbishment of the restaurant were all planned. The landscaping of the back yard into a “hanging garden” was also mentioned. Later the reporter from L’Eveil Economique made clear that at the Metropole the opposite as the case. To begin with, “it was not too expensive as prices had not changed for the past 23 years”.
In April 1936 the Metropole’s manager welcomed one such world traveler, his name was Charlie Chaplin. A huge crowd of people gathered in front of the hotel. They were cheering a man who looked unfamiliar without his trademarks: a bowler hat, penciled-on moustache and twirling walking stick. Chaplin was accompanied by his new wife, Paulette Goddard.
Chaplin’s film, Modern Times, had just opened at the Rivoli in New York and at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood when he decided to leave America for a short holiday in Honolulu. On arrival there he changed his plans and suggested to his travelling companions, Paulette Goddard, her mother and his valet that they continue to Hong Kong. Chaplin eventually took his party to Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and then Canton, where he secretly married Goddard. From there they set out for French Indochina. In April 1936 they party arrived at the Hotel Metropole.
The Metropole continued its journey through time and history, standing serene like a rock in the middle of a steam. On 1 September 1939, German tanks rolled across the Polish border and set in motion a series of events that soon engulfed most of the global in conflict. In June 1940, Hanoi’s distant “motherland”, France, fell to the German army. During the war years the Metropole Hotel, like other grand hotels around the globe during times of emergency, became a venue for discrete meetings, a place where people gathered, where military personnel stayed after requisitioning the best rooms in town, where flags were hoisted and victories celebrated.
In 1941, the 51-year-old Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam from his exile. He formed Vietminh to fight the Japanese. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 the whole world was once again at war.
Le Van Phuc, accounts secretary of the hotel in 1942, recalled those far-off days. “In 1943, for the first time, the hotel hired security men. Two tall dangerous men from India, Katara Singh and Bova Singh, both Singhs with turbans and impressive moustaches above their long beards. They guarded not only the hotel from unwanted visitors from the outside, but also the staff entrance to ensure that nothing was taken out of the hotel”.
On 9 March 1945, with the war in Europe almost at an end, Japanese troops overthrew the French authorities in Indochina. The Metropole this time flying the Rising Sun, was again in the thick of the action. It acted as a prison for French officers and their families. In August, after America had dropped two atomic bombs, the tables were turned. The French officers were liberated with the help of US forces, then Japanese POWs were held at the hotel.
After the Vietminh seized power in Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, President Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam on Ba Dinh square. This square was originally the site of the West Gate of the ancient Hanoi citadel, which was built from the 11th century. The French had destroyed it, built a flower garden in its palace.
Ho Chi Minh, the symbol of modern Vietnam and known affectionately as Uncle Ho, now also enters our story of the Metropole. Negotiations had begun with the French government on the formation of the Vietnamese “free state” within the French Union. His meeting with General Etinenne Valuie and Nguyen Hai Than, the President of Vietnam’s Quamingtang, took place at the old conference room in the small wing where the bobby bar is today. When Ho arrived, he casually entered the hotel alone, handing his hat to the little bellboy at the concierge counter next to the entrance. But the spirit of peaceful negotiation did not last long, the talks later broke down.
The first Indochina War started at eight o’clock in the evening, on 19 December 1946. After nine years of bloody flights, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu was followed by the Geneva Convention of July 1954, which arranged for a cease-fire and the end of French colonial rule. The International Committee, consisting of Canadian, Indian and Polish members, appointed to monitor its implementation, stayed at the Metropole.
Graham Greene, author of “the Quiet American”, whose first visit to Hanoi in 1951, returned to Hanoi in 1955 but he could not secure himself a room at the hotel.
One might assume that the very French Metropole Hotel had become synonymous with colonial rule. A symbol of a foreign culture, forced upon Vietnam. But it was a more than welcome existing structure. Of cause the old name had to be altered to something reflecting the wind of change. Therefore, the grand lady was now called Thong Nhat, or Reunification Hotel. It remained, however, the premiere hotel of Hanoi and acted as the official Vietnamese government guesthouse. Even its budget was controlled by the government.
The French had gone, but Vietnam had not fully gained its independence. The country was divided in half at the 17th parallel. A communist north and a non-communist south. It would take another 21 years to reunite it. Fighting continued, this time between the north and the puppet south. Now a new foreign power felt responsible for the country: America.
Ho Chi Minh paid the Thong Nhat Hotel (Metropole), another visit. This time he welcomed a group of international guests attending a congress. Ho was given a tour of the premises, in the kitchen Ho made polite noises about how clean everything was.
From the hotel kitchen back to the world politics, John F Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the presidential elections. He increased the number of so-called US military “advisor” to more than 16,000. Amed resistance against the government in the South as led by the Vietcong, organized in 1960 as the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.
In 1964 US President Johnson announced to the American people that “the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S naval vessels operating in international waters, and I had therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations”. He continued: “Our purpose is peace… this is not just a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity”.
In February 1965 American commenced “Operation Rolling Thunder”, a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam “on every front of human activity”. At Thong Nhat Hotel, the staff received special training. Madame Do Thi Duong Minh remembers: “During the war all the hotel staff had to go through a military training course”. It was time to build an air-raid shelter in the courtyard of the hotel.
In June 1972 American actress Jane Fonda, at that time Fonda was most famous for her 1968 Barbarella movie, came to town, displaying her solidarity with the Vietnamese people. She checked into the Thong Nhat Hotel and stayed for two weeks in a room on the second floor. Fonda’s protest earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane”.
U.S. folk singer Joan Baez made the hotel her shelter for almost two weeks. Here she experienced the war during the worst air-raids of mankind. In December 1972, after Nixon had ordered Linebacker Two, a massive bombing campaign north of the 20th parallel, in particular the bombing of the corridor between Haiphong and Hanoi, Baez spent 13 days here. She returned home with 15 hours of tapes. Joan Baez remembers: “Where are you now, my son?”, is a ballad about the eleven days of bombing I experienced in Hanoi over Christmas of 1972.
On 30 April 1975 North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon, the reunification of Vietnam was complete. Picking up the pieces after more than three decades of war was a long and painful process for Vietnam. Hanoi was in search of a new, homemade identity. Much had changed. The Thong Nhat Hotel, too, was now a different place.
During the mid 80s, Pullman International Hotels first began sending clients to stay at the Thong Nhat. The hotel’s elegance and charm were still apparent despite the neglect and long years of war, but the concept of service had been forgotten, and facilities had not kept pace with international standards.
In 1987, Pullman International Hotels vice-president Jacques Herbert, who had married the daughter of Ho Chi Minh’s first minister of finance, arrived in Hanoi. He recognized the Thong Nhat’s potential and so he entered into joint venture negotiations with Hanoi Tourism, the owner of the hotel. The result was the first successful Vietnamese joint venture between a local company and a foreigner partner. 70% of the shares were domestically owned, the largest percentage in any Vietnamese joint-venture at that time. The new direction of the government was confirmed.
90 years after it had risen so gloriously from the swamps of ancient Hanoi, the Thong Nhat Hotel was closed for the face-lift of the century. While the walls remained intact, old interior structures had to make place for a new design. Plans were drawn up for a new wing at the open end of the courtyard.
On 8 March 1992 the hotel reopened, again called Hotel Metropole – first with the prefix “Pullman”, later the management company Sofitel took over. After 40 years of turmoil, the grand hotel was back.
In 2004 a one-million-dollar renovation project covered 109 guest rooms and suites in the Historical Wing, adding a luxurious shopping quarter on the ground floor of the hotel and ne wooden floors in all Opera Wing guestrooms. The new lobby design was inspired by French classical architecture with a touch of Vietnamese flair.
In 2006 the offices on the fourth floor of the Opera Wing were transformed into the Sofitel Club, and various new experiences were added to the hotel, including a typical Metropole shopping experiences such as L’Epicerie du Metropole, the habitual destination of gastronomes in the heart of the capital, offering cakes, pasties, distinguished wines and various imports as well as flowerers, spices, tea, coffee or ice-cream.
La Boutique, overlooking the beautiful courtyard, is the venue for local sophisticated shoppers and foreigner travelers. Vietnamese luxury lacquerers and potteries, handmade clothes, accessories, jewelry and linen items crafted from high quality materials and designed by exclusive Vietnamese famous fashion designers.
A trendy Italian Restaurant and lounge, named Angelina, was opened in October 2008. In short: great food, excellent wine cellar, complete entertainment and musical innovation.
The Bamboo Bar is a charming outdoor venue, and when, in August 2011, it was time for its renovation, general manager Kai Speth encountered an unusual challenge. During drillings for a reinforced foundation his engineering team hit a piece of concreted too large to ignore. “That’s the bomb shelter”, Speth realized immediately and ordered his team to continue digging. For decades nobody had a clear idea where the shelter was. Rumors had It that it was still down there. But where? And how did it look like?
Speth and his chief engineer decided to explore the concrete cubicle underneath the bar. They worked their way through more than two meters of earth and reinforced concrete and the shelter’s 278-millimeter-thick ceiling to emerge into a 40-square-meter space, divided into five interconnecting rooms by heave metal doors. The shelter was completely filled with water. It took a full week of pumping before the water level was brought down to 20 centimeters, and Speth could splash down to explore. Its heavily armed surrounding explained why the pool next to it is actually less deep that that end.
The bomb shelter was officially re-opened in 2012. Today it forms the climax of the Path of History at the hotel. Every day numerous guests register for the tour into the past of the Metropole. It spans from colonial heydays to its most depressing times, when bombs rained from heaven and guests sought refuge under layers of concrete in the courtyard. Those were the days when Joan Baez held a Christmas party at the lobby, Jane Fonda condemned US pilots dropping their deadly cargo over Vietnam.
Today travelers of all nations meet at the lobby. A young couple arrives for their honeymoon. Even Charlie Chaplin spent his honeymoon here at this hotel. It was also the residence of the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, …
When night descends, the mild evening invites you to a walk around the house. Around 1900, the founders of the hotel must have walked there. Dumoutier had shown Ducamp the site where he wanted to build a grand hotel. They had a vision, soon to be translated into brick and mortar. They added a name to this idea and called it the Grand Hotel Metropole. We must say thank you to the two of them.