Nov 11 2011
A few months ago, workers renovating the Bamboo Bar at Hanoi’s historic Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel hit a snag: they struck the roof of a long-buried air raid shelter that had all but been forgotten. After excavating more than two metres of earth and reinforced concrete, the workers jack-hammered through a 278mm-thick ceiling: below was around 40 square metres of flooded corridors and rooms built and used during the Vietnam War. They had hit on a long “lost” shelter where according to the hotel’s history, American folk singer Joan Baez — and others — had sought shelter more than four decades ago.
The shelter was built for the use of hotel guests during the tumultuous period — at the time the hotel was home to just a few VIP guests, including war correspondents and diplomats.
“We have to honour the people of the hotel: to have done this for the few guests of the hotel,” said the hotel’s general manager of today, Kai Speth. The hotel is unaware of any other hotels that maintained shelters for their guests during the war era.
I was excited by the prospect of being one of the first people, since the 1970s, to explore this historical find. Unfortunately I hit my own snag on the way down: the entrance is via a metre-square manhole and a 12-foot ladder, and lighting is via torches. Not for me. I tried, I honestly did, but silly irrational fears got in the way and I sent my trusty photographer down instead.
So what’s down there? Not a lot, to be honest, but the experience and emotion of being down there is something else entirely (so I was told!). Five rooms and a corridor can be explored and the absence of any decoration or natural light really helps visitors appreciate just what it would have been like down there during the war.
The hotel plans to open the historical site to guests in 2012. They’re not planning anything fancy; no wine cellar or funky new restaurant, but instead want to preserve it in as close to its original state as possible. This requires some work: the shelter was flooded when found and pumping out the water was no mean feat. Ground water continues to seep into the space — it was about 20cm deep on my visit.
In addition, they can’t have guests clambering through a manhole and down a ladder holding a torch for their visit, so they will open up the original staircase and install some lighting and ventilation.
“It was really hot down there in the summer and we don’t want guest to faint”, said Speth, who is passionate about bringing the shelter to people’s attention.
“It’s important to resurrect it and make it part of what the hotel is about. It’s a part of the hotel’s heritage,” he adds.
The hotel plan on setting up an exhibition in the shelter or in the hotel lobby, focused on its history and including the shelter. Staff are keen to contact anyone who was staying at the hotel during the war and may have spent time in the shelter — so do get in touch if you know anyone that may apply to!
Vietnam has other subterranean war relics: Cu Chi outside Ho Chi Minh City boasts a vast underground tunnel complex , while near the DMZ the tunnels of Vinh Moc helped protect Vietnamese during the war. The Metropole’s underground find adds another unique dimension to the history of the period.
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