The Lost Bunker –Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hanoi
“Forgotten for decades until its rediscovery in 2011, the bomb shelter has been preserved in its original condition, with the unobtrusive addition of new mechanical and electrical installations to allow the space to be accessible and safe for public viewing. Through its sensitive approach and thoughtful interpretation, the project provides a rare glimpse into an important chapter of Vietnamese contemporary history.” From 2013 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
During the American war in Vietnam (1965-1975) 7.6 million tonnes of ordinance were dropped on what was then North Vietnam in the largest air campaign in military history. In March 1965 then Chief of Staff of the American Air force Curtis Lemay stated that “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”. In two campaigns from 1965 to 1968 then again in 1972 the bombing campaign was intended to force North Vietnam to cease its support for the NLF (National Liberation Front) by threatening to destroy North Vietnam’s air defenses and industrial infrastructure. As well, it was aimed at bolstering the morale of the South Vietnamese.
In Hanoi bomb shelters were hastily constructed. At The Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in central Hanoi a bunker was built that now lies beneath the bamboo bar in the hotels courtyard. Originally called The Metropole, the hotel was built during the French time opening its doors in 1903. Amongst many illustrious guests were Charlie Chaplin, Graeme Greene, Somerset Maugham and a host of political leaders including Bill Clinton. The first shots of the French / Vietnamese Indochina war were fired across the road from the Metropole foyer. For the last ten years Goddard & Howse guests have enjoyed the services of this classic hotel on our Vietnam small world journeys.
At the end of the Vietnam War the hotel was closed to visitors and used alternatively as a diplomatic guest house and office for government. In 1996 with some extensive restoration work the hotel was returned to its former glory and opened its doors once again. Mysteriously the bunker that had existed since the 1960’s was not noticed. It was not until 2011 that further renovations revealed the underground shelter and the stories that it held.
You enter the shelter from the bamboo bar and descend into two narrow corridors that are constructed with reinforced concrete. Taller visitors need to stoop, a metre of sand then more concrete lies above to absorb the impact of high explosive. Water runs along the floor and steel doors with air filters seal the two compartments. There would be not much room for more than 20 people.
There is a curious inscription on the inside wall. The name of an Australian diplomat, Mr Bob Deveraux dated 1976.
Australia had established diplomatic relations with Vietnam before 1975 and had taken rooms at the government run Metropole as the embassy. Bob was a consular official who used the bunker to store wine that was sent through the diplomatic bag from Canberra. The wine was by Kaiser Stuhl. He recalled Hanoi as a peaceful city where everyone, including the Ambassador, rode a pushbike.
During the so called Christmas bombings of 1972 American folk singer Joan Baez was visiting Hanoi promoting peace and delivering food parcels to American POWs. By day she travelled around Hanoi and in the evenings took refuge in the bunker. She described the experience as ‘confronting her mortality’. Bombs rained down for 11 consecutive nights. Her experience in the bunker inspired the song ‘Where are you now my son?’ a spoken narrative over piano and recorded air raid sirens, the mournful call of a Vietnamese mother for her missing son in the background.
The Bunker tour is available to guests of the Sofitel legend Metropole and is included in all Goddard & Howse small world journeys to Vietnam.
Two nights in Dak Lak- Featuring Lak Tented Camp
‘They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest has got to be lived’ – Graham Greene 1954.
I was invited by a good friend to visit the highland province of Dak Lak in central Vietnam. Tourism is relatively new in this area that borders Cambodia to the west, and is also the home of indigenous hill tribe groups Ede and M’nong. These hill tribe people have a rich culture and live simply in long houses with short foundations, small windows, a hearth inside and as usual no chimney. They wear attractive clothes, heavily embroidered black and red cotton jackets, and grow crops of rice and more recently ca cao (for making chocolate). It is probably not very well-known that Vietnam produces some of the best chocolate in the world.
You can drive to Dak Lak (about seven hours from Saigon), or you can fly (just one hour) to reach the provincial capital of Buon Me Thuot. I took the shorter route and then drove another 45 minutes to Lak tented camp, situated on Lak Lake in a wonderful wilderness environment. Here you will find 15 lakeview tented lodges and four lakefront wooden bungalows spread over almost five hectares. You reach Lak tented camp by a short boat ride across the lake which adds to the excitement. Here the staff are keen to help you ashore; all local people taking their opportunities in the tourism industry. The permanent tents are canvas, with entry flaps and flyscreens built over solid timber floorboards, and balconies with great views across the lake. They are very well-appointed with crisp linen and all the amenities you would expect, including private bathroom and toilet. There is a long house modelled in the style of the Ede tribe that has been thoughtfully designed into a restaurant and bar. The restaurant serves local food inspired by the region; it is fresh and delicious. In the evenings there is a performance by the local people of traditional songs and dancing accompanied by gongs and bamboo wind instruments. The sounds are rhythmic and almost hypnotic.
There are plenty of activities at Lak tented camp, including bike riding, hiking and kayaking on the lake. There are visits to the local village where clay pots are made, but not in a conventional manner. I watched a demonstration of a water vessel being made from scratch. Interestingly, the sculptor did not use a wheel as you might expect, instead she simply walked around the lump of clay, working with hands until it took shape.
Lak tented camp is a great experience that opens new paths and ideas for travelling in Vietnam. From this central highland vantage point you may continue to other regions like Kontum and Pleiku, then head down to the more familiar coastal areas of Nha Trang or Danang, along the way sharing traditional life and viewing spectacular countryside.
For more information about Lak tented camp contact Goddard & Howse (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Old Quarter of Hanoi
I checked into my small hotel, located in Hang Mang St, the very heart of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. My room is on the third floor with a small balcony and some well kept pot plants for decoration. I look straight into various houses across the way. Rain stained, yellow walls, tiny windows, washing hanging wherever it is protected from the elements. The traffic and general noise of the street below fills my room but not disturbingly. I am aware at some stage during the night of total silence.
Each day in the Old Quarter the merchants come out to trade. You can get anything you need in this congested labyrinth of streets. It is mid February and everything is damp, the air thick with moisture, seeping and a clammy feeling overtakes. But the street life goes on. Down small alleyways I see vegetables for sale, women crowded over woven baskets stacked with pineapples and water chestnuts. Old ladies in worn, faded tunics carry plastic buckets full of swill and left over produce, perhaps to be recycled or for some poor soul to dump a little further up the street, in the gutter flows the aftermath of each day. They look at me briefly, expression unchanged, everyday is the same. There is a continual chatter that goes on amongst people on the street, constant beckoning from cyclo drivers and motorbike taxis searching for business from wide-eyed Europeans who seek the sanctuary of western style cafés. Here they can sip latte and eat toasted sandwiches, a moments relief from noodles, rice and fish. Back on the street the locals stand, sit and recline in shop doors, open entrances to long corridors or tunnels into quaint courtyards where potted plants flourish and flower, old ones talking with young ones, chatting and gossiping.
The noise is constant, the smell unpredictable, all senses are tested in the Old Quarter. There are small street stalls with miniature tables and plastic chairs just centimetres from the ground. Some boys sit around, clad in jackets and scarves, sipping tea and smoking bamboo pipes of tobacco, the ever present shop owner hovering ready to respond to any opportunity for a sale.
Walking on the road seems to be the best way to negotiate the myriad of bikes, cars and vegetable carrying coolies, their bamboo shoulder poles straining under the weight of their goods, attractive faces smiling but their eyes distant. I can sense a community aspect to this part of the city; although it is big and urban there is a familiarity between its inhabitants. I feel I could not be in a more interesting place, a thousand year old city full of the energy of millions of past lives. They seem to float in the air, down the long alley ways, mirrored in the faces of the old women on the chaos of the street.
The Continental Hotel – the only hotel I know where you can get your safari suit dry cleaned.
The Continental Hotel in Saigon was built by the French and opened its doors in 1883. Located adjacent to the Opera House, its distinctive architecture and ambience contrasts with the glitz and glass towers of its more salubrious cousins the Park Hyatt and the Caravelle. If you are lodging in the Park Hyatt in Saigon, you could also be in the Park Hyatt in Barcelona or Chicago – only the flowing au dai of the Vietnamese reception staff giving a sense of place. Of course that’s the point – the same but different as they say in Vietnam, many travellers appreciate the convenience of familiarity not to mention those precious value-added benefits from hotel memberships. And yes, they are fine hotels.
There is nothing fancy or value-added at the Continental Hotel. Its glory days were in the 1930s when the French were at the height of their colonial powers. Later during the first Indochina war (1946 to 1954) the hotel was a Mecca for international journalists where, along with merchants, military types, adventurers and wayfarers, deals were done on the ‘Continental Shelf’, a terraced bar on the Rue Catinet. English author Graham Greene spent four rainy seasons in Vietnam, many at the Continental. No doubt the characters and plot for his novel The Quiet American were drawn first-hand from his experiences in Saigon and those sessions on the ‘shelf’.
Since 1975 the hotel has been operated by Saigon Tourist, a state-owned enterprise. The mix of old world colonial French with a socialist tinge is evident throughout the hotel. From the reception to the housekeeping staff they do their job as required, but without the punctiliousness that one might expect from a Sofitel trainee. It is a rarity to find this mix of service and style that conspires to freshen the guest with a quaint ‘quirkiness’, and other times leaves you wondering about the logic of it all. I remember checking into the hotel with one of our small world journeys and finding a fruit bowl in the room – a nice gesture, however, this treat had come at a cost, there was no complimentary bottled water. Now clean drinking water is an absolute, so I suggested to management that they should have a complimentary bottle of water in every room. They agreed, but said they would have to remove the fruit basket.
The breakfast room is a grand affair of Corinthian style columns and ornate architraves. The breakfast is satisfying without being extravagant and the courses on offer have not changed since 2004. I think the chef is on autopilot. The thing you notice is the number of staff required to run this establishment – they are everywhere. Dressed modestly in black pants, white shirts and neat bow ties, there seems an endless procession of trainees who nervously huddle just metres from your table. They use practised English from the morning staff training session, and the Food and Beverage Managers are quick to snap and give orders, just like the good old days. I have struck up quite an amiable friendship with the young girl who opens the door at breakfast and politely accepts (and checks) my breakfast voucher. She has been doing this job for five years. I am not sure what else she does.
Back in the rooms you can get lost in the lavish space that is available. High ceilings and light fittings from the late 1970s, balconies looking onto the trees around the Opera House and the busy square where Le Loi and Dong Khoi streets intersect – the very heart of Saigon. In the evenings you can throw open your old French doors, grab a gin and tonic and soak up the atmosphere of Saigon, its distinctive smell and buzz of life washing over you. After a day or so you have usually mapped your room sufficiently to locate all of the light switches and work out how to have a shower rather than a bath (it’s a tricky mechanism on the spout). If you look carefully you will find a bar fridge hidden in an enormous wardrobe that suggests you should be staying months. Here you can grab a local beer and reward your effort but don’t expect the housekeeping staff to replace the beer – you only get one. Further into this cavernous wardrobe you will find the laundry list. For me it is always convenient to throw my gear into a hotel supplied laundry bag and hang it on the door. The service is efficient, although your clothes gradually shrink over time, and whatever detergent they use seems to leave a considerable residue. On the laundry list you will find the usual garments but it is the only place I know where you can get your safari suit dry cleaned.
The Continental is not perfect by any means, but for us it encompasses all those things we love about Saigon; the old and the new, the Communist time, the French time, and now the good times.
Highways to a War - thanks to Christopher Koch
Australian author Christopher Koch died in September 2013. His long life and wonderful literary career included the books The Year of Living Dangerously and The Doubleman. His 1995 novel and Miles Franklin Award winner Highways to a War, follows the story of war photographer Mike Langford and his capture by the Khmer Rouge in 1976. The book offers a wonderful kaleidoscope of characters from hardened Vietnam War journalists to sultry French-Vietnamese mistresses and relentless North Vietnamese cadres. I first read this book soon after its release and it became a catalyst for my adventures into Vietnam in 1997. The war was well and truly over, but for me many questions remained from a time I remember as a 10 year old.
The Vietnam War was an open media conflict; reporters enjoyed easy access to frontline battles and regularly hitched rides on military helicopters filing their reports without censorship. Some governments later saw this unprecedented access to information as detrimental to their military efforts. Future conflicts would see the advent of ’embedded’ journalists and censored battle coverage.
During my childhood the evening news told of body counts, dourly presented by desk bound newsreaders offering peculiar names like Nguyen Van Thieu, Le Duc Tho and Ho Chi Minh. On my television screen, black and white images of napalm exploding, helicopter dust-offs and panicked Vietnamese villagers where highlighted on Weekend Magazine and Four Corners. We were fed a daily diet of the horrors of war, reassured that we were fighting the good fight and winning the battle. It was not until the 1968 TET offensive when pictures of Vietcong guerrillas taking the US Embassy in Saigon (albeit briefly) shocked the public. I will never forget a graphic photo of South Vietnamese police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan delivering rough justice to a VC insurgent with a pistol from point blank range in the maelstrom that followed. The TET offensive, although a military disaster for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, turned into a political triumph as moratorium demonstrations gained momentum and public opinion started to turn. An August (1969) poll found, for the first time, that a majority of Australians favoured a withdrawal from Vietnam. The issue had become a political hot potato, and in 1972 the incoming government of Gough Whitlam formally recognised North Vietnam as the legitimate government and withdrew Australian forces.
Memories of Christopher Koch and Highways to a War reminded me of the very genesis of the conflict in Indochina which we called the Vietnam War. How thousands of young Australians were conscripted through the ballot system which was shown live on TV. The thought of conflict and being sent to the steaming jungles of Vietnam must have been unbearable for those 19 year olds and their families.
Australia’s march to war came in April 1965 when we committed combat forces to Vietnam at the invitation of the South Vietnamese government. The then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies held the floor and delivered an oratory that few could match. The argument seemed assured. He said ‘The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South-East Asia. It must be seen as part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.’
(Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, Hansard, 29 April 1965)
The response by opposition leader Arthur Calwell was equally compelling, however, the argument was different. He told the House in a measured response that Australia would regret this decision. He said ‘Our men will be fighting the largely indigenous Vietcong in their own home territory. They will be fighting in the midst of a largely indifferent, if not resentful, and frightened population. They will be fighting at the request of, and in support, and presumably under the direction of an unstable, inefficient, partially corrupt military regime which lacks even the semblance of being or becoming democratically based.’
(Excerpt from Mr Arthur Calwell’s speech, 4 May 1965)
Both statements are compelling. Menzies no doubt believed that he was doing the right thing at the time. In retrospect he may have misread the China/Vietnamese relationship. It was true that the Chinese were assisting the Vietnamese militarily and had also used political cadres to encourage the Vietnamese in communist practice, but what was overlooked was the inherent dislike that the Vietnamese held for the Chinese. The Vietnamese had spent 1000 years fighting the Chinese.
Calwell’s remarks are startling in their clarity and vision. His ability to sum up the situation and predict such outcomes has been equally overlooked in studies and reviews of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.
I am sure Christopher Koch in his research and deliberations when writing Highways to a War, was also struck by the anomalies and prejudices that were at play during this time. His book is a novel of the times which captures the atmosphere of those delirious and deceptive days.
The Hoi An Flood
Every year the flood comes to Hoi An, central Vietnam. The rainy season starts here around October, continuing through until December. Thousands of millimeters fall and the odd Hurricane blows through for good measure having worked itself into frenzy in the warm waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Hoi An is an ancient town , now recognized as a World Cultural heritage site and located on the banks of the Tubon River . The river rises in the hills to the west near the Lao border, enormous catchments with no mitigation, the flow gathering during the rain and tumbling into the South China Sea (or the East Sea as the Vietnamese call it).
Hoi An was established as a trading port some 500 years ago to service travellers and merchants from China, Japan and Indonesia. The town developed a unique architectural style as visitors from foreign parts set down roots and built houses reminiscent of their origins as they sometimes waited six months for favourable winds to blow them back to their own country. It was an important trading port in central Vietnam until the river silted up about 150 years ago and business moved north to the expansive harbour at Danang. These days when the flood comes the streets of the old town play host to the swollen waters, sometimes rising two meters into the old houses, the water reaching its high water mark quickly and staying for three days.
When the water is high the locals move upstairs. Furniture, clothing, the dog and cat and all the family wait it out. Access to and from the house at these times is by boat, paddling along the swamped streets, people standing, chatting to their neighbours. Shops are still open; the only holiday for most people in Vietnam is during the TET New Year celebration when everyone has a rest.
There are over 360 tailors in Hoi An, they tout their goods and services with pretty girls dressed in the flattering Au Dai ( traditional Vietnamese dress ) who stand invitingly outside shops, flashing smiles, gossiping to each other as you walk or paddle by. Travellers come from all corners to Hoi An, flood or not, to indulge in a rustic and rural environment. One thing is for sure if you take the bait and enter a tailor shop to browse or maybe buy just one shirt it is almost guaranteed that you will walk out with five shirts, two pairs of pants and a jacket!
Flood or not, business continues. It seems to be a Vietnamese constant. The local cafes adjust their menus according to the slow down in supply and invoke ‘The Flood menu’ as it is known at this time. In fact it is generally hard for the restaurants and locals to get fresh food. The market, a life source of Hoi An and most rural Vietnamese towns is closed or at least very limited in its available produce.
During the flood, people who live on the river or by its banks suffer terribly. Their impoverished lives placed under even more strain with water rising on all sides. Some people live on their small boats or sampans, perhaps just six meters long with a rounded bamboo roof across half of the boat, modest protection for families of sometimes five people. During the day, old women in tattered conical hats and tunics will press for business along the river front offering tourists a ride in their sampan for a dollar. They smile broadly showing off black teeth and a face full of wrinkles that could probably tell a thousand stories of French occupation, the bloodshed of the American war and the hardship of the ‘subsidised times’ when a coupon was all you could use to get food. If you lost this coupon you went hungry. During the flood these old women still look for business, even though the river has burst its banks and filled the streets. They stand on the edge of their boats, moored to a clothing or souvenir shop pleading with you to join them. In the background you can see the swollen Tubon River raging just 50 meters away.
After the flood it is remarkable how quickly the town restores itself. Where streets were flooded, debris scattered, buildings damaged by hurricane winds and trees uprooted, the town will return to its peaceful calm in the blink of an eye. Hoi An is a Vietnam oasis, away from the insensitivities of Hanoi and its sunny cousin Saigon, the people here are simple and uncomplicated. They eat the same food everyday. They plant two crops of rice every year and watch it grow green and tall until it husks and browns to golden straw that sweeps across the paddy field. The pace is unchanged, despite the changes that tourism brings. In the rice field the farmers will gather to bring in the harvest, the villages helping and chatting with each other, sharing the good times and forever enduring the hard times.
Vietnam Kitchen – Bun Cha Hanoi
At Goddard & Howse we love food. If you travel on a small world journey with us expect to taste some wonderful dishes. We know that Vietnamese people start thinking about lunch as soon as they finish breakfast and as soon as they finish lunch they think about dinner. Here is a classic northern Vietnamese dish Bun Cha Hanoi – a delicious street food that is essentially grilled pork, fresh herbs, rice noodles (bun) and of course, fish sauce. Enjoy. Serves 6
- 500g of pork belly
3 lemon grass stalks (use white part only)
3 clove of garlic3 E- shallots (the small one) 1 table spoon of fish sauce 1 teaspoon of sugar 1 teaspoon of salt
- 500g of shoulder pork mince 3 lemon grass stalk 3 clove of garlic 3 E- Shallot (the small one) 1 table spoon of fish sauce 1 teaspoon of sugar 1 teaspoon of salt 1 teaspoon of ground white pepper
- Dipping Sauce
1 large carrot
1 small green paw paw (hard part only1 small bulb of garlic 5 small red chillis (more if you like) Juice of three limes 1 cup of warm water, one third of a cup of fish sauce and one quarter of a cup of sugar.
- Bun (rice noodles) 1 and a half packets of Bun or Rice Noodles (available from any good Asian food store) Fresh herbs: any fresh herbs you like (a bunch each) but the best are Coriander, Thai Basil, Vietnamese Mint, Vietnamese Parilla and fresh lettuce (any style)
Marinade for Pork
• Combine Lemon grass (white part only), garlic and E shallot – all chopped very finely
• Pork belly – cut in a 5cm strip then slices again into a thinner piece (1 cm).Add to marinade and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours
• Pork Mince- combine the mince and all listed ingredients above then marinate 2 to 3 hours in fridge
For Dipping Sauce
• Take Paw Paw(hard part only) and carrot and peel then slice into thin strips about ( about1 cm) add some salt and leave for 10 to 15 minutes until nice and soft but not soggy . Rinse under cold water to wash off the salt. Then keep in the cold Ice water to help keep the crunchiness
• Chilli and Garlic, finely chop then add a little bit of sugar and some lime juice then set aside (this will keep the garlic & chilli nice and fresh).When you add this mixture with the rest of the sauce the garlic and Chilli will float nicely (as it should)
• Combine warm water and remaining sugar in saucepan until it dissolves then add fish sauce. Over low heat bring the sauce to boil then let it cool before adding the remaining lime juice (to taste).Add Chilli and garlic mixture and the carrot and paw paw.
Cooking the Pork Belly
• Best on a charcoal grill if not on grill on BBQ is fine.
• Grill each side few minute until the meat is cook and have nice colour
• Cooking the Pork mince – make into a small ball (like a rissole) then grill or BBQ until meat is cooked and has a nice colour
• Follow instructions on the packet – usually soak in cold water first then boil for 5 minutes.
• Divide dipping sauce in 6 equal desert size dishes (or small bowls).In each small bowl add a quantity of pork belly and pork mince balls.
• Prepare six large deep bowls and place Bun noodles equally in each.
• Serve herbs on a large serving plate to add to the Bun as required.
• Each person should now have a bowl of noodles plus a small bowl of the dipping sauce with pork. Spoon the sauce onto the noodles, garnish with fresh Vietnamese herbs. Mixed it all together and enjoy.
Note: you don’t need to use all the sauce and pork mixture at once – graze a little by adding bits here and there.
Then, to be really authentic (and Hanoi style), sit on small blue plastic chairs on the sidewalk and enjoy!
- 500g of pork belly 3 lemon grass stalks (use white part only)