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The first hotel I ever fell in love with was the Metropole, an old-world gem in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. My wife and I stayed there in 2007 on a break from covering the war in Iraq, and between the plush beds, the deep-ended pool in a quiet courtyard, and the rich history of the place as a hub of activity during the Vietnam War, we were smitten.
When we returned to Hanoi recently, we stayed there again, and quite unexpectedly, we found an Australian story for the ages — a story that confirmed my appreciation for the secrets that hotels hold, and the way Australians make their way through the world.
It has to do with a bunker.
When we checked in, we were asked if we wanted to join a free tour. So, on our last night, we followed a guide named Tom on an hourlong historical extravaganza that traced the hotel’s role. Built by the French in 1901, it served as a stand-in embassy for several countries during the Vietnam War. And because the Metropole held diplomats, combatants and bombs steered clear, making the hotel a relatively safe resting place for dignitaries and celebrities as well.
But in 1965, as the war intensified, the hotel’s managers decided to add an extra layer of protection: a five-room bunker abutting one edge of the pool. Tom told us it was used through at least the end of 1972, when Joan Baez, the American folk singer, arrived with a peace delegation that coincided with a major American attack. She ended up underground.
Her story was well known at the time. In a Rolling Stone interview with Baez afterward, she described the bombed-out city. “It was like a moonscape with all the craters,” she said.
Then the bunker seemed to disappear. As the writer Viet Than Nguyen has noted, “wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory” — and after the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, no one seemed to have much use for a warren of tiny rooms under a fancy hotel.
Except for one Aussie larrikin.
“Time for the bunker,” Tom said.
He made us put on helmets as we descended stairs near one end of the pool. The air was cool, the ceilings low. The bomb shelter had been rediscovered roughly a decade ago. Water had to be pumped out, lights restored, and there was not much to see — except on a wall to our right. Tom pointed to graffiti carved into the concrete: BOB DEVEREAUX, 17 AUG 1975.
Devereaux was an administrator for the Australian Embassy from 1975 to 1977 when it was housed in the hotel. The Australians, Tom told us, used the shelter as a wine cellar.
I looked at my wife when we heard this. Of course they did.
When the bunker was reopened, Devereaux read about it and called to apologize for his vandalism. He went back to the bunker a little later: Tom held up an iPad with the photo of an older Australian man with light hair and a printed shirt with scenes from the tropics. He was pointing at the mark he made on the wall.
“I can’t remember doing the graffiti,” he later told a reporter. “They found a couple of empty bottles in the shelter, so it could have been while I was down there, looking for a bottle of wine.”
Now for this week’s stories: