Bob Devereaux never fancied himself a tagger, but if Hanoi is an urban area, and the name and date he scratched into the wall of the hotel’s air raid shelter can be construed as graffiti, then a tagger he is.
When the Metropole unearthed the shelter early last fall, Devereaux’s name was an intriguing discovery, etched into one wall at the bottom of a shaft leading to corridors and rooms that protected hotel guests in the 1960s and 1970s. His inscription runs to four brief lines, with “BOB” in all caps on top, his surname just below, day and month on the third line and “1975” at the bottom.
For months, the hotel wondered who this Bob Devereaux was and why had he inscribed his name. Was this the date the hotel sealed up the shelter? After all, it was 1975. The war was over. Who needs an air raid shelter?
The Internet provided few clues, but then one day, an email came in over the Metropole’s desk: “I am the person who wrote on the wall of the bunker during the time. I was occupying a room at the Metropole for a year during 1975/76.”
Devereaux’s friends had seen a story in the Sydney Morning Herald, a story that referenced his name, and he couldn’t resist checking in. The hotel couldn’t have been more pleased and recently took a chance to flesh out the man behind the inscription.
Today, Bob Devereaux is 76 years old and living with his Vietnamese wife in Perth. He ferries kids back and forth to school as one way to stay busy, a rather pedestrian cap to a life that was anything but.
Devereaux, whose family name is of French origin, was born in London in 1935 to an English father and an Irish mother. As a schoolboy in London during the Second World War, he spent a lot of time in air raid shelters. His father, meanwhile, served as a soldier in the British Army in Burma. In 1952, Devereaux’s father relocated the family to Australia. Devereaux worked and studied in Perth until 1959 when he joined the Australian Foreign Service. We’ll let him pick up the story from here...
How did you become interested in Indochina?
In the early 1960s, French was still widely spoken in what used to be French Indochina, this being Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I spoke French and my first overseas posting in 1960 was to Phnom Penh. I was there until 1963 and during those years travelled a lot in Cambodia and Vietnam.
When did you first move to Vietnam for work?
That was 1967, after having spent 1964 to 1967 in Brussels. My work included consular and administrative duties such as the protection and welfare of Australian citizens and issuing visas for Australia. I was also a representative of the Government of Cambodia in the protection of Cambodian citizens and property, and issuing visas for Cambodia.
How did you get from Saigon in the Sixties to Hanoi in 1975?
Well, after my stint in Saigon, I ended up back in Phnom Penh from 1971 to 1973, and then once again back to Saigon from 1973 to 1975, primarily as Australian Consul. At that time, we had two Australian embassies in Vietnam, one in Saigon and one in Hanoi. I left Saigon on the last Australian RAAF plane out on 25 April 1975 shortly before the city changed hands. Only the Ambassador and five Australia-based personnel (including me) were left in the Saigon Embassy by then.
My experiences during the weeks before this final departure — particularly during the uplift of Vietnamese orphans to Australia and the evacuation of Australian citizens — were distressing, to say the least. About six weeks after leaving Saigon on the RAAF flight, I was posted to Hanoi and so returned to Vietnam via Bangkok, Canberra and Vientiane.
The Australian Embassy was located in the Metropole in those days, and you lived there, too. Do you remember your room?
The Embassy occupied several rooms on the second floor and we lived and worked in our rooms. I had a corner room with windows on two sides of the room. Apart from the Ambassador we used the communal toilets, which were often out of order. The only person who had a private toilet was the Ambassador. We regarded him with envy.
The Metropole in 1975 was an old hotel but with a lot of charm, very much just as the French left it. There were all sorts of people living there. My neighbour across the corridor was a reporter for an Italian communist newspaper. He had a pregnant partner but she had to live in a different room. It would have been frowned upon for an unmarried foreign couple to openly live together.
What was Embassy life like?
If you couldn't adapt to a very restrictive lifestyle you didn't last long. It was frowned upon for us to liaise with local people other than in approved scenarios. So we really didn’t mix much with the locals or have many Embassy receptions. If we did have a small reception, for instance on Australia Day, we would all stop work beforehand and make sandwiches for the guests. We’d serve Australian wine if we had any.
We received movies from time to time from Canberra and I was usually the movie operator. I also held the Embassy medical supplies and dispensed pills when needed — worm pills were popular with some staff!
While still occupying the hotel rooms we were allocated an old French villa by the authorities for us to develop into a more substantial Embassy. Part of my job then was to coordinate the renovation of the villa into a combined Chancery and Ambassador’s residence and to work on the plans for staff quarters at the rear of the villa.
What took you down into the bunker in 1975? It had been several years since the threat of any bombings.
My hotel room overlooked an open space between the wings of the hotel and the bunker was beneath that. The entrance to the bunker was at the bottom of a flight of steps and I had a key to the padlock on the door. I used to store stuff down there which was too bulky for our rooms. So I only went there when I needed some supplies.
Do you remember inscribing your name in the wall? Was it around the time the bunker was sealed up?
No, I don’t remember that. I may have been at a loose end finding that the bunker was flooded again — possibly with no electric light either — so may have scratched my name on the wall in between fishing under the water for an elusive bottle of Australian wine. I don’t remember the bunker being sealed up. I left Hanoi in 1976, and as far as I can recall the bunker was still open when I left.
When did you return to Hanoi for the first time after that first posting?
I went back again on a posting from 1983 to 1984. By then, things had changed quite a bit. We were no longer living and working in the Metropole and had moved the villa and staff quarters. Life was comparatively gracious.
When did you last visit Vietnam?
I was last there in 2009. I didn’t go to Hanoi that time. But on an earlier visit I travelled by bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. In Hanoi I noticed that the exterior structure of the Metropole was basically the same but had been repaired and spruced up with a fresh coat of paint. The interior was luxurious and seemed quite strange compared to how it was in 1975. I had a cup of coffee in the hotel lobby for old time’s sake.