To tap her memory, Jesse Meadows speaks to Madame Nhung, the longest-running staff member in Vietnam’s most classic, colonial-era hotel. Photos by Julie Vola
My life and job have been 100 percent linked to the history of the country,” Madame Nhung says, over a cappuccino in the bar at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. We’re sitting by large windows that look out onto the courtyard around us. She points up at a balcony that holds a couple of bamboo trees.
“You see why we always keep the bamboo like this,” she says. “The bamboo tree is our teacher… it can stand whether it’s very sunny or very stormy. It never stops, and never dies. If the land is dry or wet, it doesn’t matter. It’s strong.”
Like hardy bamboo, the Metropole has stood in Hanoi since 1901, and its walls have sheltered all kinds of important guests. Charlie Chaplin stayed here on his honeymoon with his third wife, Paulette Goddard, in the 1930s. Graham Greene, who wrote The Quiet American, lived in the hotel off-and-on while reporting for Paris Match, and Joan Baez famously recorded her song Where Are You Now, My Son? in her hotel room during the Christmas bombings of 1972.
The Big Sleep
History is tangible in the hallways, in the creaking wood floors, and on the original, antique staircase that has been preserved since the early 1900s. Plaques outside the rooms commemorate the embassies that were stationed here over the years — six in total. And outside by the Bamboo Bar, just steps from the swimming pool where guests lie back with cocktails, is a staircase that leads to a stark reminder of the country’s past; a concrete bunker where guests and staff took shelter during air raids.
It lay dormant underground until five years ago, when renovations on the bar unearthed it. “There was nothing in the archives, nothing in the blueprints. [But the staff] knew about the bunker. They didn’t forget, but they didn’t want to remember,” says Duc Nguyen, the hotel’s resident historian.
“People used to hide in the manholes in front of the hotel, on Le Van Huu Street. Now they’ve planted trees there, in the hope that they never have to use them again.”
Nhung remembers the tearful reopening ceremony when long-time staff members were invited to revisit the bomb shelter.
“After the war, we still went to the bunker for training,” she says. “But after [they closed it], we didn’t know it was still there. The swimming pool at that time was a rose garden. It was the roof of the bunker. We thought they had broken it, but we found out they could not, because [the roof] was too thick.”
Nhung has been working in food and beverage here since 1978, when she was just 18 years old. She’s now the manager at Le Beaulieu, the hotel’s classic French restaurant, but she’s managed every restaurant in the hotel at some point over the years. Set to retire in October, she’s returned to the place where she started, so she can say goodbye.
The Long Goodbye
In 1976, she attended Vietnam’s first hospitality school. Many of her peers — the first students in this programme — were sent south to staff the hotels left abandoned by the Americans. But Nhung joined the waiting staff at Thong Nhat Hotel — as the Metropole was renamed by the Vietnamese government after the American War.
“It means union,” she says.“We still keep the memory of Thong Nhat. If you ask young people, no one knows about this. Anyone born after 1975 doesn’t remember this name.”
In those days, the hotel only hosted government officials. Nhung remembers lavish parties. Wearing her ao dai, which was only for special occasions then, she served important guests from embassies and foreign governments.
“The West German embassy always had rooms here, and they had very special parties in their room. We were selected to serve them, and we felt very honoured.”
She was also sent to the Ho Chi Minh Palace to cater high-profile government functions. I asked if she met any important figures during this time, but she shook her head. Even the waiting staff wasn’t allowed to know who they were serving. “There was a lot of security. They never revealed their names.”
But there was one important person she met then — her husband. A tour guide for American war veterans, he spotted her while she was working a wedding at the hotel, and pursued her. They were married two years later in 1978. “Every morning, I encouraged him to go to university, and I worked here.”
It seems the hotel’s romance spans the generations in her family — her husband’s parents also met here. His father, an accountant who worked for the French in the 1940s, met his mother, a rice supplier, near the basement at work one day.
“This place is like a second home,” Nhung says.
In the 1980s, the hotel began to open up to foreign tourists from other Eastern Bloc countries such as Russia and Poland, and soon the Accor group initiated a joint venture, renovating the hotel and again naming it The Metropole in 1992.
“My job changed totally when we started to work with Accor. We began to learn why we need to smile at the guests, and why a warm atmosphere is important,” she recalls.
Though the hotel offered French, Thai and even Malaysian cuisine, their foreign guests really wanted to taste traditional Vietnamese food. Many politicians and heads-of-state often requested private dinners, but Nhung remembers meeting Hillary Clinton in the early 1990s.
“She was different. She said, I want to eat with the people.” So Nhung showed her how to eat bun cha.
“We have to explain it. If you don’t know how to mix it together, it has no meaning,” she says. “Madame Hillary liked bun cha. I think [she introduced] President Obama to it!”
Nhung’s favourite dishes, however, came from the French restaurant. Classics like creme d’volaille were a rare treat in her early days at the hotel. “Not many people knew [about French food] then, only a few of us who got to work here,” she recalls.
In a place with such a long, well-documented history, you might expect the stories you hear to be strange or fantastic. But often, lasting memories are made of simple things.
“When I was a kid, maybe five or six years old, my father brought me here. It was another world. At that time, there was only a veranda,” Duc says, pointing toward the bar behind the lobby. “We had ice cream there. It was a dream for a kid.”