Rat hunt at hotel a reminder of war's sinister beginnings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 December, 1998, 12:00am

One night in the late 1970s, a guest at the run-down Hotel Metropole in Hanoi heard shots ringing out from the second floor. Resident Australian diplomats had started hunting the rats.

Three decades earlier more sinister shots were fired.

According to former hotel chef Duong Van Vi, the first Indo-Chinese war began about 8pm on December 19, 1946, when all the restaurant's lights went out.

A French officer sitting down to eat panicked when he saw a man carrying a package dart in through the kitchen entrance. He pulled his pistol and shot the man dead on the spot. It was the waiter with his dinner.

Both tales emerged this week as one of the region's most famous hotels finally published its rich history. Every Hanoi resident has their favourite rumour of the hotel that has survived French-era boom and bust, Japanese occupation and communist revolution since two French colonials opened it in 1901.

Ambling past its restored and expanded five-star elegance today it is hard to imagine that just 20 years ago jack-booted Cuban and Salvadorean revolutionaries swapped tales over a rum at what was left of the bar.

Andreas Augustin spared little in his description of the time when apparatchiks ruled supreme. The hotel was renamed Thong Nhat, or Reunification, which was the 'only place where things occasionally seemed to work. Service had become an alien concept,' the author wrote.

In the 1930s it was a different place as booming rubber prices fuelled a life of colonial decadence almost beyond compare, insulated from the stirrings of peasant rebellion across the Red River.

The bars were filled with the best champagnes and the heavy perfume of opium used to seep out under the bedroom doors. As the war with the US raged through the late 1960s and 1970s it was the artistic left who arrived amid swirling controversy at home, Joan Baez and Jane Fonda among them.

Both at times spent hours huddling in the hotel's bunker as B-52s bombed bridges and railways across Hanoi.

The wartime bunker is now the site of the hotel's swimming pool. Part of the shelter could not be removed, so the pool remains shallower on one side.