Hanoi: An Opening Riddle
1896! No Problem!
by Andreas Augustin
After having successfully completed historic research for Raffles in Singapore, The Peninsula in Hong Kong, The Oriental in Bangkok, Sacher and Vier Jahreszeiten (Hamburg) in Europe and Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg (Russia), one day in the 1990s I received a phone call from Richard Kaldor, general manager of the Hotel Metropole in Hanoi, Vietnam: ‘Andreas, could you come and research the history of our hotel?‘
‘Of course,’ I replied like a shot, ‘give me an idea of when it opened?’
‘Well, that’s the problem, ‘replied Kaldor. ‘It was 1896.’
‘That’s no problem,’ I said.
He continued: ‘Or maybe in 1906. We simply do not know!’
Intrigued, I said yes, I would come to research the hotel’s history and try to pinpoint the exact opening date. I travelled to Hanoi to see the hotel’s archives. But there was nothing but one old black and white photograph showing the hotel around the turn of the last century. I started to visit the city’s public archives, accompanied by my Vietnamese assistant, Mrs. Tuan Thi Le Diem, a local historian.
We scrutinised documents from French colonial days: building records, annals and chronicles. ‘They were all relocated to France in 1954,’ was the standard answer. That was the year when the French left Tonkin, as Vietnam had been called in colonial times. So I went to Paris. But in the City of Light, I was told: ‘You have to go to Aix-en-Provence, to our colonial archives.’ So on I boarded a TGV and headed south to Aix, and the Archives d’Outre-Mer (colonial archives). I hadn’t expected notorious red tape from the French bureaucracy. But it was in fact worse than any communist country I had ever researched!
‘If you don’t have a reference number, we are unable to give you any documents,’ I was told. ‘The numbers are in the reference catalogue. However, I am afraid, we don’t have a catalogue for the archives from Vietnam. We did not bring it from Hanoi. We had to leave the country in a rush. Very troublesome, you know. But go to the public archives in Hanoi and search for the reference number.’
Back to square one.
It was a 9,200 km flight between the archives and the reference catalogue. Usually it is five metres. Back in Hanoi I discovered the catalogue. Then, with a handful of reference files I flew back to Aix-en-Provence. I received a bunch of files and copied hundreds of pages. Slowly the history of Hanoi as the beautiful capital of Tonkin unfolded. I met the old colonialists. I concentrated on the 1880s. I made the acquaintance of a character called Gustave-Émile Dumoutier, the son of an industrialist born in France on 3 June 1850. Dumoutier was made Tonkin’s Chief Education Officer on 5 June 1886. He also founded the Académie Tonkinoise. Alongside him, another key protagonist rose from the mists of history: André Ducamp, a business man in Hanoi in the 1890s.
After many interviews and meticulous archival research, I was able to prove that in 1896 and 1897 the Hanoi Hotel was the only notable hotel in the city. The guidebooks of that time didn’t know anything of a Metropole Hotel either. Slowly I narrowed it down and continued to work myself through time. Parallel to my research, our UK-based historian Andrew Williamson started unearthing historic newspaper articles. We concentrated on 1902 and 1903. Suddenly the hotel appeared. It was mentioned in every guide book, in newspapers and travel articles. In the British Library we found a 1902 account of the hotel from a certain Alfred Cunningham, who was maybe one of the Métropole’s first guests. He was clearly impressed: ‘The most important hotel in Hanoi is the Hôtel Métropole. It is a splendid building, only very recently erected, and is situated on the boulevard Henri-Rivière, immediately opposite the Résidence Supérieure.’ Bingo! From now on the search went backwards. To cut a long story short: we were able to pinpoint the opening date on the month. During the weeks of August 1901, the Grand Hotel Metropole Hanoi had opened its doors. It had become the joint venture of André Ducamp and Gustave-Émile Dumoutier. Ducamp became its first general manager. We even found files of him applying for the permission to install bow arch lamps in front of his hotel.
Now our search concentrated on related material like photographs, luggage stickers, postcards, the usual stuff. We stumbled upon a picture of an electric tramway carrying Hôtel Métropole advertisements on their roofs. From the United States we received a 1920s label of the 'Grand Hotel Metropole', designed by Dan Sweeney (a seasoned illustrator who drew posters for leading Asian hotels, among them The Oriental in Bangkok, The Peninsula in Hong Kong, the Majestic, the Astor House and the Palace in Shanghai, the Manila Hotel and the Continental Palace in Saigon). Read more about him here.
Slowly I was able to paint a picture with figures and facts. The book took on shape. In this volume you now found the characters of the past parading through the pages in the glimmering light of a new rising wealth, created by an unbelievable rubber boom. I remember that my editor never allowed me to publish the sentence: 'It was the time when men were made by rubber, long before rubber was used to prevent that men were made'.
We discovered a charming link to the Paris Hotel Scribe, which today is a sister-hotel of the Metropole. Both are managed by Sofitel, both hotels can today claim that they are 'historically listed' as the premiere venues for "moving pictures". The Scribe even housed the world premiere, while the Metropole was Indo-China's first venue to show movies. We found out that the restaurant cars between Hanoi and the cities of Vinh, Hue and Tourane in the south were operated by the Compagnie Française Immobilière, the parent company of the Hotel Métropole. Suddenly astonishing printed material appeared and we started getting an pictorial impression of the hotel in the past. We were able to prove that the Metropole was visited by the great actors visited by the great actorCharlie Chaplin and his wife Paulette Goddard.
After about two years we were able to establish the first fine press kit with an extensive history section; the hotel's first PR manageress Sarah Grant helped building it.
Authors like Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene and many others had been spedning time at the hotel. The father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh had wonderful stories connected with the hotel. During the Vietnam war Jane Fonda spent weeks in her suite at the hotel. She, like many others, was seeking refuge at the hotel's bunker which is now going to be reopened. It will soon be a sight at the hotel. It has quite a lot of stories connected to it. Joan Baez cheered the spirits by singing in the hotel's bunker during US air raids.
Touching the 1950s, 60s and 70s we entered a field of research were we could relate to people who had actuylly been working at the hotel during that time. They were still alive. Former staff turned out to visit me at the hotel for an interview. They brought their memoirs along with photographs and we had a great time reviving the good old past.
Turning the hotel's history into a powerful sales concept:
Over the next years – together with the hotel – famoushotels.org developed a history PR scheme, based on our research. Today the hotel has suites named after these outstanding personalities. We have supplied the photographic documents and the related stories. We are proud to have such a hotel partner making so elegantly use of our research material. The old photograph of the hotel which I had found in the hotel in the beginning has been carefully restored and coloured. It graces the cover of our 160 pages hard-case book. The first edition appeared in 1998. Ever since we have updated every edition with new material. While we are speaking the next edition appears – and only last week we had the pleasure of acquiring another great photographic document – for the book's next edition.
Read my breakfast interview with the hotel's current manager Kai Spaeth, and enjoy the book.
From our 2007 edition - Somerset Maugham at Hanoi
Like in every other book's new edition we add new findings such as this front page showing men in air raid shelters outside the Metropole.