While we’re on the topic of war bunkers, the historic Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel has its own underground air raid shelter. Forgotten for decades since the Vietnam (or American) War, it was rediscovered by chance after the renovation of the hotel’s Bamboo Bar, and reopened in 2012 for public viewing. In tribute to the hotel staff who worked there through the war years, it had been left largely untouched and a walk into its narrow, corroding tunnels is like a walk back into time.
I was staying at this grand dame of a hotel and I had to book myself onto the one-hour tour. Meeting the in-house guide at 5pm in the lobby, we were first shown a fairly extensive exhibition of artefacts and photographs from the war years. It was fascinating to hear of the many celebrities who had been guests there — like Somerset Maughm and Charlie Chaplin — and how the hotel had continued operating during the Vietnam War. Hotel staff doubled up as gunners on the rooftop who would shoot at enemy planes flying low, and every staff member would be armed while they went about their work. When the bombs came, they would hurry guests into the bomb shelter while they themselves would take refuge wherever they could, including in manholes outside along the street with little more than the metal covering to protect them.
Our guide was a lady in her 20s who obviously never lived through the war, but she shared amazing personal stories of her parents who did. She told us how her mother, as a schoolgirl, had been taught to dive into these manholes when the siren went off, warning of people of enemy planes approaching. On one of many occasions when this happened, the then-little girl ran to the nearest manhole but found it was already full with a few other children. And so, she had to dash to the next available one, just in the nick of time, before the bombs rained down on them. When the onslaught was finally over and she could crawl out of the manhole, she discovered that the first shelter she had tried to get into was completed destroyed. The children who were in there were all dead. More than just words on a textbook, her personal stories really brought home the very real horrors and tragedy of the war.
Now armed with enough contextual knowledge, we were lead into the underground air raid shelter. It was incongruously situated next to the bar and the swimming pool. It did not escape me that aboveground, the activities were typical happy, holiday must-do’s, while just a few metres below was a grim reminder of a horrific time in their not-too-distant past.
The short stairs to the bunker was new, but once at its entrance, everything was literally frozen in time. In the narrow tunnels and tiny chambers of this 430-square-feet bunker, metal gratings and doors were corroded, it was dank, dripping with water, dark. The only lighting were a couple of naked bulbs.
This bunker housed as many as 40 guests at a time, including anti-war activist Jane Fonda and Joan Baez. In 1972, she recorded her song ‘Where Are You Now, My Son’ in here as sirens wailed and bombs fell on Christmas Day. That Christmas, US warplanes dropped 20,000 tons of explosives mainly on Hanoi to “bring them to their knees” and killed thousands. (It’s well worth reading the account from both sides.)
Now, recorded sirens of impending bombs are played into the air raid shelter to make it more real for us visitors. Too real for my mother, who, at over 80 years old, herself survived the horrors of WWII in Singapore under the Japanese Occupation and had her own horrific memories of bombings and massacres by the Japanese. The sound of the siren and the bombs, though recordings, brought back too much of those memories for her, and she decided to leave the bunker to get a drink in the Bamboo Bar upstairs instead.
There’s no way a visit like this would leave one unmoved. It is a powerful reminder of how unjust wars are on people, and the scars they leave behind. It was after this visit that I really developed a huge respect for the Vietnamese people, General Vo, and their dogged resilience and strength in the face of incredible odds. And seeing how the memories of another war still affected my mother, it only underlines how we should never let these things happen again…but from the way the world is turning, I’m afraid people have terribly short memories.