History of the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest

We had many of our foodie clients from the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel, and beside food, we occasionally talked about the history of the hotel along our ways. As the property has been an important part of the city, we would like summarize its history in this blog post.

Summer 1901

According to Andreas Augustin – the author of over 50 books about legendary hotels, the Metropole opened its doors, under the name ‘Grand Hotel Metropole’, to the curious population of Hanoi in the summer of 1901. Soon, it was known more simply as the Metropole.

Hanoi Colonial Days

Heydays at Metropole Hanoi

The following advertisement was signed by André Ducamp, the founder and first director of the Grand Hotel Metropole, Hanoi, Tonkin, 1901.

“Terms: From 6$ a day, including Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Bed-room. Light and Service. Special Terms for Families and long periods. Omnibus to the Railway Station. Carriages at the Hotel. English Spoken. Man Spricht Deutsch. Rooms should be secured by telegram in advance.”

Ever since, the leading citizens liked to take their families to the restaurant at the Metropole, which as situated exactly where it is today. Here, one enjoyed what was reportedly the best French food in town. The restaurant was famous for its bouillabaisse Marseillaise, for a tender slice of boiled beef and its canard a l’orange. 

The French chef taught his Vietnamese sous-chef the traditional art of French cooking and, in return, acquired the skills of his Asian assistants. Over the years, Vietnam – originally influenced by Chinese and Indian cooking, then garnished with a French touch – developed a unique cuisine. 

Wine, spirits, and champagne were imported from France. From India and China came opium, popular among a small group of colonists. The smoking of a pipe of opium was a common habit among some civil servants. Some had 10 to 20 pipes per day, and were said to appear “normal”. One could often smell the sweet fragrance of opium in the corridors outside the hotel’s rooms.

Sofitel Metropole Hanoi

On 1 September 1939, German tanks rolled across the Polish border and set in motion a series of events that soon engulfed most of the global in conflict. In June 1940, Hanoi’s distant “motherland”, France, fell to the German army. 

During the war years the Metropole Hotel, like other grand hotels around the globe during times of emergency, became a venue for discrete meetings, a place where people gathered, where military personnel stayed after requisitioning the best rooms in town, where flags were hoisted and victories celebrated.

On 9 March 1945, with the war in Europe almost at an end, Japanese troops overthrew the French authorities in Indochina. The Metropole this time flying the Rising Sun, was again in the thick of the action. It acted as a prison for French officers and their families. 

In August, after America had dropped two atomic bombs, the tables were turned. The French officers were liberated with the help of the US forces, then Japanese POWs were held at the hotel.

Metropole Hanoi

Declaration of Independence of Vietnam

After the Vietminh seized power in Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, President Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam on Ba Dinh square. This square was originally the site of the West Gate of the ancient Hanoi citadel, which was built from the 11th century. The French had destroyed it, built a flower garden in its palace.

After the proclamation, Ho Chi Minh began to negotiate with the French government on the formation of the Vietnamese “free state” within the French Union. His meeting with General Etinenne Valuie and Nguyen Hai Than, the President of Vietnam’s Kuomintang, took place at the old conference room where the Bamboo Bar is today. 

But the spirit of peaceful negotiation did not last long, the talks later broke down. The first Indochina War began on 19 December 1946. The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu was followed by the Geneva Convention of July 1954, which arranged for a cease-fire and the end of French colonial rule. 

The French had gone, but Vietnam was divided in half at the 17th parallel. A communist north and a non-communist south. It would take another 21 years to reunite it. Fighting continued, this time between the north and the puppet south. Now a new foreign power felt responsible for the country: America.

Metropole Hanoi

Of cause, the hotel name had to be altered to something reflecting the wind of change. Therefore, the grand lady was then called Thong Nhat, or Reunification Hotel. It acted as the official Vietnamese government guesthouse, even its budget was controlled by the government.

Ho Chi Minh paid the Thong Nhat Hotel (Metropole), another visit. This time he welcomed a group of international guests attending a congress. Ho was given a tour of the premises, in the kitchen Ho made polite noises about how clean everything was.

In February 1965, American commenced “Operation Rolling Thunder”, a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam “on every front of human activity”. At Thong Nhat Hotel, the staff received special training. It was time to build an air-raid shelter in the courtyard of the hotel.

In June 1972, American actress Jane Fonda, at that time Fonda was most famous for her 1968 Barbarella movie, came to town, displaying her solidarity with the Vietnamese people. She checked into the Thong Nhat Hotel and stayed for two weeks in a room on the second floor. Fonda’s protest earned her the nickname “Hanoi Jane”.

U.S. folk singer Joan Baez made the hotel her shelter for almost two weeks. Here she experienced the war during the worst air-raids of mankind. 

In December 1972, after Nixon had ordered Linebacker Two, a massive bombing campaign north of Haiphong and Hanoi, Baez spent 13 days here. Joan Baez remembers: “Where are you now, my son?”, is a ballad about the eleven days of bombing I experienced in Hanoi over Christmas of 1972.

Lobby of Metropole Hanoi

The End of The ‘Vietnam War’

On 30 April 1975, North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon, the reunification of Vietnam was complete. Picking up the pieces after more than three decades of war was a long and painful process for Vietnam. 

In 1987, Pullman International Hotels vice-president Jacques Herbert, who had married the daughter of Ho Chi Minh’s first minister of finance, arrived in Hanoi. He recognized the Thong Nhat’s potential and so he entered into joint venture negotiations with Hanoi Tourism, the owner of the hotel. 

The result was the first successful Vietnamese joint venture between a local company and a foreigner partner. 70% of the shares were domestically owned, the largest percentage in any Vietnamese joint-venture at that time. 

While the walls remained intact, old interior structures had to make place for a new design. On 8 March 1992, the hotel reopened, again called Hotel Metropole – first with the prefix “Pullman”, later the management company Sofitel took over. After 40 years of turmoil, the grand hotel was back.

In 2004, a one-million-dollar renovation project covered 109 guest rooms and suites in the Historical Wing, adding a luxurious shopping quarter on the ground floor of the hotel. The new lobby design was inspired by French classical architecture with a touch of Vietnamese flair.

Metropole Arcade

The Bunker

In 2011, it was time for the renovation of the Bamboo Bar, when drillings for a reinforced foundation, the engineering team hit a piece of concreted too large to ignore and they found the bomb shelter. For decades, nobody had a clear idea where the shelter was.

They worked their way through more than two meters of earth and reinforced concrete and the shelter’s 278-millimeter-thick ceiling to emerge into a 40-square-meter space, divided into five interconnecting rooms by heavy metal doors. The bomb shelter was officially re-opened in 2012. 

Today, travelers of all nations meet at the lobby. Each time we came to meet our foodie clients staying at the hotel, we want to say thank you to Dumoutier and Ducamp – who built the hotel from a swamp in 1901.

As per all of our blog posts, the writing was based on our own experience at the place as local foodie guides. We’re food tour provider, we do not receive any money from anyone to write a review. To truly explore Hanoi while sampling its food, book personal street food tour with us.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest