The Historic Hotels Of Hanoi

By

Leonard Zwelling

Touring the bomb shelter that Jane Fonda and Joan Baez shared in 1972 during the Christmas bombing of Hanoi was an otherworldly experience. That bomb shelter was discovered below the Metropole Hotel, the hotel at which we are staying here in downtown Hanoi.

It is an old French colonial structure built in 1901 that has seen movie stars, heads of state and titans of industry stay in its rooms. The history is so deep there is a guided tour of the hotel’s archives that concludes in the bomb shelter under the current bar.

Our tour today was a recurrent reminder of the two seminal events in recent Hanoi history, the occupation by the French until 1954 and what they call The American War that ended in 1975. The latter is known as the Viet Nam War in the United States.

The first site we took in was a well-preserved piece of a B-52 tail section sitting in a small lake in the center of Hanoi another relic of the Christmas bombing and the North Vietnamese ability to shoot down some of the unseeable, high-flying bombers. Even a few of its tires stick out from the water which is surrounded by small stores, kiosks and houses where business goes on non-stop. The people of socialist Viet Nam go on selling and buying in the freest capitalist system I have seen since my last visit to the Lower East Side in New York.

From there, we dodged traffic and motored through the city to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the equivalent of going to Mount Vernon in Virginia except you can’t see George Washington at Mount Vernon. You can see Uncle Ho here. He’s been embalmed and lies under glass like Lenin does. It’s strange but it’s a pilgrimage site for the Vietnamese, each of whom is to come here once in his or her life. Ho’s house and gardens are still used to receive foreign leaders by Vietnamese leaders. The grounds have been preserved and it is once again strange to realize this history overlaps in time with your own. I remember studying Ho in junior high school as the American War revved up in the early 1960’s. From what I learned here, he was indeed the George Washington of Viet Nam and the founder of the country having steered it through French colonialism, Chinese and then Russian domination, and American aggression to its current independent state.

After a demonstration of Vietnamese lacquer techniques and the obligatory purchasing of lacquered souvenirs, we visited a far more famous or infamous hotel in the middle of the city—the Hanoi Hilton. This is the site of a prison where the French incarcerated and killed rebellious Vietnamese and where the North Vietnamese held the American pilots they had shot down, one of whom was John McCain and his capture is celebrated here with many famous photographs of his rescue, imprisonment and release. But the Vietnamese won this war and they get to write the history.

The exhibits at the Hanoi Hilton oversell the favorability of the treatment the Americans got in Hanoi. It’s propaganda. That’s the way it goes. Just as the Indians don’t get to tell their story and the South lost the Civil War and so has its statues torn down, the Americans that are looked upon favorably here are Joan Baez, Jane Fonda and to some extent Senator McCain, mostly for the healing work he did after he was a famous American politician.

The levity of a water puppet show where wood figures are manipulated through sticks with long rods under water five times a day for packed houses was not enough to erase the sadness of the day. This has been another part of the world where aggression ripped the land and the people apart and just now is the healing taking place. It’s the most capitalistic socialist country I have ever been in as all one sees for blocks and blocks are small stores and street vendors hawking their wares. The store fronts are so narrow and packed in because a king once levied taxes based on the width of the front of your store, so the structures are all narrow and deep off the street.

Hanoi is an amazing place full of people and full of motion. It is also full of commerce and is growing with new construction everywhere.

Still I spent the day in a somber mood thinking about American aggression and whether Jane Fonda and Joan Baez were traitors or were truly fighting for a cause in which they believed that was counter to the policy of the U. S. government. I stood in the bomb shelter as our guide played a recording that Joan Baez infused with sound she had taped on the hotel’s roof during the Christmas bombing almost 50 years ago.

I am glad that Viet Nam developed into a bustling economy with capitalism dominating the economy even if not the government. It was a painful history written on the walls of many hotels, houses and battlefields, but in the end, even if we lost the war, we seem, as I said, to be winning the peace.

Leonard Zwelling