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The Grand Hôtel Métropole in Hanoi Was the
Premier Hotel of French Indo-China
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Restored to its Former Glory the Hotel Had One Problem,
Nobody Knew When it Had Opened its Doors
by Andreas Augustin, October 2006

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 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 fondly, ‘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; 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.
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The Grand Hôtel Métropole was the premier hotel of French Indo-China. 
Today, restored to its former glory, the hotel is the first five-star hotel in modern 
Vietnam. It had only one problem. Nobody knew when it had opened its doors.
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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).

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I hadn’t reckoned with the notorious red tape of the French bureaucracy. ‘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.’
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Richard Kaldor (right) welcomes the President of
France, Jacques Chirac at the Metropole, Hanoi
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).

Slowly I was able to build a world 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 forgave me 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 actor Charlie Chaplin and his wife Paulette Goddard (right). Authors like Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene and many others were her.

The father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh had wonderful stories connected with the hotel. During the Vietnam war Jane Fonda spent two months in her suite at the hotel. Joan Baez cheered the spirits by singing in the hotel's bunker during US air raids. Suddenly we entered a field of research were we could relate to people who had actuylly been working at the hotel during the 1960s and later. 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.

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.
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From our 2006 jubilee edition - Somerset Maugham at Hanoi
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More recent historical facts:

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 recognised the Thong Nhat’s (today Hotel Metropole) potential and so he entered into joint-venture negotiations with Hanoi Tourism, the owners of the hotel. The result was the first successful co-operation between a local company and a foreign partner. 70% of the shares were domestically owned, the largest percentage in any Vietnamese joint-venture at that time. The hotel was closed for the face-lift of the century. On 8 March 1992 it reopened, again called Hotel Metropole – first with the prefix ‘Pullman’, later the management company ‘Sofitel’ took over. 

Ricardo Perran, later Richard Kaldor, followed by Franck Lafourcade, Philippe Bissig and today Gilles Cretallaz led and lead the hotel. Ever since it reopened the hotel has won more national and international awards than many other hotels in their entire life. 

The ‘Metropole Collection’, a series of historical views or details like decorating the Graham Greene Suite and having the portraits of Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham framed for the writers personal suites are contemporary highlights.

In 2004 a one million dollar renovation project covered 109 guest rooms and suites in the Metropole Wing, adding a luxurious shopping quarter on the hotel’s ground floor and new wooden floors in all Opera Wing guest rooms.

The reception desk, now relocated to the end of the lobby lounge, opens up the library area giving guests a spacious feeling on arrival. A new building, the Metropole Wing’s 109 guest rooms and suites offer elegant furnishings, timeless ceiling fans, tasteful woodwork and ceramic lamps. Historic photos of Hanoi’s bygone era grace the walls. Sofitel’s ‘MyBed’, broad-band internet access, LCD with DVD and new showers were installed in all guest rooms. In 2006 all rooms and suites of the Opera Wing were renovated and the offices on the fourth floor were transformed into the Sofitel Club.

At the lobby travellers of all nations meet. A young couple arrives for their honeymoon. ‘Even Charlie Chaplin spent his honeymoon here at this hotel!’ I point out. They loved this idea. 

When night descends, the mild evening invites you to a walk around the house. Opposite the front entrance in some distance, is a magic spot. There Trang Tien Street, the former Rue Paul Bert, meets Ngo Quyen Street, which used to be Boulevard Henri Rivière. A hundred years ago, our two friends must have stood there. Dumoutier had shown Ducamp a row of town houses which were to be rebuilt as a grand hotel. They had a vision, soon to be translated into brick and mortar. They added a name to this idea and called it the Grand Hôtel Métropole. We must say thank you to the two of them. Merci bien is actually more appropriate. And Dumoutier, who spoke fluent Vietnamese, would have agreed that we simply bow and say cam on ong ba.

Upon completion of our project Richard Kaldor gave us this  testimonial: 

‘Maybe the most striking fact was that when we took over the hotel from the former owners all archive material was lost. When we decided to launch the history project very little of the hotel’s history was actually known, and none was collated. Andreas Augustin and his team put our history together like a jigsaw puzzle. They unearthed 100 years of history. Today we know when it all started, who was here and when things happened.  This hotel now has a document that goes far beyond any usual hotel publication, and can consolidate the Metropole as one of Asia’s grand old hotels. We can rightfully celebrate our centenary in a part of the world where historic hotels are few and far between.’ 
Richard Kaldor


 
Andreas Augustin was born in Vienna in 1956, studied hotel management at the Hotel Management College at the Castle of KIesheim, Salzburg. Instead of pursuing a hotel career, he followed his life-long desire to write. He became a journalist and at 25 became the editor of his own publication, a Salzburg city magazine.

The following years as magazine reporter, newspaper columnist, radio host and international correspondent led to extensive journeys to the Orient and Far East. In 1986 he took up residence for three years at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore to study and to write about the region and the hotels of South East Asia. It was there that he developed the series of books "The Most Famous Hotels in the World", possessed by the idea to set new standards in the field of historic research and hotel publications. 

With a wonderful team of writers, historians, researchers and photographers he is building the library of hospitality. The Most Famous Hotels in the World - today with almost 400 select member hotels - has built a major value driver and creator, recognized as the leading archives of historic hotels, thus representing a major source of information to build the future of hospitality. 

As President of the associated Club of The Friends of The Most Famous Hotels in the World Andreas Augustin also takes care of its members from all over the world. Andreas Augustin can be reached at: president@famoushotels.org

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Contact:

The Most Famous Hotels in the World
Glasauergasse 36
1130 Vienna
Austria (Europe)
www.famoushotels.org

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Also See: The Oriental in Bangkok / How We Built The Most Famous Hotels / Andreas Augustin / October 2006
Hotel Sacher Vienna / How We Built The Most Famous Hotels / Andreas Augustin / October 2006
Raffles Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Hamburg / How We Built The Most Famous Hotels / Andreas Augustin / September 2006
Raffles, Singapore / How We Built The Most Famous Hotels / Andreas Augustin / September 2006

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