Hotel opens wartime air raid shelter to guests

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Hotel historian Andreas Augustin enters the bomb shelter under the garden of the Metropole hotel during its reopening ceremony in Hanoi on May 21

Forty years after the bombs stopped falling on Hanoi, and less than one year after the rediscovery of an air raid shelter in its back garden, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi has reopened the excavated bunker as a tourist attraction.

"Hotels are always opening new outlets," said Kai Speth, the hotel's general manager. "New restaurants, new bars, new spas. But it's not everyday that a hotel opens an old bomb shelter as a new memorial."

The 40-square-meter bomb shelter has been restored to its original state as a tribute to the hotel's wartime employees, who ushered guests into the relative safety of the underground chamber from the mid-1960s through the Christmas Bombings of 1972.

A Filipina journalist, Gemma Cruz Araneta, described the shelter in 1968: "The hotel shelter is a long, narrow, semi-subterranean room of concrete which I thought would have made a groovy discotheque. It is lined with green wooden chairs and though there was no electricity, I noticed an electric fan. Really, the Vietnamese are such thoughtful hosts."

Araneta attended the opening ceremony on May 21. So, did Bob Devereaux, an Australian diplomat who scratched his name into a wall of the shelter in 1975.

Though the hotel had long known there was a bomb shelter buried near the shallow end of the swimming pool, it was only during the renovation of the hotel's Bamboo Bar that the decision was made to open the historical site to the public. Speth approached the project last summer with a mix of ambition and trepidation.

What they did find was water, and plenty of it. Over the years, groundwater completely flooded the warren of chambers and corridors. After the hotel's engineering crew pumped out the water, they discovered a few relics "” an old wine bottle, intact light bulb, air vents, metal blast doors and Bob Devereaux's graffiti.

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When Devereaux read an account of the shelter's rediscovery in an Australian newspaper last fall, he contacted the hotel to report that, indeed, he was the man who'd scratched his name in the wall one day in August after the war was over, though he doesn't quite remember doing so.

"I may have been at a loose end finding that the bunker was flooded again possibly with no electric light either and so may have scratched my name on the wall in between fishing under the water for an elusive bottle of Australian wine," he said. "I don't remember the bunker being sealed up. I left Hanoi in 1976, and as far as I can recall the bunker was still open when I left."

Hotel historian Andreas Augustin, president of the Most Famous Hotels in the World organization, is training a team of six local historians to accompany hotel guests on a tour that culminates with a descent into the wartime shelter.

"Vietnam is famous for underground excursions at the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Vinh Moc Tunnels, and for bunkers at war memorials like Khe Sanh," said Augustin. "The Metropole's contribution to this heritage adds a completely new dimension to the story of Vietnam at war."

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