Peacenik of the People

Published in Herald on Sunday, June 21, 2015

metropole exteriorIn a concrete bunker under Hanoi’s most prestigious hotel, the voice of American folk singer Joan Baez pierces the dank air. From a fuzzy tape recording comes her famous anti-war song, Where Are You Now, My Son which she wrote and partially recorded in this cramped and sweltering air-raid shelter. The music is punctuated by the crump of bombs hitting the ground above.

Joan Baez stayed at the Metropole hotel over Christmas in 1972, at the time the United States Air Force unleashed Operation Linebacker II, its most intensive bombing campaign since World War II. Along with a couple of other peace activists, including Telford Taylor who was counsel for the prosecution at the Nuremburg Trials, and hotel staff, she spent every night of the 11-day bombardment crammed with up to 40 people in this small network of dark cells under the hotel’s back courtyard.

The entry stairwell was sealed after the war and the bunker forgotten for 37 years, to be unearthed two years ago during renovations to a terrace bar and pool. Now, small groups go into the bunkers to relive history.

bomb shelter 5 metropole bomb shelter 1 bomb shelter 2

As the temperature inside soared to 40 degrees, Baez would play guitar and sing to keep terror at bay. Where Are You Now, My Son refers to the cries of a woman Baez saw one morning searching for her son lost under rubble from the night’s raids.

The singer and human rights activist remains a heroine at the hotel, now called the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi and considered one of the grandest hotels of Asia. Baez feels like a constant presence there, although she has made only two visits in her 73 years. The first was during the failed attempt to demoralise the North Vietnamese in 1972. The second visit was just last year, and like the Christmas Bombings, it lasted 11 days.

Baez went back into the newly-reopened bunkers during her visit. The hotel manager reports she touched a clammy concrete wall and quietly sang the American civil rights song Oh Freedom.

For the Metropole management and staff, the return of Joan Baez was a legend come to life. The history and mythology of their workplace is steeped in stories of how this American woman stood alongside them during the American War, as the Vietnamese refer to the conflict we call the Vietnam War.

Photographs and mementoes of her wartime visit are in a Path of History display in the lobby. A piece of shrapnel the singer picked from a bomb crater in 1972 and returned in 2013 is in a display case. She believed it was in the shape of a vulture. There is a Joan Baez cocktail at the bar, and in pride of place near the reception desk is an oil painting of a young Vietnamese boy, a novice monk. It was painted by Baez in the Somerset Maughan Suite of the Metropole during her recent stay. She told the manager her voice was not so good these days, so she’d taken up painting.

The Metropole itself, built and named in 1901, became the Reunification Hotel under the communist government and was used as a guest house for international visitors and diplomats. It became a private hotel again in the 1990s.

Now the bomb shelters can be explored only by guests staying at the hotel. It is difficult to open the bunkers to wider tourism because of their location under the bar and pool.

A local historian is damp-eyed as she explains the impact Joan Baez had – and still has – at the Metropole. During the American War, she explains, Joan Baez more than any other Westerner bravely stood alongside the North Vietnamese, speaking loudly in international protest and dodging bombs with the locals. Between air raids she visited American prisoners of war at Hoa Lo Prison (the infamous Hanoi Hilton) and delivered mail from home.

It is unlikely Baez met Senator John McCain, America’s most celebrated prisoner of war, who would probably have been applauding the Christmas Bombings from the Hanoi Hilton. But McCain is another return visitor to Hanoi, staying at the Metropole, and he is welcomed warmly and forgivingly, as seems to be the general attitude of many Vietnamese towards Americans.

Actor Jane Fonda – the infamous Hanoi Jane, seen as a traitor to her homeland during the war – also stayed at the Metropole in 1972, before the bombings, and she too has made return visits. Actor Michael Caine is a former guest, there for the filming of The Quiet American. Writer Graham Greene, like Somerset Maughan, has a suite named in his honour. He wrote parts of The Quiet American at the Metropole. And Catherine Deneuve stayed to film Indochine.

Vladimir Putin has been a Metropole guest, and so have Brad and Angelina, and Mick Jagger. But no one is so warmly welcomed or sadly farewelled as Joan Baez, and no-one else has the first painting they have ever put their name to hanging proudly in the lobby.

joan baez painting Joan Baez is touring New Zealand in October 2015

Hoi An, central Vietnam

imageAncient, atmospheric, beautiful … and busy.  Hoi An is Vietnam’s most popular tourist town. Bursting with gourmet food (at backpacker prices) and packed with expert (usually) tailors, the whole town is a Unesco World Heritage site with centuries-old houses, temples and pagodas. It is also over-run with tourists. You will be badgered by vendors and touts, but in the quiet times and in the back lanes strolling Hoi An is a delight.  The town was untouched during the American War, apparently with the agreement of both sides. imageimageThe most famous eating spot is Morning Glory, and it deserves its reputation. The Morning Glory cooking classes are also the best known of many. Right in the centre of the old town, the veranda offers a shady spot to watch the world go by. imageWe also enjoyed Miss Ly 22, a quieter cafe over by the market. They do the perfect version of the Hoi An speciality White Rose – a rice dumpling with shrimp.image Also hard to beat is the pool and China Sea beach at the Vinpearl resort near Da Nang, a fine place to hide from the heat and bustle of Hoi An.image

Snapshots of Hanoi

imageimageimageimage Daily life in Hanoi is an outdoors affair. Early-morning exercise around Hoan Kiem Lake, shopping and eating on pavements, motorcycles by the thousand, and bia hoi (the local fresh beer) to be enjoyed on tiny plastic stools on every street corner.

Under the elegant Bamboo Bar at the Sofitel Metropole hotel are bomb shelters which protected the likes of Jane Fonda and Joan Baez during air raids in the American War (as the Vietnamese call the conflict we know as the Vietnam War). The shelters were sealed after the war and forgotten for 35 years until they were rediscovered during hotel renovations to build the Bamboo Bar and pool. Now hotel guests can take a tour, but they are not open to the public.image

War debris is on display but people seem somewhat forgiving of the Americans. However the pilgrimage to see Ho Chi Minh’s body in the Hi Chi Minh Mausoleum is a very serious and solemn one for the Vietnamese.imageimageHanoi is a wonderful city to visit, and best enjoyed on foot. Next stop, Hoi An.