When I came to work at the Metropole in 1978, the war we’d fought to reunify the north and south of Vietnam had been over for three years. Unfortunately, the country’s border war with its northern neighbor was just about to begin.
I was 17 years old back then, and tourism was just starting up in Vietnam. We were so excited. But all of a sudden the army was drilling around the hotel. We fled down into the hotel’s air raid shelter when the sirens sounded. I worked an eight-hour shift in the hotel, and then I picked up a gun and took up a position outside the hotel to protect the property in case any fighting came down into the city.
Today, I manage Spices Garden, the Vietnamese restaurant at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. I move among my guests in a traditional Vietnamese long dress that we call the ao dai. And though I have never really left Vietnam, and though so much of my life has revolved around my duties in this hotel, I do feel that I have traveled the world. I travel vicariously through my guests.
I have shaken hands with President George H.W. Bush and the First Lady, Barbara Bush. I have met Jacques Chirac, Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton. I have met the First Lady Hillary Clinton, though it may be in the near future that I will say I have met President Hillary Clinton.
The Clintons wanted to know all about Vietnamese food, and because Vietnamese cuisine is one of my country’s great ambassadors I was happy to talk to them about the simplicity of our technique, the lightness of our dishes, the panache of our presentation, and the artful way we mingle flavors, textures and temperatures. Vietnamese food is not just something to eat. It’s a country to explore, and I love helping my diners with this part of their journey.
Today, only Madame Hai has worked longer in the hotel than I have. I turn 54 years old this year. As I begin to think about retirement, and look ahead to those possibilities, I find myself at the same time thinking about all the years since 1978. The handful of general managers I have worked under. All of the guests I have served. I think of that air raid shelter — it was open when I started here, buried during a renovation in the 1980s, and then excavated as a memorial.
The one change I am most proud is this: Until about 10 years ago, the vast majority of our guests were foreign. But increasingly as Vietnam’s economy has heated up, more and more people from all over Vietnam, are checking in and checking out this place I love so much. And the only people going down into the air raid shelter are tourists!