All over Asia we’re lured (indeed, seduced!) by the architectural assets from bygone days. The Citroen cars. The age-mottled walls of centurys-old temples. And, not the least of which, the grand architectural flourishes of societies that have come and gone.
In Hanoi, no building perhaps is the object of so much adulation, and so much yearning for the past, as the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. The hotel’s immaculate white facade and green shutters, an outdoor terrace that’s all but crying for writers to start work on novels, its wrought iron, and floors of seasoned wood are as redolent of 1914 as 2014. Being in the halls of this hotel can be transporting in time, as well as space, for many visitors.
Nostalgia sells. There’s no question about that. Witness the legions of guests that troop through the doors of the Metropole, the Oriental in Bangkok, Raffles in Singapore, and who tick off the appeal of heritage as the top reason for their visit.
The question is, is it good for you? Is yearning for yesterday a healthy way to go about your business today? After all, the great Buddhists, Vietnam’s Thich Nhat Hanh among them, advise us to fixate on the present moment, not those we’ve lost.
Nostalgia, after all, was originally diagnosed as an illness. The word itself breaks down to Greek roots as nostos (home) and algos (pain). And for years – generations, in fact – the impulse was thought to be a weakness. How can anyone get on with his life when he longs to return, like Jay Gatsby, “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
But new research on the subject tells another story: namely, that nostalgia is good for you. Like Ulysses, whose thoughts of home and hearth helped motivate his journey back to his people after the Trojan War, nostalgia can take us where we need to go.
“Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer,” John Tierney wrote in a New York Times article last summer.
This may very well describe the unarticulated motivations of guests at the Metropole. Even if they aren’t French, and can’t look back into family photo albums to the halycon days of Old Tonkin, there is still a desire to be comforted by the embrace of an historic old property.
And something else may be at work, too, as people check into a storied old building like the Metropole, intent on a narrative line that once engaged Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Joan Baez. They’re adding their own chapters in a personal storyline that can be thought of as anticipatory nostalgia.
These latter day builders of memories, who are now paying it forward, are in luck at a place like the Metropole, according to the hotel’s general manager, Franck LaFourcade, who himself is a case study in nostalgia. He was general manager at the hotel from 2000 to 2005, went away for nine years, and then returned to take charge of the hotel again in January of this year.
“There’s a good deal of talk about the halcyon days at the Metropole, but I would have to say that our best days are with us now,” said LaFourcade. “The hotel has never, ever looked as exquisite. The dining has never been so sumptuous. The rooms have never been so comfortable.”
Yearn all you want for the days of Marelli fans, said LaFourcade. “But when it’s 34° degrees outside there’s nothing like a room chilled to 21°.”