Beneath one of Hanoi’s most prestigious hotels lies centuries of history begging to be uncovered – so uncover, they did.
While the odd hotel can stake a claim to a previous guise in a bygone era, the team at Apricot Hotel has dug into the annals of history, uncovering vignettes of life stretching back some 1000 years in the heart of Hanoi.
“We were intrigued to learn this piece of land and its immediate surrounds, shrouded in tales and folklore, are the underlying foundation of a series of buildings and at least one temple,” says Le Anh Ngoc, Apricot Hotel’s marcom manager.
Lining Hang Trong street a stone’s throw away from the legendary Hoan Kiem Lake, the ground beneath the hotel was part of a hamlet going back to at least the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225).
“Not surprisingly, the hamlet was Tu Thap painting village, which was famous for one very artistic custom,” says Le. “Villagers used to hang paintings above the front doors of houses to drive away ghosts and demons.”
The village became home to two temples; each of which remain on Hang Trong today just steps from the hotel. Legend has it one of Vietnam’s greatest heroes, Le Loi, built Dong Huong temple in the 15th century to honour a singer who plied occupiers with alcohol, tricked them into sleeping bags and hurled them into Hoan Kiem Lake to drown. Deeper in the hamlet, the ancient Nam Huong Temple originally stood where Apricot is today but was relocated in the mid-1880s when the French built a road around Hoan Kiem Lake’s circumference.
In 1886 then Governor-General of Vietnam Paul Bert demanded Hang Trong’s residents build brick houses within a year or sell their land to the city. While Bert died of dysentery that same year, most local people – many of whom had been robbed by a notorious gang – did not have enough money and were inevitably forced to sell their land to rich French buyers. That same year, a French Chamber of Commerce was established to help manage burgeoning trade fuelled by predominantly French companies based in Hanoi.
Following the establishment of a French street to the Hoan Kiem Lake’s west, checkpoints cropped up at the junction of Hang Trong and Nha Tho streets. French police forbade Vietnamese nationals from entering, granting access only to those who worked for French companies or passenger buses. Writer Nguyen Cong Hoan wrote that he was asked to duck down in the bus as it inched down the street collecting passengers. In 1914, when France engaged in World War I and many French nationals returned home to fight, the checkpoints were scraped, affording the Vietnamese free access to Hang Trong.
Under French rule in the early 20th century, grand, luxurious Parisian-style mansions mushroomed around Hoan Kiem. Along the stretch from Hang Trong to Le Thai To – which Le describes as typical of Hanoi’s architecture even today: romantic and elegant in scale and design – emerged the long-running Phu Gia hotel and western-style restaurant, where Apricot Hotel stands today.
“Back in its heyday, young men born into families in the Old Quarter had girls fall head over heels simply for a night out at Phu Gia. It was famous for its luxurious parties,” says Le. “The history in the air is palpable.”
The bulk of clientele at the Phu Gia Hotel were foreigners and Saigonese, with many foreign correspondents staying there while reporting on the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Shortly afterwards, with the mass exodus of foreigners and well-heeled and educated locals due to the widening divide in Vietnam in the lead up to the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam), a quiet spell fell over the Phu Gia.
In late 1958, Hanoi embarked on reforming its trade structure, for Communism only accepted two economic parties: the state and cooperatives. A series of factories and hotels including the Phu Gia became state-owned while shops and xich lo (cyclo) companies joined different cooperatives. In 1986, following self-imposed economic isolation, Vietnam introduced sweeping economic reforms and flung its doors open to the world, swiftly progressing from one of the globe’s poorest countries to being declared a lower middle-economic country.
In this midst of change, the Phu Gia became a joint-stock company and relished another lease on life. At the beginning of the 1990s, it had a “special” customer mostly every night – acclaimed writer Nguyen Viet Ha, who only ordered Johnny Walker. Whether by himself or entertaining friends, his bill was never less than nearly a $100, a staggering amount at the time.
Yet once again the good times came to an end. The Phu Gia closed its doors and became overgrown with moss during long drawn out negotiations between Phu Gia Joint Stock Company and associated parties with legal rights to the property.
When the negotiations finally finished, the old Phu Gia was replaced by the Apricot Hotel; its French colonial façade, neo-classical interiors and its hundreds of artworks –numbering up to 600 – laying bare Vietnam’s history, and its soul breathing a classical air into a street brimming with history.
“You can now feel antique Hanoi with every step, and it’s very nostalgic,” says Le. “When Hanoians look at Apricot Hotel and the grounds it is on they feel proud.”
It’s a Vietnamese landmark that, to visitors, is more than merely a hotel. It is the spirit of old Hanoi and the centuries of memories in the city’s streets.