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La Residence History
In 1930, the mansion at 5 Le Loi opened as an addition to the residence of the colonial French Resident Superieure. This period was the hey-dey of the Art Deco school of design. No corner of the globe was beyond the bounds of this popular movement.
While Art Deco fever was especially fervent in Hanoi and Saigon, Hue also tapped the design current of the day for some of its landmark period buildings. The colonial authorities built the Cercle Sportif, a leisure club that still stands on the south bank of the of Perfume River. And they commissioned a grand colonial mansion, anchored by a rotunda and flanked by swept wings. The building’s bowed façade, its long horizontal lines and such nautical flourishes as porthole windows are hallmarks of the Streamline Moderne school of Art Deco architecture.
In the 1930s, Le Loi Street was known as rue Jules Ferry, thus named for a 19th Century French prime minister and imperialist. During the Nguyen Dynasty, the imperial navy governed the land along the river, from the present-day railway station to the Stone Bridge (Dap Da) 2.5 kilometers downstream. When the French assumed control of Hue in the 1880s, they ceded the northern bank of the Perfume River to the Vietnamese and redeveloped the south bank as their ‘New City.’
Between the 1906-built railway station, which was then a terminus of the Hue-Danang line, to the Stone Bridge just beyond the 1963-built Huong Giang Hotel, the French built Hue’s most profound colonial structures. The Resident Superieure lived in a grand colonial mansion at present-day 6 Le Loi, though that relic was razed in 1995 to make way for the existing children’s center. Just up from the Resident’s mansion was Quoc Hoc High School, founded in 1896 and renowned as incubator of such great nationalists as General Vo Nguyen Giap, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and Ho Chi Minh, who studied here briefly before he embarked on his legendary revolutionary career. Beside Quoc Hoc is the Hai Ba Trung School, which opened in 1917 as the girl’s school-complement to Quoc Hoc.
South of rue Jules Ferry was an expansive French neighborhood, where several hundred colonial families lived throughout the 1930s when the French protectorates of Annam and Tonkin and the colony of CochinChina appeared to be an “oasis of peace and beauty,” as one National Geographic correspondent wrote at the time.
The historical record is thin on doings at 5 Le Loi throughout its early years. In 1927, the People’s Assembly was built at 3 Le Loi. From 1935 to 1940, the mansion played host to periodic trade fairs, organized by the colonial authorities, that showcased products made by local craftsmen. In its day, this commercial fair was renowned throughout central Vietnam.
No doubt, the Resident hosted official delegations here. Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam, was reputed to have stayed in a first floor room during one of his last visits to Hue. In 2006, a Thai photographer shot the renovated mansion for a coffee table book about the life of King Bhumipol, who reportedly stayed in the mansion sometime in the 1950s.
During the uncertain years between the end of World War II and the emergence of Ngo Dinh Diem in the mid-1950s, the French struggled against Vietnamese nationalists in the First Indochina War. Bao Dai, who had abdicated in Hue to the government of Ho Chi Minh in 1945, played a ceremonial leadership role during these years. In 1949, the governor’s office was located at 5 Le Loi.
After the Geneva Accords partitioned Vietnam in 1954, the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem requisitioned the mansion as headquarters of an administration that served as a bridge between the national government and the provincial authorities. Diem was from Hue. His brother, Ngo Dinh Can, was the city’s strongman. No doubt, the Ngos footfalls trod the corridors of the historic old mansion.
After the downfall of the Ngos in 1963, the last head of the governmental delegation abandoned the building to its former purpose as a government guest-house. As the Hue city nexus for South Vietnamese officials, the mansion was a setting for intrigue and subterfuge throughout the war and a priority target for soldiers of the National Liberation Front, known in the West as the Viet Cong.
At Tet in 1968, the civilian deputy to the military governor of Danang and his family occupied several rooms on the second floor of the mansion. At midnight, the fanfare of new year’s revelry merged into the raucous gambit of the assault on Hue by the NLF and North Vietnamese Army. The civilian deputy stood on the upper terraces of the guesthouse, watching the red and green tracers streak through the night sky.
At five o’clock that morning, soldiers of the NLF and NVA infiltrated the guest house and captured the deputy, who turned out to be the highest-ranking official of South Vietnam to be captured during the war. Later, the official’s son, Nguyen Qui Duc, wrote a memoir, Where the Ashes Are, that begins at Tet, 1968, in the mansion at 5 Le Loi.
Duc describes the mansion’s arched corridors, porthole windows, heavy armchairs, gardens and views. During the first few days of the Tet Offensive in 1968, the NLF and NVA employed the guesthouse as a temporary holding center.
“A disheveled Frenchman of about thirty entered the area barefooted, a trench coat thrown on over his pajamas,” Duc writes. “Hands clasped together, he tried to explain his situation to two Viet Cong soldiers. ‘De Gaulle, Ho Chi Minh, amis,’ he kept saying.’”
After the war, the Huong Giang Tourist Company acquired the property. For years after 1975, while Vietnam suffered the privations of an embargoed economy, the government guesthouse persevered as a down-on-its-heels, three-star hotel.
That all changed in the early 2000s, when the Apple Tree Group acquired a share of the hotel and redeveloped the property as La Residence Hotel & Spa. Apple Tree commissioned the construction of two annexes that were built as faithful reinterpretations of the original mansion. A renowned designer, who specialized in colonial aesthetics, re-imagined the interiors with jazzy panache.