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Three days with Graham Greene

By Jean-Christophe RUFIN Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi

It was around 4 a.m. Which is no time to be disturbed, especially in a hotel like the Metropole, where even in the middle of the day the staff hardly makes a sound. But I was not dreaming: There was a scratching at my door.
I was in Hanoi for a series of scientific conferences and because the hotel was a sponsor of the event, I was being treated like a VIP. In the suite that I had been given, there was a large sitting room and a bedroom. I was lying now in the enormous bed, under a blue and yellow canopy. My wife had left for Haiphong earlier in the day and I was to meet her in three days for a visit to Halong Bay. Which meant that I had the bed to myself for the moment.
Ordinarily this would have delighted me: I could stretch out, make myself at home, sleep sideways. But the Metropole’s bed was so vast, so soft, with such an abundant variety of pillows (including a little sack filled with beans that I had selected from the array of samples) that the solitude was unsettling and prevented me from enjoying a deep sleep.
The initial scratches woke me. I thought at first that it was a bad dream, but then when the noise persisted, there remained no doubt: Someone was at my door. I flipped on the light, slipped into my robe, and went to the living room. I put my ear to the door and listened. There was the sound again.
“Who’s there? What do you want?” I whispered somewhat meekly.
“Hmmmmm! Please…”
The voice coming through the thick wood was deep and husky.
Probably a drunk American who can’t find his room, I thought. Or whose wife had thrown him out. The latter worried me more.
I opened the door carefully.
The paneled hallway was illuminated by a series of large porcelain lamps. I saw before me a tall man, but I couldn’t make out his features. He was wearing a long trench coat, tightly belted.
“Please,” he implored.

He turned and shot a glance down the corridor, as if to see whether anyone had heard him.
“This is the ‘Graham Greene Suite,’ isn’t it?” he asked, indicating the brass plaque next to the door with his chin.
“So it is.”
“O.K., then let me in. I’ll explain.”

 

The long, quiet corridor was an oddly reassuring sight. It reminded me that I was in a palace, the most famous hotel in Indochina, and that more than 600 people were employed here; at the slightest cry, a battalion of guards would surely come running. I was in no danger. I opened the door and let the man in.
He looked exhausted, flopping onto the sofa with a sigh of relief.
The living room had a table at which eight people could have comfortably been seated for dinner. Each evening, a delivery of assorted macarons and appetizers was placed there, with a card that explained the ingredients of each. I noticed that the man was eyeing the platter, so I offered it to him.
“Have some. Can I make you some tea?”
“With pleasure,” he replied as he bent over the delicacies.
He put one in his mouth and then stood up, groaning with pleasure.
“God, these people know how to live!”

 

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