Sunday, July 26, 2009

Classic Hotels of Saigon

My recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City saw me stepping into 5 classic hotels for sneak peeks. 3 are from the colonial French period and 2 are from the turbulent 60s when South Vietnam existed. Then Ho Chi Minh City was called Saigon. The hotels are located in District 1 of Saigon (the financial, commercial and administrative center) and within walking distance of each other. Here are some of my photos plus some historical notes and old photos sourced from cyberspace.

Contact me at 016-210 6951 or if you wish to stay at these hotels.


Continental Hotel during French colonial days

Continental Hotel in 1969

The oldest hotel in Saigon and one that features in the Graham Greene novel "The Quiet American", the Continental's construction started in 1880, a project of Pierre Cazeau, a home-appliance and construction material manufacturer. The hotel was named after the Continental Hotel in Paris, which was then the largest hotel in Paris (It is now the Westin Paris). The Continental Saigon was completely transformed in 1892 by Mr. Grosstephan, the ex-director and owner of Chevet, the oldest and most reputable restaurant in Paris situated near the Palais Royal. Since then it changed hands a few times
(1911 Duke Monpensier, 1930 Mathieu Franchini and 1954 his son, Philippe Franchini, until 1964) and went through World War 2 and the departure of the French from Vietnam in 1954.

During the Vietnam war, it became the abode of foreign journalists as it was conveniently located next to the National Assembly building (now the Municipal Theater) enabling them to easily get the latest news scoop.

After the reunification of Vietnam (collapse of South Vietnam) in April 30, 1975, the hotel was closed. In 1986, it was reopened again under the management of a government owned tourism company, with the Vietnamese name "Dong Khoi" (Simultaneous Uprising). As Vietnam opened up to the world, the name was changed back to "The Continental". The hotel is rated 4 star.


Majestic hotel before the 1960 renovation that removed
many of its intricate architectural features.

Majestic hotel - the rightmost building

Majestic hotel - the leftmost building (with the large Sunsilk shampoo billboard)

The Majestic hotel, built since 1925, has long enjoyed its prime location which faces the Saigon River. During the French colonial years, some of its guests arrived by ship and disembarked at a quay nearby. Originally a 44 rooms hotel of classic French Riviera style architecture, it was built by a Chinese businessman, Mr. Hui Bon Hoa. It was a favourite for the French community of Saigon and the place to gather for lunch after Sunday Mass at the Notre Dame church. During Japanese Second World War occupation, it was requisitioned to billet Japanese troops. In 1948 the Indochina Tourism & Exhibition Department bought the main part of the building consisting of the first floor and the ground floor, and rented in 30 years the remainder of 44 rooms. Mr. Mathieu Franchini, a French Corsican, signed a contract to exploit the property within 15 years as from 1951. (He was also at that time the owner of Hotel Continental).

After the French left in 1954, the government of South Vietnam used it as a hotel for official visitors and in 1960; it was remodeled to contemporary styling, losing much of its original charm. In 1968, two more storeys consisting of an international conference room, a restaurant and some other guestrooms were added and the hotel renamed as "Hoan My". During the American presence in Vietnam, the Majestic was servicing many military officers, businessmen, diplomats and journalists. In April 1975, during the final days of South Vietnam, a rocket fired into Saigon destroyed the penthouse suite.

After the reunification of Vietnam, it was turned by the government into a guesthouse named "Cuu Long" (Nine Dragons) for official delegations and visitors, operating as such until its closure for renovation in 1994. The renovation returned the Majestic hotel back to its right place befitting a classic hotel of Saigon. It is now a 5 star hotel with European and Vietnamese style, design and furnishing, open for international visitors. Famous guests at Majestic hotel included authors Somerset Maugham and Graham Green as well as French actress Catherine Deneuve and French President Francois Mitterand.


This 1930 built hotel was started as Grand Hotel by Mr. Patrice Luciani, a French Corsican. It went through name changes (1937 Saigon Palace, 1948 Hotel Saigon Palace, 1958 "Sai Gon Dai Lu Quan" and 1978 Palace Hotel). This hotel is also featured in Graham Greene's novel "The Quiet American". It was renovated in 1995, a new wing added and renamed back to Grand Hotel. Fortunately, the old wing is still there and retains its old iron elevator (the type with shutter gates). The Grand is rated 4 star.


Caravelle Hotel in the 60s

Caravelle Hotel: old wing (right) & new wing tower (left)

Caravelle Hotel's old wing entrance

Caravelle's rooftop bar, Saigon Saigon Bar

Opened for business in 1959, the Caravelle Hotel has a contemporary design, the work of 2 architects, one French and the other Vietnamese. It is named after a new French airliner jet that Air France had begun operating (Air France had an ownership share in the hotel). The name Caravelle in French refers to the the fast and light 15 century ships of the Iberian peninsular. In the 1960s, it became home for the Australian Embassy, New Zealand Embassy as well as Saigon bureaus for NBC, ABS, CBS, The New York Times and The Washington Post. On August 25, 1964, a bomb exploded in Room 514, located on a floor where foreign journalists were staying. Luckily, they were out on assignment. The hotel includes a roof top open-air bar (now called Saigon Saigon Bar) with magnificent 360 degree panoramic views of the city. Towards the end of the Vietnam conflict, correspondents boasted that they can cover the action from the hotel's rooftop bar without leaving their bar stools.

After reunification of Vietnam, the hotel came under government ownership and was renamed "Doc Lap" (Independence) hotel. In 1998, a new 24 floor tower wing was added to the original 10 floor building and the hotel was renamed back to Caravelle. Among the many awards garnered by this 5 star hotel are Best Luxury Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City for 6 years running 1999 to 2006 by The Guide Awards, and listed as one of the top 100 luxury hotels in the world by Robb Report Magazine. Notable VIP guests have included former US President Bill Clinton, Britain’s Princess Anne, movie stars Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser (while filming The Quiet American), award-winning correspondent Brian Barron, fashion accessories and jewelry founder Philippe Charriol, French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki and numerous international ambassadors and senators.


Bainier auto showroom before it was converted to Rex Hotel

Rex Hotel in the 60s. The cinema's signboard announces
a James Bond movie screening.

Rex Hotel: old wing (right) & new wing (left)

Rex Hotel's new wing swimming pool

Swimming pool above the old wing

Rex Hotel's rooftop bar

The site of Rex Hotel was a two story automotive showroom and garage on the corner of Boulevard Bonnard and Boulevard Charner built in 1927 by a French businessman named Mr. Bainier. Then in 1960, a Vietnamese couple, Mr. & Mrs. Ung Thi (who were King Bao Dai's relatives) purchased the building and turned it into a 6 story hotel with 100 rooms. It started as
Rex Trading Center and originally included a library named after Abraham Lincoln, 3 cinemas, a cafeteria and a dance hall.

Its opening coincided with the increasing arrival of the Americans to South Vietnam, the escalation of their involvement in Vietnam. The hotel was rented out as office and accommodation for Joint US Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) as well as the American Bachelor Officer's Quarters. For a time, JUSPAO held daily military press conferences at the Rex's rooftop bar, called 'The Five o'Clock Follies' because the facts given were mostly incomplete or inaccurate. After reunification of Vietnam in 1975, it was taken over by the government, upgraded into an international hotel and renamed Benh Thanh Hotel. And with a touch of irony given its use by JUSPAO, Benh Thanh Hotel was used as the location for the press conference announcing the reunification of Vietnam in 1976.

In 1986, the government sold off the hotel. The new owners renamed it Rex Hotel and gave it an official logo in the shape of a crown. In the 90s, a neighbouring hotel, the Sunflower and another adjacent property were renovated and incorporated as part of Rex Hotel, adding 115 guestrooms and the Rex Royal Court Restaurant. The old cinema was converted into more guestrooms. In 1995, the Rex was granted 4 star rating. Further improvements created a grand lobby in the east wing and a large lobby in the west wing, both linked with a 1,000 square meters Rose Garden. As a result, it was upgraded to 5 star rating in 2008. The hotel is one of the “1000 places to see before you die” listed by Patricia Schultz - the famous American Travel Writer and its rooftop bar was voted "The Best Bar of South East Asia" by Newsweek Magazine in 1996.


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