HOTEL CONTINENTAL SAIGON
THE WALLS COULD SPEAK...
Since 1880, still a living symbol of French Indochina, the Hotel Continental inherited its name from the homonym hotel in Paris. Those were years that we dreamed to stay in this landmark, following the paths of adventurers, novelists, politicians, and cineasts who stayed there by necessity -that was the unique luxury lodging in Saigon- and now by tradition. Dorgelès, Malraux, Rabindranath Tagore, Graham Greene (The hotel features prominently in his novel "The Quiet American" and in its two film adaptations), President Jacques Chirac, Valery Giscard D'Estaing and many statesmen on a private visit, dropped their trunks in the large and beautiful, amazingly nostalgic rooms facing the Opera House (by Garnier) or the ravishing courtyard planted with centenary trees. Lots of movies have been shot at the Continental: including Indochine, featuring Catherine Deneuve.
When our taxi stopped in from of the lovingly restored colonial white façade, as much a symbol of Saigon as the Eiffel Tower for Paris, two vintage cars parked in front of the main entrance. That was like traveling back in time. We took a picture, slightly photoshopped it for the fun, and the impression was evident: this magic hotel captured the time and essence of the dreamed Indochina! Despite the repeated refurbishments undergone over the years, the colonial spirit, mixing dream, ambition, intrigues, success, disillusions sometime, love often, remained almost intact over the walls. Once charged with the sour essence of French “Pastis”, perfumes by Guerlain, and dark smoke of opium, the public areas and rooms alike have captured the magic of the golden age when South Vietnam was still Cochinchina, and when rutillant Citroën and Peugeot cars engaged into the “rue Catinat” (now Dong Khoi Street), the local Champs-Elysées.
Saigon was then called "the Paris of Asia". After being transferred from different owners, including Duke Montpensier, the hotel had been acquired by a man of many legends: Mathieu Franchini, native like Napoleon from the French Island of Corsica. Referred as the "Saigon Emperor", a former gangster for his enemies, an innovative investor for the friends, he was the patriarch of further generations of Franchini managing the hotel until the Communist takeover of 1975.
The Franchini family transformed the Continental into a modern palace hotel, yet never built that important element missing nowadays to get it a fifth star: a swimming-pool. This is a disappointment for many: except in the SPA Jacuzzi, don't expect a refreshing splash during the hot season (meaning ten months per year). The courtyard would be the ideal place for this; but the conservative Corsican refused to remove the now secular Frangipani trees. Planted before the erection of the hotel, which means before the main Post Office (by Eiffel) and splendid Notre Dame Cathedral (both located a five-minute walk), they still bring shade and style to the most colonial section of the landmark. Creating a major issue to many guests (“-Should we rather book a courtyard or Opera view?”), this was our meeting and relaxing point during the all stay. The neighbouring Park Hyatt Saigon, which is five-star luxury, and amazingly comfortable, has a lushly park and a pool, which we love so much; but nothing can replace the old-style charm of this courtyard with this “je ne sais quoi” retaining the last breath of France in Southeast Asia! That was the place for wedding parties during the French Protectorate; this is still nowadays. Expect much atmosphere in this animated hotel: certainly one of the most entertaining in Saigon. There is always action at the Continental.
The best time to enjoy the courtyard is early morning, for one of the most attractive breakfasts in town. We experienced the hotel end of June, during the relatively low season. It was still high occupancy, principally with Asian guests preferring the air-conditioned "belle-époque" restaurant to the warmer courtyard where we preferred to sit, under a frangipani. Those tables are hard to get during the high season, when western travelers rush to this world famous hotel; if you stay there, ask the staff to book a table for your next day breakfast.
This is a state run hotel, and the reputation of those establishments is often disregarded: poor service, lack of refurbishment, etc. We were positively surprised, as this wasn't the case at all in the Continental. From the reception till the restaurant and room, we have been treated with much kindness and efficiency. Back from Paris, where we stayed in the ultra chic and expensive Hotel Le Bristol, we noted that in comparison the staff was more plethoric at the Continental. This is particularly evident during breakfast: with dozens of employees, extremely polite and usually young (therefore with a convenient knowledge of English), cleaning our table as soon as we finished a dish, and having a smile or a nice word for us. This impression goes up to the rooms, with one housekeeping counter per floor: dating back from the origin of the hotel, very stylish and therefore much photographed, those small offices with a large window allow a direct contact with the staff when we wanted to have our room made up in priority, more water or any extra, and more security. We had a visitor accompanying us and, though having the profile of a guest, she was kindly asked to produce her ID card. We appreciated, indeed.
The 95 rooms and suites reflect a former palace hotel, now rated four star international, and that we would define as a “historic” or “atmospheric hotel”. It has too many rooms and suites, is too “grand” to fit the “boutique hotel” classification. Just like the remarkable Majestic Saigon (also perfectly well managed by SaigonTourist), the Continental is too old fashion to compete in term of modern luxury with the top-end Park Hyatt (or even the tacky The Reverie). It also offers much more affordable rates. But guests are the same: businessmen, and individual travelers with a distinguished taste. For a honeymoon or first trip to Saigon, we would definitely give a preference to the Continental. Because this is, with Majestic, the most authentic luxury hotel in town. Now, the architecture of the turn of the last century palace-hotels means some details which would not please everybody: for instance, the Superior rooms, though awesome with a new hardwood paneled floor replacing the plain grey carpets from the 1970s, do have windows with a view...on the long and dark corridors! Advertised at a loss-leader price, they sell like hot cakes through Booking.com or Expedia.com. Skip them, and do like us: book in advance, directly with the hotel, an Opera Wing room. Spacious (45m2) and atmospheric, it matched exactly what we expected from this venerable hotel. A nostalgic Indochinese setting: with very high walls (4m), wood cabinets patinated by one and a half century (the heavy teak hangers, with the carved logo of the hotels, are pieces of collection), pictures of the Old Saigon, and a bedside table incorporating a 1970s radio-set (just for the vintage touch, it doesn't function anymore since decades). A large balcony: from where we liked to observe, day and night, the best of Saigon: the Opera House, the hypnotizing ballet of the motorcycles, the elegant Saigonese wandering along the streets, and the terrace of the hotel, a meeting point for the local upper-class. An unexpected level of service: kind and efficient, the housekeeping always let us an impeccable, extremely clean room. We liked the separate “petit-salon”, along the large French-windows (providing a soft light into the room), and the large writing desk: only a culturist could move the heavy -and comfy- chair. The furnishing of the room mixes quality with a nostalgic rusticity. The bathrooms are five-star, and the equipment (complimentary high-speed WiFi, 32' LCD screen TV, tea/coffee facility) is modern and adjusted to the standing of the hotel. Once refurbished with wood-panelled flooring (soon), those rooms will be among the most awesome in Saigon.
Besides the lively lobby, with live piano and violin in the evening, the most frequented spot is the “Café de la Hien” (it means cafe under the veranda): renamed “La Dolce Vita Café” (this Italian name sounds odd in this French setting), this is still one of the most sought-after places for an aperitive, before dining at “Le Bourgeois”. Graham Greene featured both places in his novel “The Quiet American”. The restaurant is superb, with a name which doesn't lie. Bourgeois indeed, and maybe too much, it would easily be another “La Villa” or “La Côte d'Azur” (the two best French restaurants in town), with a less international menu. Though the imported steaks are excellent, and the Vietnamese specialties delicious, it lacks a French chef to renew with the tradition of a place where the walls, if they could talk, would reveal many secrets...and maybe some good recipes.
Those wishing to turn their experience of Saigon into a novel should straightly book in this hotel of exception.
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