(HO CHI MINH CITY / SAIGON,VIETNAM)
By Gilles Malaisé
Its architecture might look somehow Jungenstill, with a solid French touch; but the Caravelle dates back from 1959 only; while the other palace hotels located in the old Saigon colonial quarter have been erected in the 1920's. With its ritzy Italian marble, bullet-proof glass and state-of-the-art air-conditioning system, it became the leading hotel in Vietnam, and one of the most sought after address in S.E. Asia.
Modernity seems to be the best definition for a hotel which, half a century later, still copes with the rules of supreme elegance, unmatchable comfort and improved high-tech. We visited it during the Ten Years Celebration of its reopening, after up and downs, with a new tower erected in 1998, and the complete refurbishment of what we would call the «Old Wing» (the original Caravelle corner building) in a 5 star deluxe palace hotel.
This refurbishment re-launched the prestige of what was in the 1960's home to the Australian Embassy, the New Zealand Embassy, and offices for the Associated Press, NBC, CBS, the New York Times and the Washington Post, to name but a few. Air France opened its Vietnamese headquarter and ticketing office in the ground floor, when the airline begun operating a fancy new jet airliner of the same name.
For the most part, the ambiance at the Caravelle was one of relaxed conviviality. The rooftop bar was the centre of operations - both professional and social - for the international media. From their tenth-floor perch, cold beers in hand, journalists could, by the war's closing days, see the front line from their bar stools. If things got lively enough, they would ride the elevator down to the lobby, take one of the hotel's swanky American limousines out into the field and be back in time for cocktails and note comparing. By the end of the war journalists claimed that they could cover the action without even leaving their bar stools.
Following the Liberation of Saigon in 1975, the hotel was taken over and operated by the government and renamed the Doc Lap (Independence) Hotel. And so it remained until 1998, when the Caravelle name was relaunched, and what has once again become widely regarded as the city's finest hotel was reopened - still, as before, intimate, welcoming and mercifully free of pretense.
The original ten-storey building is now adjoined to a smart 24-storey tower that forms the bulk of the new property. Developers with less foresight might have been tempted to tear down the original and start from scratch. But somehow it seems unthinkable that those strikingly curved, balconied corners that have for almost half a century occupied one side of the city's most picturesque square, should be lost.
The immediate views from that rooftop institution so beloved by foreign correspondents, and now called Saigon Saigon Bar, have changed little since 1959. If you look across the Opera House and the Hotel Continental and up along Dong Khoi Street, you can still see the twin spires of Notre Dame Cathedral. Along this thoroughfare - once called the rue Catinat - in 1975, a Vietnamese tank rolled down to the Place Garnier, now Lam Son Square. Pulling up opposite the Caravelle it is said to have turned turret and taken aim at the hotel's facade. Why it didn't fire is anyone's guess, but rooftop tipplers with an appreciative eye for the heritage of this atmospheric corner of the city might consider raising a glass or two to whoever was giving the orders on that historic April afternoon.
The Saigon Saigon Bar still stands: its antique fans still whirl languidly from the raked ceiling, cocktails are still carefree on the garden terrace, dating back to 1956; and the veranda remains a “lookout tower” across Ho Chi Minh City, with its romantic purple glow at sunset. We are too young to tell you if the original atmosphere remains or not; what comes sure, is that there is still much action there! Just like everywhere in the hotel. We liked the «Latino Night» (once per week), with Cuban music and cigars, Armagnac and whiskeys costing the price of a bottle of Perrier in a Parisian terrace! We liked also the Filipino singers, whose chilly voices defy the rumblings of the thunder! Let's say that we certainly stay at the Caravelle first of all because of the reputation of its bar, which we haunted every night; mixing with the expats and local bartenders, which are the most social and friendly you might meet in Asia.
For this first visit in Saigon, we were hesitant between staying in the Caravelle, or in the opposite, deliciously colonial and world famous hotel Continental, well known to those who read Graham Green or Alphonse Boudard novels. Both hotels form, with the opulent Majestic, well worth the trip historical landmarks of hospitality.
is a private venture, with a very dedicated service, visible as soon as
we had stepped inside the lobby. Four doormen and a smiling, delicious
hostess greeted us; a ritzy though somehow familiar atmosphere made us
feel at ease at first sight. Were we actually in a communist state? We
felt like in The Oriental, Bangkok; privileged just like one can be
in South East Asia.
no difference between the design of the old wing and the 24-storey new
tower wing. Those liking breathtaking city or river panorama, will
prefer the tower. The old wing makes you feel closer to the action:
is where we had our « Signature Suite », featuring a balcony
with a view to the Lam Son square, bustling with life. This is where
heart of Saigon beats, indeed. The windows were perfectly
and we have never been disturbed by the noise: enjoying one of the most
comfortable, Hästens-like, kingsize bed we ever experienced. The
was as smooth as a cloud. All the «Signature» rooms and
suites are large. Equipped with modern, stylish furniture and rich
they all feature deluxe bathroom amenities, in-room IDD telephone/
Internet access, satellite LCD television with DVD/CD player,
in-room thermostat control, electronic room key system, electronic
safety deposit box, in-room tea/ coffee making facilities. The room
and butlers and very active; each time we came back from the breakfast
room we found our room made up. Fresh tropical fruits, cakes and
were brought to us every evening, just before our bed was turned up.
guest is very cared about, with both kindness and efficiency. This
hotel treatment, mixed with the Vietnamese touch, makes the Caravelle
A hotel of this class features, of course, many facilities.
The restaurant Nineteen, located just to the right of the main lobby, overlooks the main entrance and the Opera house. We saw it crowded, day and night; hard to find a seat in what seems to be one of the top 5 cafés downtown. Part of its reputation comes from its rich buffet selection.
restaurant Reflections specializes in outstanding brasserie cuisine. We
had a fine dinner there. The Western executive chef enrich a French
cuisine with touches of Asian flavours. There is a great
of wines imported from France and the New World (Australia, New
Chili...). Wine is expensive (like everywhere in Asia, unfortunately),
and the refreshing « Saigon » beer can be a wise alternative;
meal is good value for money.
It is important to mention that Internet (WiFi in the lounge, cable in the rooms) is really high-speed (no problem to use video on Skype, for instance), and complimentary in the «Signature» lounge and rooms.
Rates start from $270 for a Deluxe Room, till $1200 for the Presidential Suite. A Signature Suite costs approximately $480.
hospitality reminiscent of a bygone era, the Caravelle is a
hotel. Definitely one of the Top 10 five star hotels in South East Asia.
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