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If Walls Could Only Speak

October 4, 2009

There’s famous hotels and then there’s infamous hotels. Saigon’s Hotel Continental fits somewhere between the two.

Hotel Continental

In a city that’s constantly evolving so little time is taken to appreciate what already exists. But while buildings grow taller, and the ground below edges toward a distant speck, there are always those few little remnants remaining that help remind us of a rich and vibrant past.

None more so than Saigon’s Hotel Continental, which has been sitting proudly in the centre of the city since 1880, and now looks out toward a new and thriving Vietnam. It’s hardly suprising that the phrase that follows it most – “if the walls of the Hotel Continental could speak, they could tell you many stories” – still defines it to this day, past visitors include the writers Graham Greene, Andre Malraux and Rabindranath Tagore as well as an entire war-time media in the 60s and 70s.

But those stories of old, the ones of romance, war and opulence, are no longer being whispered from its walls at 134 Dong Khoi Street. Instead, what remains, is a sorrowful lament, telling tales of urban sacrifice and loss. A story who’s only destiny is to be drowned out by the concrete canopies of its high-rise neighbours the Sheraton and the Caravelle.

Governmental ownership under organisation Saigon Tourist, according to many, is the reason for the grand hotel’s fall from grace. After being put into governmental hands in 1975, after then owner Mathier Francini, a French gangster, ceded, its glamour has somewhat waned. The swathe of foreign investment in the late 90s, expanding the areas around it, spelled out even more that the death knell was on its way.

But what can it do other than rely on the charm of its beautiful facade? The infamous drinking hole, the Continental Shelf, referred to in Greene’s novel The Quiet American, is long gone. Even its high profile guests, including then Mayor of Paris Jacque Chirac and Malaysian President Mohatia Mohamed, hardly match the star-billing of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who have stayed in the Sheraton and Caravelle respectively.

Some say it’s time for an overhaul, others have called for privatization. Tourists don’t seem to care too much either way. Hotel Review aggregating websites such as spark up a host of uninspired comments. One user, callimeroo, from Montreal, claims that the hotel is “in desperate need of an overhaul”, while another user, indi-princess, bemoans that its US$150 room rates reflect poor value for money from a “hotel that resembles a Hungarian 3-star”.

The Continental, however, has one advantage over its competitors that outweighs anything they can throw back at it. Charm. That feeling of walking down the thoroughfare alongside, the way it’s lit up across from the Opera House, the creamy white exterior that rests so easy on the eyes, these are all things the glass skyscrapers can only fail to match.

It’s still one of the things that excites me most about a trip down town.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. sam permalink
    October 7, 2009 8:57 am

    the history of the city always seems kind of inaccessible to me, so I enjoyed this. is it being considered for demolition then?

    • fromthetowersofdistrictfive permalink
      October 8, 2009 3:07 am

      No it’s just in dire straights financially as it can’t compete with the others around it. Shame really because it’s much more appealing to stay there.

  2. October 12, 2009 6:37 am

    I recently did a lecture to a group of business students on Marketing Vietnam to Inbound Tourists, and used the Continental as a prime example of how Vietnam gets it so wrong, time after time after time.

    This is the most beautiful building in the whole country, full stop. It is rich in history. It should be HCMC’s equivalent of the Metropole in Hanoi. But its owners either don’t understand its appeal, or don’t want to lose face by admitting it.

    Where are the mentions of Graham Greene? Why has no-one thought to create a Graham Greene suite or to reopen the Continental Shelf? Why does a splendid FRENCH hotel have a half-arsed Italian restaurant?

    My fear is that, in a city already blighted by state-approved vandalism of its finest architecture, the Continental may end up on the demolition list. If it did, I’d be standing in front of the bulldozers.

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