Friday, May 17, 2024

History of Ho Chi Minh City's famous Hotel, Caravelle Saigon

Like so much of the former French Indochina, there are many stories of days gone by. Here in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City is arguably its most famous hotel, the Caravelle.

In the early 1950s, when the colons were still running the show and Saigon was still very much a French concern, two entrepreneurs, Monsieurs Antonin Emery and Marius Mallein, set out to build the tallest, most luxurious and modern hotel the city had ever seen. Indochina was booming, and demand for upscale accommodation was on the rise.

Emery and Mallein were keen to capitalise on Vietnam's success. During the first months of 1954, the ambitious pair acquired a deed to a 775-square-meter plot at the corner of Catinat Street and Theatre (Lam Son) Square. One of Saigon's most prestigious addresses, the site commanded views of the opulent opera house and the city's most cosmopolitan thoroughfares.

Air France signed on as a co-owner and major ground-floor occupant. The Australian Legation would occupy the entire seventh floor with offices and living quarters for the first secretary. And the Catholic Church bought into the property. Former teacher and local historian Nguyen Dinh Dau recalls that The Caravelle was just one of the Church's many financial interests in the city. In the 1957 contract between the Australian Government and Mallein and Emery, who were represented by a man named G.M. Klimenko, the Australians bought the seventh floor outright. As far as they were concerned, this was a good deal. An external affairs officer wrote in a letter to the assistant secretary that the return-on-investment was clear.

The 10th floor was The Caravelle's pièce de résistance - an expansive rooftop terrace offering unsurpassed panoramic views of the city. As the highest accessible point in Saigon, the location boasted inimitable appeal, offering views of the Opera House, Tu Do Street (formerly Catinat), Theatre Square and across to the other districts. The rooftop was destined to become one of Saigon's most popular daytime and evening haunts, and a springboard to the hotel's enduring renown.

When Caravelle Saigon opened to the public on Christmas Eve 1959 in a flurry of crystal champagne flutes and silver canape trays, a local newspaper reporter covering the glitzy opening event also included an excited description of the hotel's most striking features. He extolled the extravagant use of Italian marble; of French security glass, used for the first time in Vietnam; and the installation of a private 'Berliet' backup generator in case of power outages.

== 1960s ==

Whereas a double was priced at $9 at the spruce Continental or Majestic, well-heeled travelers, expats, and officers with lavish expense accounts were happy to fork out $13 for a room at The Caravelle. In the summer of 1961, a year-and-a- half after the Caravelle opened its doors, the wider world wasn't paying much attention to the brewing conflict in the former French colony.

That summer, just a handful of journalists were based in the city. There were correspondents for the four major wire services, the Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Reuters and Agence France-Presse. There was a stringer for Time magazine and correspondents for The Times of London and Le Figaro. That November of 1961, the first of a legendary corps of correspondents, Malcolm W. Browne, stepped off a Pan Am flight at Tan Son Nhat and headed for the AP bureau at Rue

Pasteur, where he was to take over as chief. Some months later, Peter Arnett checked into the Caravelle and joined the Saigon press corps as an Associated Press reporter. Arnett would later win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting and achieve even greater fame as a CNN correspondent.

When the New Zealand-born journalist touched down in Saigon on June 26, 1962 on a Vietnam Air flight from Vientiane, he beat a path straight to the hotel. Five years after the hotel opened, the novelty of the hotel's air conditioning was still a selling point in a region where the swelter had always been part of the story. In the early 1960s, hotels were investing as much in cooling systems as they were in anything else.

During the mid-1960s, the maturity of television as a medium meant that Vietnam became the first 'living room war.' As the conflict dragged on, it was common to rotate correspondents in and out. Morley Safer, who spent the greater part of his career as a 60 Minutes correspondent, worked out of the CBS News bureau on the Caravelle's second floor. Safer lived on and off at the hotel, riding its "groaning French tortoise" of an elevator, and remembered one of its staffers particularly well. By this time, watching the war from the rooftop of the Caravelle was a spectacle that attracted an audience.

The enthusiastic would show up in the late afternoon, like spectators at a parade, long before the action got underway, and claim the best tables and chairs. As day gave way to dusk, the Phantom jets would fire their engines at nearby airbases, and the bombing runs would begin.

== 1970s ==

During the war, some believed that a landmark beacon a neon sailing ship - fixed to the top of The Caravelle was an aid to the NLF as it trained its rockets on downtown targets. When the authorities learned this, they promptly turned off the neon at night.

The Golden Guide liked The Caravelle, calling it "the only deluxe hotel in Saigon." A single room then cost 2,300 VNP (Vietnamese piastres), or US $19.50. The guidebook called out the hotel's Italian marble, the air conditioning and roof garden. The hotel boasted two dining rooms, a coffee shop, three bars, a cabaret, laundry, dry cleaning and guest privileges at the golf club out by Tan Son Nhat Airport. In this age before email, if you wanted to reach someone at the hotel immediately, you sent a cable to CARAVELOTEL.

In late 1971, a retired U.S Marine colonel returned to Vietnam after 15 months and found the promise of a more durable peace in Saigon. He saw repaved streets. New fire hydrants, new Hondas, Japanese compacts, and better quality goods. No one could remember the last rocket attack. The "canny French," as he called the managers of Caravelle Saigon, had removed the tape from the hotel windows-yet another harbinger of peace.

On May Day 1975, the red, blue and yellow flag of the NLF flew above The Caravelle. A sign outside the hotel said that the government had taken over the property, leading one hotel employee to bemoan his cash flow. "Now we don't know when we will get paid," he said. The hotel manager said that the staff would be paid mainly in bulk rice.

From then until 1992, The Caravelle would be known as the Hotel Doc Lap (Independence). Events at the hotel would parallel the greater changes taking place in Ho Chi Minh City and the country.

Changes at The Caravelle came quickly. Few of the pre-1975 employees remained, and many new ones were brought in by SaigonTourist, the government organisation then running the hotel. The guests' demographic also underwent a sea change. Once the hotel's previous residents - largely journalists and consulates moved out, others moved in.

Russian ambassadors from Moscow soon established themselves as residents in the hotel. As ever, the Caravelle's rooftop was a magnet for foreigners. "The best place to see them [Russians] is the rooftop restaurant of the former Caravelle Hotel, now called Doc Lap. Once the haunt of Western correspondents covering the war, the restaurant and bar now are the favourite hangout for Soviets tossing back chilled vodka and choosing from a menu that still offers a delectable array of French dishes".

== 1980s ==

During the first decade after the reunification, money was always short. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Bich, a long-time cook at Caravelle Saigon, recalled that after five years of employment, she passed an exam that promoted her to a higher level, but her salary stayed the same due to economic difficulties. Mr. Pham Kien Quoc, the IT Manager, remembered the same from the beginning of his career at Caravelle in 1988: "At the old Caravelle, all of the employees were from Saigon Tourist. Very low salaries. My salary was considered good, around US$ 100 a month".

As employee salaries partly depended on how much business the hotel was doing, wages fluctuated. "From 1975 to 1986 we [Vietnamese] were in difficult political conditions, so living conditions were very difficult" said Mr. Hieu. "Anyone working at Caravelle at that time considered themselves lucky. Not because of the salary, but because tips contributed to better living".

In a momentary return to its old position as press HQ, live broadcasts of the 10-year anniversary of the fall of Saigon were made from the Caravelle's rooftop. Steve Bell, of ABC television, performed the first satellite broadcast to American viewers there. The next year, Jack Cahill of the Toronto Star returned to Saigon for the first time since 1975, and made a return visit to the Caravelle to gauge the changes that had occurred in the 11 years since reunification. He found fear of the regime and a reluctance to be seen talking to foreigners, especially about the past.

Visiting Caravelle Saigon in 1986, Lee Marona, a former airline executive at Trans International Airlines who stayed at the hotel in 1971, recalls the sense of despondency that had permeated the hotel. "It was a sad stay. The life of the property had seemingly gone out of the Caravelle, as had much of what I saw in Vietnam in 1986. The cowboy attitude had seeped out of Saigon, replaced by grey matter. Slow, grey matter. The most delightful experience of my stay here in 1986 was to find the same staff, including the incomparable maitre'd, still employed on the rooftop bar. Smiling, friendly, ever efficient staff. That was seemingly the only aspect of Caravelle Saigon, and Vietnam for that matter, that had remained consistent from my 1971 'home'".

As John Pilger told readers in his 1989 article for the Independent, "At the Caravelle Hotel rituals and people have been preserved rather like flowers pressed in a forgotten book. The septuagenarians on each floor are still known as "room boys". I had asked for a particular room on the fifth floor which caught the early morning sun; and the old man who had been on the fifth floor for half his life was still there. He remembered me as an eccentric, I think, because I once got up before dawn to join him in his tai chi exercises. When I asked him how he was, he shrugged. "J'ai survecu: c'est tout ce qu'on peut demander."

In 1988, one of the government's new policies made a small but significant change at The Caravelle. The government authorised dancing at the hotel, and a dancing club was organised in the restaurant (today the Saigon Saigon bar, pic above) to welcome guests. However, said Bich, "It was mainly locals who came, very few foreigners".

Still, it was clear that change was in the air, and that the former name of the Doc Lap still had cachet. In 1989, the hotel stamped its documents Doc Lap, but its letterhead still carried the name Caravelle.

== 1990s ==

By 1990, changes were apparent to even casual visitors. "It appears that Doi Moi is slowly working. Today, city markets are filled with produce. Vietnam suddenly has become the world's third-largest rice exporter after Thailand and the United States, as the frayed and weary Ho Chi Minh City reclaims its old bustle."

As the economy slowly gained strength and the country opened up more to tourism and visitors from the West, a decision was taken to restore Caravelle Saigon to its former glory. In October 1992, SaigonTourist and Glynhill Investment Vietnam (an investment group formed by Lai Sun in Hong Kong and Keck Seng in Singapore) came together in a new concern the Chains Caravelle Hotel Joint Venture Company with a $61.5 million plan: A renovation project that would upgrade the Doc Lap to an international five- star 25-storey hotel.

In 1991, the U.S. laid out a plan for normalisation of relations with Vietnam, a process that would continue throughout the decade. In April of 1992, the longstanding trade embargo was eased, and President Bill Clinton lifted the embargo entirely in 1994.

Each of these factors played a role in the massive transformation that was effected in Vietnam in the last decade of the 20th century. The Caravelle was changing at the same time, and the pattern of Vietnam's progress was reflected in the way the hotel was remade and re-branded between 1992 and 1998. Long a barometer of what was happening in the country, the Caravelle's reconstruction into a modern, five-star hotel in the 1990s mirrored the growth of Vietnam into a modern country ready for the next century.

As The Caravelle's new building was taking shape around a shaky staircase, Vietnam was growing in stature on the international stage. Thanks in part to efforts by Senators John Kerry and John McCain, President Clinton announced the normalisation of relations with Vietnam in July, 1995. Two weeks later, Vietnam became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These two achievements signified that Vietnam was finally at peace with the world, and was on its way to becoming a strong and relevant voice in international relations. The country's economy improved steadily, and investments came flowing in from overseas.

The new building was completed in 1997, and renovations then commenced on the original building. "We took everything out, down to the concrete frame, and redid the whole thing," said Martyn Davies, the hotel's general director. Davies moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 1997, after several years of regular visits, and was witness to the various stages of renovations.

Renovations were finished in May 1998, and the entire hotel was once again open for business. Thanks to the architects and designers, many elements that had given the original Caravelle its legendary silhouette were still present. Still, enough alterations had been made that the new space felt like a contemporary hotel, with all the amenities, luxuries, and conveniences that that implied.

== 2000s ==

Caravelle May 2024 (Roderick Eime)
"Everyone wanted to stay at Caravelle Saigon. We used to get guys coming here who were here during the war, including journalists. A couple of those guys came back just to have a look, to see what it was like years later." A New York Times article about the city's hotel scene during the Asian economic crisis, commented on the Caravelle's new look: "The fabled Caravelle Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, a haunt of foreign correspondents during the war, has undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation that has turned it into a marble- draped palace".

In 2008, Caravelle Saigon celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its redefining refurbishment. Those ten years have been kind to the Caravelle, as they've been kind to Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam in general.

For nearly two decades after 1975, Vietnam languished beyond the pale of international attention, without access to the World Bank or trade relations with beneficiary countries, or membership in the World Trade Organization. With the end of the U.S. led trade embargo in 1994, the reinvigoration of Vietnam began. The renovation of the Caravelle was a heartening symbol of the country's reinstatement as a nation worthy of the world's attention.

Irony of ironies, when director Phillip Noyce in 2002 surveyed Lam Son Square as a movie-set for the dramatic bombing scene in Graham Greene's The Quiet American, he chose the Caravelle as a stand-in for the historic Continental Hotel across Lam Son Square. It wasn't that the Caravelle looked anything like the Continental; it doesn't. But the renovations at the Continental and the cost of shooting scenes at the hotel ruled out the original as an option.

As the ground floor of the Caravelle donned stage make up and a new persona for its acting debut, the real stars of the movie moved into the Presidential Suites upstairs. Hotel staff remember the actor Michael Caine, who won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Thomas Fowler, as an extremely amiable character. Caine would take tea in the bar, chit chat with the restaurant staff, and after discovering that the hotel buffet included roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, became a regular fixture at the restaurant.

Caravelle Saigon no longer ranks as Saigon's tallest building. But no matter. Its stature today is a function of so much more than its physical attributes. Its place in Saigon's history is ineradicable. There is not, and there won't ever be, another hotel like it.

The text and photos were sourced from the Caravelle Saigon except where noted otherwise


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