BackNear Me » Partner Content » “New … but Not Modern”: Historic Caravelle Prepares to Debut Rebuilt Opera Wing

Caravelle Saigon, an almost six-decade old hotel, is nestled into the heart of downtown District 1. In 1998, the hotel debuted its contribution to the city’s skyline: a 24-story tower which at the time was unrivaled in height.

Known as the Opera Wing, the tower still stuns at night and reveals nothing of the secret transformation underway inside: while all food and beverage outlets will remain in operation, for the remainder of the year and into early 2019, Caravelle Saigon Hotel will keep the entire 303-room building —nearly 90 percent of the hotel’s capacity — vacant to complete an ambitious update to the property.

Caravelle’s façade in 1959.

The rooms will undergo a total transformation. “Carpet, drapes, double glazing on windows: every single thing in the room will be new,” General Director John Gardner tells Saigoneer. The Opera Wing’s previous look hewed to an older interior design principle: a color scheme that favors pale colors and politeness to the eyes; lots of white on the walls; furniture and objects in uncomplicated, easy shapes. The guests who stay in the Opera Wing’s new rooms, which are planned for public debut in early 2019, are going to be greeted by a much different space and design experience.

Bolder colors and lights will create more striking visual points of interest. The mock-up room Caravelle Saigon has prepared features a caramel-and-chocolate color scheme garnished with areas of warmth given off by the precisely positioned light sources around the room. Interestingly shaped lamps help make the room visually and spatially rich.

The most significant architectural change to each room is an enlarged bathroom, which somehow makes the room feel larger and deeper. Visitors might never be any the wiser to the less visible, critical changes that have been completed through the rebuild, including updated internet infrastructure with enhanced security, a smoke exhaust system that will spring to life in the event of a fire, the mechanical upgrades that have occured to improve plumbing and air conditioning, and so on. These are areas of focus for the hotel’s staff and guests, however, will pay attention to the new TVs and the contemporary richness of the room’s appearance.

Rather than doing a floor-by-floor renovation, Gardner says they decided to approach this renovation in a manner mindful of their guest experience. The remodel involves a wholesale rebuild of each room — ”We’re basically taking them down to the concrete shell,” Gardner says — and that involves plenty of demolition. Rather than risk the stray sounds of hammer falls making it to one of the guests, Gardner says it made more sense to close the tower completely and gradually reopen it as the remodel process ascends the tower.

Gardner isn’t specific about how the construction will affect revenue, saying only that financially “it’s a risk on our part.” He knows they could “get it back quicker … But so guests aren’t hearing hammering all the time, we had the rooms closed.”

“We don’t want it to be a modern hotel,” Gardner says. “We want it to be half modern, pseudo-French… It will be new, but it won’t be modern,” he says. It’s somewhere within these competing values that the Caravelle Saigon’s handlers have to navigate this and future remodel projects.

The Hotel Sales and Marketing Director Alex Hepworth, remembers that when she first got to Ho Chi Minh City years ago, her preferred way to get around town was by taxi. Her limited Vietnamese made giving the driver directions difficult until she realized that seemingly all the city’s drivers knew the legacy hotel where she now works.

“It’s a landmark to the city for so many people,” Hepworth says, adding with a laugh that the hotel’s name is sometimes pronounced as “caravan.” Hepworth notes that the hotel also has another nickname: the rounded, lit tower at the top has earned the affectionate title of “the jukebox.”

The Opera Wing was completed at the end of the last century, which is relatively recent considering the hotel’s storied history. This is, after all, the hotel from which the foreign war press headquartered during their reporting. An iconic image of refugees escaping the country atop the former U.S. embassy was taken from the hotel, an image prominently displayed at the hotel’s Saigon Saigon Rooftop Bar where the reporters used to gather and rest. The bar will one day be updated as well.

Five past, present and future Saigon bureau chiefs in the AP office on 28 April 1972. From left--at typewriter, George Esper, Malcolm Browne, George McArthur, Edwin Q White and Richard Pyle.

How to execute this update with an eye to the building’s iconic past is something Gardner says the hotel’s handlers must to deal with carefully. It’s for this reason that Gardner includes a history briefing with each of the contributors, architects, designers and engineers who maintain the hotel.

“It’s not just a conversation about Caravelle,” Gardner says. “It’s a history … about Vietnam’s history and Saigon history.” With this in mind, for the new remodeling only partners were chosen to work with that “know the history, and how important that is to us,” he says. 


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19 -23 Lam Son Square, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City