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Exploring Six Decades of Luxury at the Caravelle

When discussing Saigon’s many historic buildings, the Caravelle certainly deserves a mention thanks to its iconic design and the many important events that have taken place in its rooms and lounges. As the luxury hotel celebrates its 60th birthday, it’s worth exploring what makes it elicit a glimmer in the eyes of people of a certain age when they hear it mentioned.

Designed for Prominence

It goes without saying that Saigon in the 1950s was a very different place than today. Before skyscrapers and motorbikes overwhelmed the metropolis, verdant trees lined dirt roads where ao dai-clad vendors operated a variety of stalls, and rickshaws transported people to bustling ports filled with workers wearing non la. Of course, the First Indochina War and the escalating presence of American forces added an uneasy energy to the scene. It is within this context that the Caravelle was constructed.

In the early 50s, two French entrepreneurs, Monsieurs Antonin Emery and Marius Mallein, set out to build the city’s most modern and lavish hotel, which would also serve as the Australian embassy. They enlisted Can Tho-born Nguyen Van Hoa to design the structure that would overlook the Opera House in the center of the city. Despite some delays, attributed to the unprecedented scope of the project and red tape exacerbated by changing political realities, it opened on Christmas Eve, 1959 to great fanfare. At 10 stories high, it would stand as the tallest building in the city for decades.

From the beginning, the Caravelle offered amenities that hadn’t been seen in the city before. At a time when few Saigon homes had phones, the hotel was remarkable for having one in each room, as well as spacious private bathrooms. It imported over 90% of its materials from abroad, including Italian marble and French bullet-proof glass. Most significantly, however, was the fact that the Caravelle was able to boast that they were the first entirely air-conditioned hotel in Saigon, a fact that warranted coverage in Time magazine.

While many early occupants of the hotel were foreign travelers, it held great importance for locals as well. The restaurant, lounge and rooftop bar all exemplified western prestige and played host to the rich and powerful, as well as the middle-class, who visited for special occasions like the extravagant New Year’s Eve parties brimming with imported champagne and cuisine. This image prevails today when older generations imagine what defines luxury in Saigon.

Caravelle During the War

As notable as these early indulgences were, it's the people and events the Caravelle played host to during the ensuing decades that cemented the hotel’s place in Saigon’s history. Reporters like Pulitzer-prize winner Peter Arnett, who raced to the city to get the scoop on the growing tensions in the country, would often go straight from the airport to the Caravelle. The hotel bar became a de-facto place for stories to be shared, observations debated and conjectures articulated. Famed New York Times correspondent David Halberstam even dubbed the 8th-floor bar “the unofficial press club.”

ABC News correspondences. Photo via Flickr user manhai.

While the upper floors offered ideal vantage points to watch the commotion throughout the city, the building wasn’t above the action, and at 11:58am on August 25, 1964, a bomb exploded in room 514, sending glass and debris onto the busy streets below. Soon afterward, a bomb across the street claimed the lives of two Americans and injured 107 others who were celebrating Christmas. These incidents aside, the hotel remained a relative refuge for people looking to avoid violence. As fighting neared the city, the rooftop became a popular spot for people to gather in relative safety and watch assaults on the airport or skirmishes in outer districts.

At the time Esquire correspondent Michael Herr at the time summed it up thusly: “In the early evenings we’d do exactly what correspondents did in those terrible stories that would circulate in 1964 and 1965, we’d stand on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel having drinks and watch the airstrikes across the river, so close that a good telephoto lens would pick up the markings on the planes. There were dozens of us up there, like aristocrats viewing Borodino from the heights.”

Post-War Transition

After the war, departing western journalists were replaced by Russian diplomats and East German business delegations as the hotel underwent staff changes. While its clientele may have changed, the hotel remained an epicenter for important discussions and source of luxury for those who could afford it.

As Doi Moi reforms brought increased wealth into the country, the Caravelle decided it was time for a major upgrade to maintain its status as a premier hotel in the city. The largest change was the erection of a 250-room, 25-story addition. Cognizant of the original building’s historic importance, a similar, understated colonial-style tower opened its doors in 1998. For a brief moment, it was again the tallest building in the city, and the Caravelle was asked to have a beacon placed on its roof to alert passing planes; a request that was rescinded shortly afterward when a slightly taller building was finished elsewhere.

Renovations to the original building coincided with the opening of the new tower. While the general feel, style and structure were maintained, modern technologies added and necessary refurbishments made. A New York Times article described it as: “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.”

Balancing History and Luxury

As Vietnam’s economy surged ahead and tourism soared, accommodations in Saigon continued to evolve. Surrounded by massive skyscrapers, a variety of western hotels belonging to major groups opened up. Complete room overhauls began last year and are currently continuing with an emphasis on service have helped the Caravelle keep pace with the competition, but no longer can something as simple as air conditioning set it apart. The hotel now succeeds thanks to a combination of luxury and its place as an important part of the city’s history. Journalists and service members get a thrill from returning to the largely unchanged 8th-floor bar that invites pleasant nostalgia. When ‘The Quiet American’ filmed here in 2002, it re-imagined Graham Greene’s story in the Caravelle’s lobby, not because it looked like the original Continental setting, but because it conjured the right era of elegance.

King room before (left) and after (right) rennovations.

On the other hand, travelers in search of a central location to explore from who have never before stepped foot in the Caravelle, or young locals in search of a special meal, are impressed with the simple luxury and pleasant atmosphere. When they learn about the building’s history and all the momentous events that took place within its walls, they develop an even greater understanding of why it’s held in such high regard.

[Top photo via Flikr user manhai.]


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(84) 28 3823 4999

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