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How the Storied Caravelle Balances History and Modernity

Expensive imported cars idle in front of Saigon’s century-old Opera House, where inside a local orchestra is performing a medley of wartime songs, 19th century European standards and modern American folk music. This scene’s confluence of contemporary and historic elements epitomizes Vietnam in 2019. Across the street sits the Caravelle Saigon, one of the city’s oldest and most iconic hotels. As it celebrates its 60th birthday, it looks to retain elements of its storied past while implementing modern food, dining and hospitality services and room designs.

The Caravelle in 1961

When the Caravelle was built, it was one of the very few high-end international hotels in Vietnam and, according to Michael Robinson, the current general manager, didn’t have much world-standard competition. As Vietnam’s economy boomed in recent years, global brands rushed in, while mid-range options also established themselves. As an independently-owned property, the Caravelle has the advantage of flexibility when determining how to respond to emerging trends in room designs, restaurants and lounges while honoring their six-decade legacy.

Today, tourists are experiencing Saigon in new ways. Thanks in part to the internet's wealth of information and the ease in which people can navigate the city with smartphones, they increasingly look to eat and drink away from where they are staying. At the same time, rising incomes have allowed locals to spend more money on dining out. Therefore, the Caravelle’s F&B outlets look to attract residents and outside tourists.

Some guests that visit the rooftop Saigon Saigon Bar and lobby-level Cafe de l’Opera lounge do so to revisit the days when it was the site of impassioned conversations between American journalists like Peter Arnett and David Halberstam. Other visitors simply want a delicious drink in a relaxed setting with great views. Simultaneously catering to both is the task of Director of F&B Eliot Gould.

Gould explains to Saigoneer that history sets the venues apart from their Saigon peers, but they can’t rely on that aspect alone. Therefore, Saigon Saigon underwent a recent remodeling that left the aesthetics largely unchanged, with colonial shutters and wooden fans continuing to transport guests back in time, while structural alterations made work more efficient for staff. At the same time, the menu was tweaked to keep pace with Saigon’s innovative drinking scene.

In Cafe de l’Opera, trendy new beverages are consistently introduced, such as the recent addition of a super latte, which includes beetroot matcha and turmeric. A new cocktail menu has something for everyone, including six classic French cocktails which will be given names that connect to important locations or events in Vietnam’s history.

To appeal to loyal customers who have visited for years, as well as newer generations, the restaurants offer European and Asian dishes that rely on an ever-expanding selection of fresh local and imported ingredients. To ensure quality, the chefs inspect each shipment when they arrive. The seafood buffet, in particular, caters to Vietnamese diners who have enjoyed relaxing weekend brunches since back when the Caravelle was one of the few locations in the entire city to offer the decadent meal.

Over the years, the hotel has opened several new venues that capture contemporary flavors. The tapas restaurant, for example, serves small dishes the likes of which would have been unheard of in Saigon decades ago. The Reflections restaurant, which will undergo an overhaul next year, seeks to strike an equilibrium between familiar food and novelty thanks to their quarterly seasonal menus that source new items from around the world.

The events and promotions offered at the Caravelle also reflect their aims of attracting a wide audience. In addition to the seasonal menus, the dining venues feature special tasting dinners and unique collaborations, such as an art auction with renowned local illustrator Richie Fawcett. Long-running events like the annual Christmas party have been more recently joined by live Swinger Club band performances on Wednesdays, as well as six-night-a-week live music played by a Living Cuba.

Many members of the Caravelle’s staff have worked at the hotel for years, and greet familiar guests as returning family. Newer team members bring fresh ideas and open-minded approaches informed by, and representative of, Vietnamese people’s expanded access to overseas education. This combination establishes a high service standard on par with hotels throughout the world.

While service is essential, room, restaurant and lobby design must meet the expectations of an increasingly discerning audience with refined tastes. The hotel is currently undergoing complete redesigns, with every room in the Opera Wing tower already completed, and the rest scheduled for completion early next year. Balance serves as the key description for the process. The team didn’t want to introduce a flashy new style that would quickly become outdated or turn off guests with traditional preferences. At the same time, there was much that could be updated.

The room transformations made each generally brighter, with large windows casting warm sunshine on the lighter-toned furniture and linens. The bathrooms were made larger and more luxurious as well. Moreover, to effectively meet the needs of the modern traveler, The Caravelle added a great number of power outlets and USB power outlets in each room and outfitted the entire building with updated fiber optics and Bluetooth technology.

In many ways, Vietnam stands at a nexus and it is unclear which unique elements of its culture will persist relatively unchanged, and what will adapt amidst increased economic and societal globalization. The Caravelle finds itself in a similar position at its 60th anniversary. The general aesthetics and service that made it such an important part of the city remain, while various design and food and beverage offerings have evolved with their guests. In this way, the hotel serves as a model, and potential prognosticator, for what future years have in store for the city.

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(84) 28 3823 4999

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