Photo by Christian Berg
In Vietnam, one of the world’s most compelling destinations for history buffs, a stay in a well-preserved hotel is a chance to examine the country’s multi-layered past up close. Looking for a storied address to lay your head? Here are six incomparable Vietnamese hotels where history is just around the corner.
There are hotels, and then there’s the Metropole. The hotel’s white and green-shuttered facade has been a Hanoian landmark since 1901. Here glittering parties were held, world leaders slept, treaties were signed and illustrious writers wrote. Even Charlie Chaplin checked in at the Metropole on his honeymoon.
Inside, the lobby is as elegant as ever. The woodwork still gleams on the old stairs. It’s not called the Grande Dame of Vietnamese hospitality for nothing. When in Hanoi, don’t miss the chance to take coffee at La Terrasse, wander the hotel’s leafy courtyard, or descend into its wartime bunker.
If the Metropole has the French Quarter, the Majestic has the Saigon River. The hotel has presided over this sublime bend of Ho Chi Minh City’s main waterway since 1925. Parisian opulence is alive and well at the Majestic, from the stained-glass windows and sparkling chandeliers, to the lifts and staff uniforms. The best part of staying at the Majestic is the view from its river-facing rooms. Throw open the doors, step onto your balcony and you’ll find the caramel-coloured water across the street still flowing as leisurely as ever.
When the Caravelle Hotel debuted with a ritzy party on Christmas Eve of 1959, it immediately became the city’s most modern and ambitious hotel. Journalists wrote excitedly about the hotel’s air-conditioning(!), bulletproof glass, and foolproof generator. Not long after, the embassies of Australia and New Zealand and the news bureaus of CBS and NBC took up residence inside the hotel.
When war broke out, foreign correspondents converged at Saigon Saigon Bar, then the city’s highest point, where they would watch the skirmishes and compare notes. Today, the Caravelle’s turbulent days are over, but the hotel remains a timeless example of gracious Vietnamese hospitality.
It’s nearly impossible to walk under the bougainvillea-laden balconies of the Continental without feeling a flicker of curiosity. The Continental has watched over the heart of Ho Chi Minh City since 1880. The hotel’s tile roof, brick walls and four-meter high ceilings echo a not-so-distant past, when Graham Greene made the hotel his address. The writer kept an eye on the comings and goings in Lam Son Square from the hotel’s ground-floor cafe.
Thirsty? The Continental’s frangipani-shaded courtyard is a haven of calm, where you can pull up a chair, order a G&T, and feel the years melt away.
There’s a love story or two folded into the history of the Dalat Palace Hotel. In the 1920s, French colonists built a grand hotel in the cool highlands of Dalat. They chose for their summer retreat a rolling, pine-studded slope with a view of the lake. Almost a century later, the hotel still exudes flawless Victorian style.
Fair warning: The claw-foot bathtubs, antique telephones and open fireplaces are enough to bring on a bout of nostalgia.
The Dalat Palace is also where Vietnam’s last emperor met the woman who became his wife and the last empress consort of the Nguyen Dynasty. As the story goes, Emperor Bao Dai noticed the young beauty at a dance held in the hotel. He invited her to a tango, and the rest, as they say, is history.
From garage to five-star hotel, The Rex has one colourful history. Occupying one of the most important junctions in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, the building was originally designed as an expansive French garage. In the early 20th century, it evolved into a six-story trading centre with three cinemas and one of the most buzzing dance halls in all of Southeast Asia.
Later, the trading centre transformed again, this time into a hotel. When the city entered its most tumultuous years, the Rex’s Rooftop Garden Bar was the scene of the infamous press briefings known as the ‘Five O’clock Follies.’ Today, the hotel’s rooftop still draws patrons, but with live music, well-poured cocktails and sunset views above the city.