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Nostalgia at Saigon’s Hotel Continental

Martin Westlake

Photo: Martin Westlake

It was hardly the finest hotel in Saigon— not in 1998, not by a long stretch. It had been once, back when Frenchwomen with silk parasols bustled through the lobby and Ho Chi Minh was working as a busboy in Boston. By the time I got to it, the Continental seemed—well, a lot deader than Ho Chi Minh, whose publicly displayed corpse at least received regular maintenance. Hardly anything worked: the clocks in the lobby, telling the wrong time in Paris and Moscow; the brass light switches, labeled ouvert and fermé, that turned on nothing. The laundry forms had check boxes for waistcoat and tuxedo. No one in Vietnam had worn those in 60 years.

I adored the place anyway. It still looked fabulous, at least from the street, where that iconic neon sign and 1880 vintage façade stood out like a lady in a hoopskirt. The courtyard, with its carp pond, century-old frangipani trees, and cascades of bougainvillea, was as peaceful a spot as you could find in the noisy heart of Ho Chi Minh City. And the location was unbeatable—right on Dong Khoi, the tree-lined boulevard the French called Rue Catinat, and just 20 yards from Q Bar, which for a brief spurt in the late 90’s was the greatest bar in Asia. I’d stayed at the Continental on my first visit to Saigon and fallen hopelessly, irrationally in love, as you might with a three-legged poodle.

I’d also fallen hard for Vietnam. I was frankly miserable back in Manhattan, and found myself obsessing over how I might return. I intended to write a novel, and to set it in Vietnam. The next year, when my lease ran out and my girlfriend followed, I resolved to abandon New York—for six months, a year, whatever it took—and move to Saigon.

At that time foreigners in Vietnam paid 10 times what a local would for rent. Expats leapt through burning hoops of bureaucracy just to obtain a phone line. Moving into a (purportedly) full-service hotel seemed a smart alternative. And the Asian recession had caused rates to plummet. So I rang the Continental to see about booking a room. The reservations manager, Mr. Tin, spoke heavily accented but enthusiastic English.

me: I expect to stay at least six months, so I wonder if we might work out a discount.

mr. tin: Long-term guest, special rate—one-hundred-sixty-five dollar per night.

me: Mmm. I was thinking more like thirty.

Brief pause, sound of shuffling paper.

mr. tin: Special rate, thirty dollar per night.

This was going well. Mr. Tin told me the room included a color TV, coffeemaker, and fuk machine.

me: Excuse me?

mr. tin: Fuk machine. Can receive fuk in your room.

me: Oh, fax machine. Terrific, I’ll take it. Would you mind sending a confirmation letter?

mr. tin: Gimme your number, I fuk you.

Did I mention the main reason I chose the Continental?Graham Greene wrote part of The Quiet American—my favorite novel ever—while staying in Room 214; many of that book’s pivotal scenes are set around the hotel and its terrace bar. (Oddly enough, the façade of the rival Caravelle Hotel, across the square, stood in for the “old” Continental in the 2002 film version with Michael Caine.)

During the American war the hotel bar was again haunted by diplomats, journalists, soldiers, and spies. Time and Newsweek kept their bureaus upstairs. After the new regime took over in 1975, the hotel shut down, leaving the façade to rot like the bourgeois relic it was. In the late 80’s, however, as the government turned to tourism as a source of revenue, several musty “heritage” hotels, including the Continental, were trotted back into service. The hotel is now managed by Saigontourist, Vietnam’s state tourism authority, which has run it about as effectively as you’d expect an underfunded socialist bureaucracy to operate a luxury hotel.

By 1998 it was a forlorn and ghostly shell. The terrace bar had long been boarded up; the restaurant now exuded all the buzz of a prison chapel. In the lobby a bulletin board was marked today’s events, but nothing was ever posted on it. The only sound track was a desultory Muzak recording of “Für Elise,” playing in an endless loop in the elevator. My room, No. 233, had a rolltop desk, a 14-inch television set, and a stiff-backed rocking chair. A pair of French doors opened onto a balcony above the courtyard. During the day the room heated up like a greenhouse, unless you drew the thick red velvet drapes, bleached pale pink from the sun.

Still, it wasn’t so bad: I had a frangipani outside my window, and a bowl of mangoes and dragon fruit refreshed daily. I had free housekeeping, a decent gym, and a fuk machine. Mine was a life of Sundays. Each morning I made thick Vietnamese coffee with a cheap tin filter. At lunch I’d ride over to Ben Thanh Market for cha gio with vermicelli or a pork-and-pâté banh mi, then retreat to my room to write and avoid the afternoon heat. When it cooled off I’d fix another coffee and move out to my balcony, snacking on mangoes while listening to the fountain below and the motorbikes sputtering out on Dong Khoi. At sundown I’d stroll to the river to survey the cranes and half-built high-rises, then have dinner out before dropping into Q Bar for a martini or three.

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