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Nostalgia at Saigon’s Hotel Continental

Martin Westlake

Photo: Martin Westlake

And so it went, for weeks and months. I was thrilled to have a routine, and rarely did it vary. Nor did I tire of Saigon itself, which was metamorphosing before my eyes. This was only a decade ago, yet the city was still closer to its colonial and wartime past than to what lay ahead. Gridlock was a thing of the future; so were Pizza Hut and Citibank. The Caravelle had yet to reopen, and next door, the Park Hyatt site was just a hole behind the derricks. It would be years before work on it was completed.

If Saigon seemed like a vast construction site marked coming soon, it formed an untidy parallel to my own life. I was 27, clearly at the end of something, and although I convinced myself I was hopeful and even happy (Q Bar’s martinis helped), every third morning I woke up feeling lonelier than I’d been in my whole life.

Fortunately I had some company. There was Dung (pronounced “Yoong”), who walked up and down Dong Khoi selling tourists Xeroxed, staple-bound editions of The Quiet American, The Lover, and Lonely Planet Vietnam. Dung was 12 years old and remarkably proficient in English. Every night he sold me a day-old copy of the International Herald Tribune, fresh from the seatbacks of Singapore Airlines flight 174, then the best source for uncensored newspapers. Each sale was accompanied by Dung’s summation of the headlines: “This Suharto—he a bastard!” Or, “This Ken Starr—he a jackass!”

Then there was the hotel doorman, who once gave me a quarter-gram of opium. He simply handed it to me, unbidden, as a proper doorman might offer an umbrella. Maybe he could tell my book wasn’t going well. It was wrapped in a ball of tinfoil and smelled like dried plum paste; for all I knew it I plum paste. From that point on I called him Poppy. When I passed by he would flash the thumbs-up sign and a conspiratorial, likely drug-addled grin.

I also had a pet gecko. He appeared the first night, clinging to the wall, bright green and motionless. He slept behind the hideous oil painting that hung above my bed, but each evening, just as I would return to write, he would emerge to search for food. Chirping softly, he roamed the walls while I paced the floor. At first the chirping drove me mad, and I’d hurl things at the wall in an attempt to dislodge him: sneakers, shrimp rolls, The Portable Graham Greene. But his lizard reflexes were too quick—in a blink he’d dart behind the painting for cover. After a while I gave up. I grew accustomed to his steady vigilance, his reassuring chirps. I named him Gordon. At least he took care of the mosquitoes.

As the weeks passed I began to remake my room incrementally, under the radar. I replaced the velvet curtains. Bought new sheets, a new shower curtain, and a cheap Taiwanese stereo at Ben Thanh Market. Hung a new painting on the wall for Gordon to hide behind. And after 50 straight days of enduring “Für Elise” in the elevator, I found a stray screwdriver and, late one night, with the lift doors closed, unscrewed the cover plate and disconnected the speaker wires.

But then the spring wedding season kicked in, and the Continental turned out to be its white-hot center. Every weekend brought another goddamn wedding to the courtyard, directly below my balcony, and the cursed din of karaoke: “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas, socialist workers’ anthems, “Hello” by Lionel Richie. I became convinced that if I heard Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” one more time I might hack up the groom with a chicken cleaver.

The money ran out. Other work intervened; the novel faded from view. Friends asked when I was coming home. It had been ages since anyone had used my proper name; most people just called me “Sir.”

The monsoon arrived, and with it the first rain in months. We could smell it from miles away. All morning Poppy stood staring at the gathering clouds, murmuring excitedly. He was probably high. When finally the sky broke open, everyone in the lobby—Poppy, the front desk staff, me, the shoeshine guy—rushed into the street and leaned back to drink in the raindrops. Dung was there, too, spinning in circles, his Herald Tribunes soaked through and disintegrating. The temperature dropped suddenly—it had reached 105 that week—and fragrant air rushed in from the Delta. Every gritty surface now sparkled like diamonds. Shivering in my linen shirt, laughing with strangers and utterly alone, I knew this was my cue to leave.

I checked out a week later. I considered smuggling Gordon back to New York, or at least the leftover opium. In the end I took nothing, not even a photograph.

I’ve spent more nights in the Continental than in any hotel on Earth, yet I’d hesitate to recommend it to friends as a place to stay. There are far better options, like the Park Hyatt next door, which finally did open in 2005. It could be that I prefer to keep the Continental as my own private touchstone. Perhaps appreciating it requires a certain nostalgia for the faded landmarks of la vieille Indochine. Or maybe it’s just that as a hotel, the Continental kind of sucks.

Nonetheless, I confess to some regret over reports that Saigontourist is planning a multi-million-dollar refurbishment to bring the hotel up to “21st-century standards.” Saigon has plenty of 21st-century hotels these days, all of which could just as well be in Toronto. But not this one. And despite the malfunctioning faucets, the hourly power failures, and the infernal karaoke, I still miss the Continental as it was. The batty old joint had soul.

Peter Jon Lindberg is Travel + Leisure’s editor-at-large.

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