Six months at Saigon’s most famous hotel.
Martin Westlake
| Credit: 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.

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.