food / travel

The Continental, Au Revoir To Iconic Vietnam War Hotel

Forty years after the North Vietnamese conquered Saigon, tourists and locals alike shun the colonial hotel that once was a den for the chronicles of war.

Night view of the Continental
Night view of the Continental
Doan Bui

HO CHI MINH CITY — TripAdvisor can be cruel. "Avoid at all costs!" reads one review of the Hotel Continental. No respect, not even for legends.

Ranking a mediocre No. 103 among Ho Chi Minh City's 302 hotels, what may be Asia's most iconic hotel is struggling. "Questionable carpeting," reads another comment. "Bring your own refreshments." "Everything is too old and barely working."

Is this really the one-and-only Continental? The address in what used to be called Saigon that inspired English author Graham Greene'a anti-war novel The Quiet American? The one that Vietnam War veterans recall with a nostalgic sigh? Our late colleague François Caviglioli described the terrace of the Continental as an annex of heaven, with its frangipani trees and wrought iron tables.

Alas, TripAdvisor doesn't traffic in nostalgia, and Ho Chi Minh City isn't much for romance. Whereas in the northern capital of Hanoi the Hotel Metropole fully plays on sentimentality — hosting visits to the underground bunker where anti-Vietnam war advocates such as Joan Baez or Jane Fonda came to take shelter — the Continental's website doesn't even mention the famous guests from its past.

Nothing about Graham Greene and room 214, where the writer stayed for months to write The Quiet American, whose story takes place right before the Dien Bien Phu defeat. Managed by the government tourism office, the hotel barely explains that "the Ho Chi Minh City people's committee" listed it as an historic monument.

Of course, there are still a few hard-liners who praise the Continental's "old-fashioned charm." But in this bustling southern city filled with glass buildings, old-fashioned doesn't sell anymore.

"We Vietnamese, we like new things," my aunt assures me. We set off for a tour of the city on her Honda Dream motorcycle. She proudly shows me the new McDonald's and the Bitexco Financial Tower, with its multiplex cinemas, fast-food restaurants and escalators, the place where the city's youth gather. As for hotels, she swears only by the Sofitel, the Nikko and the Intercontinental, tall towers with modern elevators, countless floors and luminous halls. The dark entrance of the Continental with its ancient atmosphere disheartens my aunt. "It looks old," she says.

That's the difference between Hanoi the poetic and the pragmatic of the former Saigon. Here, in the capital of the south, bulldozers have no mercy. Buildings are destroyed, and towers are built. During the winter of 2014-2015, downtown was a huge construction site, with the Nguyen Hue Boulevard — Ho Chi Minh City's Champs-Elysées — completely blocked off and the sound of drills piercing eardrums. Countless detours were required to get to Dong Khoi Street, which has changed names many times.

"Go to Starbuck's instead"

Last year, a few rare Saigon heritage enthusiasts were moved by the closing of Givral Café, another legend. During the Vietnam War, it was a gathering place for reporters, a kind of annex of the Continental. But the receptionist of the Continental today, a 30-year-old who speaks perfect English, had never heard of it. "Is that a café, the Givral?" he asks. "Wait, I'll look on the Internet!" Printing the new address and noticing how far away it is, he kindly advises, "Ah, that's far away. If you're looking for coffee, you might want to go to Starbuck's instead."

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The Continental in the early 1970s. Photo: John Binfield

I couldn't convince my aunt to join me for a drink at the Continental. For her, it seems as grotesque as seeing Western tourists with backpacks riding bikes with cone-shaped hats to blend in. Like in every city center hotel, the Continental's prices are indeed ridiculously high (3 euros for a Coke). The Caravelle can at least brag about its rooftop terraces with views of the city — during the war, reporters claimed it was the only place that allowed them to avoid the bombs — but the Continental only has the activity on Dong Khoi street to offer.

On the terrace, only tourists watch other tourists walk by. There is not a single Vietnamese. They prefer by far the Bitexco tower, where, in a Singapore-style food court, you can eat noodles, soup, sushi or a durian milkshake at any time of the day.

"Aristocrat tourism"

At 4 p.m., I tried, as André Malraux wrote in Antimémoires, to catch "the green time at the terrace of the Continental, when the brief evening fell on the carob trees, on the victorias that met in Catinat Street, in the sound of bells and the lights out at the Senegalese infantrymen barracks."

Oh, the old Continental! The hotel was built in 1880, just opposite the most prestigious square of the city, where the brand new opera stood, based on the Opera in Paris. It was the beginning of the colonization. In 1911, the Hotel Continental was bought by the Duke of Montpensier. Reaching Annam was still an adventure, a journey only available to a small elite — "aristocrat tourism," as the 1912 colonial annals call it. At the Continental, you would see artists, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns, dukes, princes. All these high-class people who'd set out for adventures in the jungle, to hunt buffalos and the like.

In 1921, the hotel was bought by Corsican Ange Frasseto. The Corsicans? In the small troop of colonists who invested in the distant Indochina, the islanders formed a country within the country. "It's an old story, the Corsicans and Vietnam, a lasting story!" says Stéphane, a Franco-Vietnamese from the Unika travel agency who speaks a few words of Corsican because his colleague is Corsican.

To escape the scorching tropical temperatures, you’d go outside for some fresh air while sipping your pastis. The Continental, as a nice advertisement from 1922 said, boasted about being"“the ideal destination for colonists."

"The place to be"

Frasseto ultimately went bankrupt. Another Corsican, Mathieu Franchini, took over the lease for next to nothing, with plans to turn it into "Asia's first palace." And it worked! The Continental became "the place to be."

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In the 1950s. Photo: Rue des Archives

Bodard, who covered the war and stayed at the hotel for several weeks, writes. ""Events' turned the destitute Continental into a phenomenal deal. In fact, it may be moldy and outdated with its aftertaste of neglected colonialism, but it's very possibly the most expensive hotel in the world."

HQ of Time and Newsweek

After the Dien Bien Phu defeat, Franchini returned to mainland France. When he died in 1965, his son Philippe decided to take over the hotel. At the Continental during the Vietnam War, he must have seen many journalists.

Certain publications even established their headquarters there. Time magazine on the first floor, Newsweek on the second. "None of them ever understood the Vietnamese," he says. "So none of them ever understood anything about this conflict. I remember this local reporter who worked both with the French and the Americans. For the American journalists, he had a speech ready about the French, those cruel colonizers. For the French journalists, he criticized imperialist America. I got hold of him. He smiled to me and said, "You see, I don't have a choice. I tell them what they want to hear.""

The United States was also stunned to discover that Time correspondent Pham Xuan An was in fact a spy for the North Vietnamese regime. Now, in front of Continental room 307, where the Time offices were established, there's a bronze plaque in honor of the Vietnamese spy.

Philippe Franchini remembers the very last years, before the fall. "After 1973, all the Americans were gone. There were only the French reporters left, playing poker in the rooms of the Continental."

Saigon was no longer

Saigon sensed that it was in its very last hours. "Everyone was looking to leave. I left a few days before April 30," Philippe Franchini says. The son, like his father, left the country they loved so much.

On April 30, 1975, the tanks of the northern army entered Saigon, which soon became Ho Chi Minh City. The Continental went silent for 15 years before reopening in 1989, when the Communist Party decided to introduce the country to the Doi Moi (“New Way”), a timid opening to the market economy.

Philippe Franchini now lives in France. But he says part of him stayed in Vietnam, on the terrace of the Continental. This trained historian, photographer and video maker, writes it tactfully in his book, Continental Saigon: "Commercially speaking, the Continental was just a hotel," he writes. "In reality, it represented something very different. It has always singularly attracted the dreamers and the ambitious, resisting every political and financial crisis without anybody understanding why."

The Continental has survived centuries and the thunder of war. Now, all that's left to overcome is the rankings and petty comments of TripAdvisor.

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