There are a few hotels in the world that live as icons in the imagination, with a fame that stretches worldwide – the Ritz, the Plaza, the Peninsula. Their evocative names seem synonymous either with luxury, with innovation or how they captured the spirit of an era so exactly – they represent everything a hotel should be. In Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, as it is formally known) the Caravelle is one such an icon.
Described as being ‘in the heart of Saigon’ the Caravelle came to world prominence because, as the war raged in Vietnam between 1960 and 1975, it was THE place to stay for many famous war correspondents and journalists. They made the Caravelle Saigon their home throughout the war – they worked, slept, drank and dispatched from inside its walls. In fact, as it was at that time the tallest building in the city, the 10th floor rooftop bar was the perfect place to watch (sometimes literally) the war unfolding, and the list of renowned wartime journalists who talk about the importance of the Caravelle to them in their memoires is a long one. Post war, other famous residents of the hotel have included none other than Bob Hope, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
But of course, there is more to this beautiful hotel than its history. The icon has enjoyed a face-lift in recent years (a multi-million-dollar redevelopment in 1997, and a further upgrade completed just this year), taking it to the cutting edge of luxury and modernity. Even though Ho Chi Minh City – and Vietnam itself – is growing at a seemingly breakneck pace, the Caravelle remains to this day not just ‘in’, but perhaps more accurately ‘the heart of Saigon’.
The Caravelle has a wealth of rooms and suites on offer; spread across two ‘towers’: there should be something to suit every traveller. Firstly, the standard ‘Deluxe’, and ‘Opera’ rooms are remarkably spacious, with posturepedic queen-sized beds (plus pillow menu), walk-in vanity closets, and showers finished in imported white marble (and featuring bathroom amenities from the Appelles Classic range). Each room comes with an enormous 49” Samsung flat screen TV, free Wi-Fi, and furnishings that give the rooms a classic, elegant but homely feel.
The larger ‘Signature’ rooms also include Nespresso coffee machines and access to the Signature lounge (with its added benefits), and the ‘Signature studio’ comes with a separate office space – perfect for the business traveller looking to stay longer. Finally, the ‘Heritage’ and ‘Opera’ suites each feature their own separate living rooms, and several have more than one bedroom. All have large windows with views over the city, the Opera house or the Saigon river.
Two nights spent in one of the ‘Opera’ rooms and this writer can attest to beds so comfortable you don’t want to leave them and air-conditioning so silently efficient it was easy to forget it was 36 degrees outside!
The Caravelle Saigon boasts not one, nor two but six superb dining options. Whether you’re after elegant afternoon teas at the Café de l’Opera (with a view over the plaza outside the Saigon Opera house itself), innovative five-course menus of pan Asian fusion food at their finest, as served at Reflections Restaurant, world-class martinis taken in the Martini Bar, a taste of the city’s premier luncheon and seafood dinner buffets at restaurant Nineteen, or perfectly prepared cocktails at the iconic rooftop bar Saigon Saigon, guests are thoroughly spoilt for choice at the Caravelle. And if this wasn’t enough 24-hour in-room Wining & Dining is also available to guests.
Certainly when we sat down to an evening meal at the elegant Reflections restaurant innovation seemed at the forefront of the menu; with dishes such as sous vide lobster, textures of broccoli, coconut chilli fluid gel, tempura green lip mussels and a ginger bisque reduction (699,000 VND) blending east and western cuisine superbly.
The breakfast buffet at Nineteen reflects the truly global nature of the Caravelle Saigon’s clientele – everything imaginable was on offer from crispy sweet French pastries to freshly rolled sushi, salty American fry-ups to the classic Vietnamese pho, countless tropical fruits and even an omelette station where chefs serve up bespoke creations. Everything was plentiful and no guest has the excuse not to begin the day on a full stomach!
And as for cocktails in the famous Saigon Saigon bar: if there is a more atmospheric place to watch the sun set over Ho Chi Minh City, you’d be hard-pressed to find it. What began as a quiet evening with gentle guitar music and delicious cocktails during happy hour, soon progressed to an all-out party come nightfall, with more ‘lively’ live music to encourage guests to dance the night away.
Who goes there?
The Caravelle Saigon seems extraordinarily popular with every kind of traveller. Over breakfast, well-heeled businessmen and women sat shoulder-to-shoulder with large families with toddlers and teens, and young honeymooning couples planned their day trips next to elderly retirees. The clientele is a truly international set, with the greatest portion from America, China, South Korea, the UK, and Australia, but over breakfast I heard French, German, Russian and Swedish spoken and probably far more besides, so it seems (as ever) that the whole world knows the Caravelle is the place to stay in Saigon.
Out and about:
The Caravelle is indeed at the heart of this bustling city. Though no longer the capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City has the energy as if it still was – and the Caravelle is the perfect place to adventure from. The Opera House is right outside the door, and the tourist destinations of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Reunification Palace, Central Post Office, and the Museums of Fine Art, Vietnamese History and War Remnants are not far away either on foot or by taxi. Shopping and café culture in District 2 is also excellent, or a sunset cruise on the Saigon river might suit those in a romantic mood.
The hotel can easily offer day trips to the Mekong Delta, the Cu Chi Tunnels, or motorbike tours of the city. For a more personal touch, the general manager invites guests on an early morning run, or guests can explore the local street food on ‘Pho Fridays.’
If the heat of the city gets too much the Caravelle also offers an excellent outdoor pool area (where the sound of traffic melts into the sound of the breeze in the palm trees), a state of the art gym, beautiful spa facilities or a gaming casino (if you’re feeling lucky).
The worst bit:
Unfortunately, being right in the heart of things does come with a cost. Although some of the rooms have sound-proofed windows, ours unfortunately didn’t seem to, and we were treated to a slightly loud (though admittedly tuneful) wake-up call in the form of a concert on the steps of the Opera House one morning.
The best bit:
There seems to be absolutely nothing the Caravelle doesn’t offer! Its facilities are both elegant and comfortable, the staff are warm and professional, and the little touches throughout feel both personal to the Caravelle and exactly what a world-class hotel should always offer its guests.
In a nutshell:
Vietnam is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and it is certainly one of the world’s most exciting holiday destinations – Saigon is the gateway to this extraordinary country, and the Caravelle (as I can absolutely attest) is not only the heart of Saigon but surely the only place you should consider to stay while visiting it.