This is the first in a new series on the Agoda.com travel blog called Hotels of Note – a look at cool hotels with interesting histories, unique architecture or hidden stories that make a stay in their hallowed halls even more rewarding. No hotel is too big or too small, and we’ll examine everything from faded, grand classics to rustic, isolated lodges.
The first hotel we want to look at is the Continental Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly known as Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city boasts a population of over 7 million people and what sometimes feels like as many motorbikes. As the financial hub of the country, HCMC has been booming over the last decade.
But while the city’s skyline is rapidly changing, you can still find remnants of the French colonial era, especially in historic District 1 (which is still called Saigon today). The Continental Hotel is a standout though, and one of the most notable buildings from the time of French rule. It was built in 1880 as a place where French nationals could recuperate in familiar surroundings after a long trip to a strange and exotic country. There are plenty of other historic buildings in the area that hearken back to colonial times as well, including the beautiful Saigon Opera House (aka HCMC Municipal Theater), which was built in 1897. Believe it or not, when it was built, it was criticized for being entirely too ornate! A few minutes’ walk from the Continental is the Notre Dame Cathedral and the old post office, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel.
But what makes the Continental the standout property in this area is the sheer number of historical events and notable folks that it has hosted throughout the years.
While there were certainly bigger hotels with fancier facades, the Continental became known as a place where notable names gathered, worked and slept soon after it opened. The most well-known guest was the British writer Graham Greene, who lived here for almost two years. It was here that he wrote The Quiet American, and was so enamored with his temporary home that it features prominently in his landmark novel. If you are on a literary pilgrimage you can even request to stay in the Graham Greene suite.
Other notable guests include the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature) and legendary U.S. reporter Walter Cronkite, who in 1968 used the hotel as his base as he reported on the Vietnam War after the shock of the Tet Offensive. During the war Newsweek and Time kept offices here as well, ensuring a steady flow of journalists at the hotel bar, which did a lot to maintain its reputation as a hub of social and political life. Indeed, sitting in the bar today it’s not hard to imagine it during the height of the war, hazy with smoke and filled with reporters, soldiers, spies and grizzled veterans of all types. Thankfully, it’s a bit more stress-free these days.
Post-war years saw the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and Jacques Chirac (then Mayor of Paris) stay here as well.
In the ensuing decades the Continental Hotel saw its fortunes wax and wane. While it began as the very definition of luxury it gradually fell into decline over the war years and then closed down after the fall of Saigon in 1975. It was not until the late 80's, when the country was opening up again after a period of economic isolation, that the hotel was once again open for business.
The Continental has recently undergone renovations, but its old-world charm has been retained with its unusually oversized rooms, wood paneled walls and fixtures that you just don't see in today’s hotels. And while it may no longer be the go-to place for politicians and journalists to meet, gossip and share ideas, it still remains as an iconic landmark in Ho Chi Minh City and an important part of the city’s history.