A Brief History of the Caravelle Hotel

accommodation - Saigon/HCMC: Jan. 14, 2019

For the longest time, the Caravelle was "the place to stay in Vietnam", this fame largely realised through its predicament in time, perhaps best portrayed by its "perch and proximity to war" between 1960 to 1975.

caravelle HotelImage source: Caravelle Hotel

The Caravelle Hotel grew from an idea in 1954 to create the premier hotel in the city of Saigon (now officially Ho Chi Minh City). On Christmas Eve of 1959, it opened its doors presenting air-conditioned splendour and an unmatched view over the city, also with an air-conditioned elevator, the zenith of luxury in Saigon at the time.

Conflict and Independent Reporting in the Vietnam War

During the years of the Vietnam War, the Caravelle was well known as the base for independent reporting, where new standards were set during a period of time that attracted the attention of the world media. The hotel itself was the backdrop to significant events of the conflict with America. An explosion outside the building blew out many of the hotel’s windows, and as the conflict grew, a nightly show of distant explosions lighting up the sky beyond the fringes of Saigon was clearly visible from the hotel's rooftop bar.

caravelle HotelImage source: Caravelle Hotel

Its 10th storey rooftop bar witnessed the birth of many famous dispatches from the conflict zone, penned by the best and brightest journalists of the time, including David Halberstam, Walter Cronkite, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett, Malcolm Browne, Morley Safer, Ward Just and Michel Herr. All have stayed at the Caravelle, drunk at the Caravelle, formed opinions at the Caravelle and often dispatched their news from the Caravelle itself. The famous image of the last helicopter departing Saigon from the American Airlines airlift by Hubert-Van-Es [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Saigon & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubert_van_Es & https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/tag/hubert-van-es/] was captured from the Caravelle’s rooftop bar. That same vantage point still looks over to the former CIA office’s rooftop (the Pittman Apartment building), substantially unchanged from that time.

Beginnings of the Caravelle Hotel, Saigon

Historically, the first hotels in Saigon were built along distinctly French Colonial designs, principally serving the French colonial business and administration needs. The very first of Saigon's hotels being the Continental (planned and constructed from 1880) with its street side cafes and presenting a distinct home away from home the the French men and women passing through Saigon.

caravelle HotelImage source: agoda.net

Saigon was not a tourist destination in the early 20th Century and the lone Continental Hotel served the needs of those seeking to stay in Saigon. As demand for hotel accommodation increased, the Majestic Hotel was proposed and began construction in 1925, located at the far end of Rue Catinat (today's Dong Khoi). In 1928, not far along Rue Catinat away from the river, permission was granted for the conversion of a coffee shop to open The Grand Hotel in 1937.

Following World War II and with the convenience of air travel, Saigon's foreign population grew to around 20,000, predominantly French. In the early 1950's, Saigon was still very much a French concern, and Indochina was booming with a growing demand for upscale accommodation. Two entrepreneurs, Monsieurs Antonin Emery and Marius Mallein, set out to build the tallest, most luxurious and modern hotel the city had ever seen.

Development and Construction of the Caravelle Hotel

The architect commissioned to design the Caravelle Hotel project was Nguyen Van Hoa (born in Can Tho), an architectural studies graduate from the Ecole Superieure Des Beaux-Arts in Hanoi. The land and permissions were secured to begin construction in what was (and remains) a site that commanded excellent views of Saigon’s Opera House and the city’s most cosmopolitan thoroughfares. Primarily planned as a high end hotel, the plans included premium office and business spaces, and the entrepreneurs also brokered deals for co-ownership with several high-profile parties.

These co-ownership deals resulted in the Australian Legation occupying the 7th floor, the Catholic Church generating income from the hotel exclusively to fund the University in Dalat, and Air France as a major ground floor occupant. The project went through an extended planning & construction period, encountering significant delays throughout, but the architects (Hong Kong based firm Andrew Lee King Fun) and interior designers (California’s Hirsch Bedner Associates) maintained their design standards to realise the deluxe hotel that stood proudly as the premier deluxe accommodation in Saigon for many years.

caravelle HotelImage source: instagram.com

The name of the hotel itself owes much to the growth of air travel to the region, and in particular to Air France's testing of a new airplane, the Caravelle, in the same year that the hotel opened. The name Caravelle was inspired by the fast, light ships of the 15th century that evoked thoughts of foreign trade, adventure, and new horizons.

Reunification and a new era of trade and development for Saigon

Following the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the ownership of the Caravelle Hotel transferred to the Government of what became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City and the Caravelle Hotel became Hotel Doc Lap (Hotel Independence. It continued to operate through difficult times with a debilitating trade embargo until 1990, when government reforms began to improve trade and economic growth in the country. In 1992, the Saigon Tourist and Glynhill Investment Vietnam organisations (an investment group from Hong Kong and Singapore) came together in a new partnership, the Chains Caravelle Hotel Joint Venture Company, with an investment plan to renovate the "Doc Lap" to become an international 5-star hotel.

Thus, the Caravelle Hotel was reborn as an icon of luxurious accommodation to the highest international standards, with a new 24-storey wing constructed adjacent to the original historic building, complete with swimming pool and all other 5-star amenities. The new tower construction was completed in 1997, before renovations began on the original building. At this time, the hotel closed for one year while the old and new structures were united and finished to the same standards.

caravelle HotelImage source: netdna-cdn.com

Since the Re-opening of Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel

The new Caravelle Hotel opened its doors once again to guests in May 1998, having weathered the Asian economic crisis that began in 1997. After re-opening, the Caravelle found itself in the fortunate position of being the only new hotel in the centre of town, at which seemingly everyone wanted to stay. A New York Times article, written in July 1998 about the city's hotel scene during the economic crisis, commented on the Caravelle's new look: "The fabled Caravelle hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, a haunt of foreign correspondents during the war, has undergone a multi million-dollar renovation that has turned it into a marble-draped palace".

Maintaining their ranking as a highly regarded hotel in Saigon, the Caravelle is currently upgrading its Tower wing, which it expects to reopen early in 2019, before proceeding with renovations of the "Heritage" wing planned for completion in 2020. The Caravelle Hotel’s rooftop bar remains one of Saigon’s most well-known, commanding excellent views across the city and serving as a popular destination for visitors with a keen sense of history.

caravelle HotelImage source:cloudfront.net

Banner Image source: lightwave.vn