Monday, May 25, 2009

The Continental Hotel is still the jewel of Saigon

Sure, there are hotels that are more 'posh' and modern, but if I wanted to have those, the US can drown me in them...actually, now that I think of it, so can Abu Dhabi. However, no matter if you stay at a five star, or a two-star, you need at least a weekend at the Continental. There is an atmosphere in the place that makes you want to talk to the walls, as they'd probably have so much to say.

 The Venezia Restaurant has replaced the old "Cafe de la Musique" in this dated picture

The Continental Hotel earned its place in history, as its former terrace café served diplomats and journalists during the American War. If you saw the movie “The Quiet American,” then you might remember that the Continental Hotel was the locale for part of the story. If you didn't see the movie, go ahead and rent the DVD. It's a great and romantic love narrative and you'll get acquainted with Saigon.

 The hotel tells you its age: since 1880

As you walk in, you can almost feel the history envelop you and beckon you to stay. It didn’t take much convincing actually, as we had established a silent dialogue between us that said we’ve got to experience this.

The hotel itself is situated in the heart of District One in Saigon, where anything worth its weight is located. In fact, most of the hotels I mentioned are within walking distance of each other. The Caravelle sits right across the street, only separated by the majestic Opera House. One of the entrances is on posh Dong Khoi Street, facing an amazing bookstore called Fahasa, which deserves its post. I had gone in there, and was thrilled by the selection of French books, something I had not seen since the Librarie de France shut down in Rockefeller Center.

 inside courtyard where you can dine al fresco

On one of the other corners, construction is going up fast and furious, and we learn a new mall is coming. Shame, since Dong Khoi has a string of fantastic boutiques of silk and mother of pearl crafts, lacquered items that are positively bewitching, embroideries, art and more.

We were shown a room prior to our booking during our first phase of the trip in Saigon , and we were awestruck. The room we finally did get was no less regal. We did not have decent photos of the room, which was humongous, so to get a feel for the interiors, I am giving you a link to the hotel's website. When you begin the see the layout of the rooms, and all the wood carving, you'll understand what I'm trying to convey. It looks exactly as the photos. We had one huge king size bed instead of the twin beds that appear; other than that, everything is identical.

 We were able to share the balcony with large potted palms in the evening, as the air was less humid. As we arrived in the room, the living area, which is larger than my own living room at home, was so very welcoming with an assortment of those gorgeous fruits, from the Mekong Delta undoubtedly. The hot-water container was there, with the magical white coffee that became our addiction. The ceilings were so high and adorned with exquisite woodwork that continued from the entrance hall and turned into wall-length closets with plush, white robes and straw slippers for the bath. A king-size bed anchored the room, separated by a built-in wooden room divider with some lovely, typical Vietnamese sculptures.

Behind that were carved benches and sofa for “entertaining,” and one could conceivably have a party here for six or more people quite comfortably. I later realized this is very typical of luxury rooms, as we had a similar arrangement in a deluxe room in Hanoi, at the Hong Ngoc Hotel. Room rates range from $100 to $170, exclusive of VAT and a 5% service charge. A fabulous breakfast is included in the room rate.

 how's that for a welcome?
 Facilities include a banquet, conference room, bar, and fitness center. On the ground floor, you will find the executive business center and a concierge (they call it public relations). The hotel has its own website , and I encourage you to check it out. The folks at the reception area are very polite and accommodating. There are historical pictures on the walls of the hotel from as far back as the 1880s.

The morning breakfast spread is an eye opener...exotic fruits rule one long buffet style table; pho is de rigueur and then there will be cheese, yoghurts, tea and coffee...just lovely.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Venice in Saigon....really!

A couple of days following the food poisoning episode, which you will learn about later, I felt well enough to go exploring again. I was annoyed that two entire days of my vacation had been ruined by having to rest in bed and drink salty water. But, here was a new day, and a chance to get to know Saigon. So, with my trusted yellow cap securely on my head, off we went.

The Venezia Restaurant, which is located on the street level of the Continental Hotel, saw us more than once during this trip. This was the first time, as we made our way from the Indochine Hotel and stopped in for lunch. What an ideal way to escape the midday heat! The atmosphere is more Italian than anything else, as you catch a glimpse of the white-and-red-checkered cotton tablecloths (by day only; at night, the linens change to pure white). Dark wood doors and wood trim frame the room. Huge windows give the diner an eagle’s eye view of one of the busiest intersections in Saigon. Luckily, both times, we had window tables.

Italian all the way....

I couldn’t help but notice a huge, well stocked bar near the rest rooms, which were impeccably clean. And then, there are several bottles on a tabletop in the middle of the restaurant just waiting to be "plucked". Each table had two menus: the regular lunch menu and the pizza (8 varieties) menu. Chef Leonardo Lanfranconi and his staff bring Venice to your door; no kidding. Small touches, like two sets of glasses, way too many forks and spoons, and a small vial with a fresh flower on each table adds to the mood. 

Since they serve Vietnamese food as well, they required chopsticks and Oriental soup spoons--spoon rests are all there. It is obvious that someone knows how to turn linen napkins into birds or some such thing. We digressed from Vietnamese food that day and indulged with pasta, Bolognese for me, with clams and white sauce for Chuck. White wine and water drowned some of the garlic, but rest assured, the plates hardly needed to be washed after we were done. It is positively amazing how well spaghetti is prepared in Vietnam. We had it at the City View Cafe in Hanoi, and it was superb! Again when we went to Sapa a year later, and it was heavenly. 

Service is extremely courteous, and dangerously slow, but it’s a great reminder that hurry is not the order of the day. When the bill comes, be prepared to see a letter-size invoice with your damages in dong and U.S. dollars. Still, I can't help but giggle to see 80,000 anything for two dishes of pasta. 
There was a wedding party going on that evening at the Continental Hotel

Our second visit to the Venetian was our last night in Saigon as we regaled ourselves with a yummy Italian dinner just before we went for cocktails at the Saigon Bar across the street at the Caravelle Hotel. Now that we were hotel guests, we were quickly recognized and given a wonderful table. Live music filled the air, now that the piano had a human sitting in front of it, and three ladies accompanied him, one with a guitar, a cellist, and a violinist. Unfortunately, the pictures of the musicians, and of the restaurant were dreadful, as they were blurred, and off-color. The only ones I could save are what you see right here. This probably means another visit is required...
A large group from France was gregariously enjoying their dinner, and I never heard English until an American couple sat next to us.

The wine came to our table chilled, and I suggested we do the pizza del padrone, which had cheese, tomato sauce, and spinach with the tomato and mozzarella salad. Bread and butter are always present, and I do try so hard to ignore that. In summation, it seemed that no matter what we ordered, it was always excellent. Compliments to the Chef. 

la pizza del padrone

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Vietnam: Honoring a man and the trail named after him

crossposted on
by Aimee Kligman

A woman holds a fan with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum's painting on, while she and others wait in line to get in the mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam, on the occasion of Ho Chi Minh's 119th anniversary of his birthday, Tuesday, May 19, 2009. Ho Chi Minh was born May 19, 1890 and died in 1969. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

He is fondly referred to in Vietnam as 'Uncle Ho'. He is, without a doubt, a national hero, and his photo appears on billboards, in offices and travel agencies. Though he wished to be cremated, his embalmed body lies in a mausoleum in Hanoi modeled after Lenin's Tomb in Moscow.
Former President Ho Chi Minh's real name is Nguyen Tat Thanh (1890-1969), and was the main catalyst against French colonial rule. By the time the American War broke out in Vietnam, Uncle Ho was in poor health and incapable of enacting policy; however, despite his largely ceremonial role in that war, he is considered the 'soul' of the revolution, and a hero of the Vietnamese fight for independence. When the North finally regained the South from US forces, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honor.

This week, on May 19th, Vietnam celebrated the birthday of their hero as well as the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Ho Chi Minh trail, a vital supply route which ran from the North to supply the Viet Cong. The Trail represents a subject of immense pride for the Vietnamese people and constitutes a milestone in the history of the country.

Vietnambridge, one of the most comprehensive Vietnamese English websites ran the story, and underscored the importance of the event by the number of dignitaries in attendance. Vietnam's President of the National Assembly, Nguyen Phu Trong, honored the man, the trail and those who died during the monumental task of building this vital artery that enabled the North to win the war. Casualties are estimated at 20,000, many of whom were women.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a network of over 13,000 miles of roads and paths of which about 3,000 miles were used for deceiving the enemy. During the war years, 1.5 million tons of goods, 45 million tons of arms, 5.5 million cubic meters of fuel (a 900 mile pipeline had also been built) and 2 million soldiers passed through this trail, - some sections of which went through Cambodia and Laos.

In trying to sever this vital link, the United States sprayed 5 million tons of bombs and chemical agents over the trail.

click here for original article and links