26 September 2015

Old Saigon emerged into beautiful Ho Chi Minh City

I have not been to North or South Vietnam because of what the Aus­tralian government did to both Vietnam’s civilian population during the Vietnam War (1962-75) and to our own young men via conscription. My husband's and school friends’ names went into the conscription bar­rel in 1967 and 1968, and my brother faced the same crisis in 1970.

But now an old friend has sent me an article about the new, renovated Ho Chi Minh City and I may well change my mind about visiting. Loc­at­ed in the heart of the city, the Rex Hotel is a building still assoc­iated with Saigon during the Vietnam War. But it was actually built in 1927, for French businessman Bainier, during France's colonial rule of Vietnam. The building started out as a two-storey car dealership and garage complex, called Bainier Auto Hall. Not unlike the French Michelin Tyres Centre in Fulham Road London which opened for business just before WW1, the Rainier building show-cased Citroën and other European cars to wealthy Vietnamese citizens after WW1 finished.

And not just in one city. Saigon’s Bainier showroom was apparently just one of car display centres throughout Indochina at the time, including Ha Noi and Phom Penh.

Bainier Auto Hall
Saigon, 1927

In 1959 the building was purchased and renovated by a Vietnamese family who were relatives of the last Vietnam king, King Bao Dai. So the old car showroom started to work as a six storey hotel, The Rex Trading Centre, complete with one-hundred guest rooms and every other facility they could think of: cinemas, eateries, a dance hall and library. The timing could not have been worse. When war broke out against the North Vietnamese, the hotel was leased by the Americans and used as a billet for Am­er­ican military personal and the Joint US Public Affairs Office pers­onal. The first guests in the Rex came in December 1961, before the renovations were totally completed. They were 400 American Army soldiers, the first company-strength units to arrive in Saigon. They were bill­eted at the Rex for a week or so while their camps were being built.

The American Public Affairs staff had to provide reporters with short but detailed summaries of widely scattered military actions. So daily brief­ings were held each evening at 5pm at the Rex hotel. Alas these briefings were dis­astrous; the American army was seen to lie to journal­ists and the Australian government merely parroted the same stories. The ridiculous briefings became known as the Five O'clock Follies, based at the Rex Hotel. In the meantime, despairing and angry university students were filling the streets of Melbourne, Sydney and every other city, to protest against civilian murders in Vietnam and conscription in Australia. 
The Rex Hotel, 2015
Ho Chi Minh City

The Rex’s rooftop bar and restaurant became a favourite watering hole with both the soldiers fighting in the war and the journalists sent to cover the war. With drinkies in hand, the men could watch the bombing of the city in relative safety.

My generation will never forget the war; Australia’s last two battalions to serve in Vietnam arrived in 1971 and our last personnel and aircraft left early in 1972. The last American combat troops departed Vietnam in August 1972.

Some time after the Vietnam War ended, the state's Saigon Tourism Bureau took ownership of the hotel and changed the European name to a Vietnamese name: Ben Thanh.  And the Abraham Lincoln Library of the American Cultural Centre during the Vietnam War was renamed as Paradise Coffee Lounge.

By 1986 the hotel was sold once again, expanded and renamed. By ab­sorbing the surrounding buildings on Pasteur St, The Rex could in­crease the size of the hotel and once again provide every luxury facility that a large 5 Star hotel would need to offer. Perhaps its most picturesque facilities are the lush vertical gardens that rise from the atrium. And the rooftop restaurant that once again offers stunning views of the entire city (oh the irony!). Lastly it is important to mention the sepia prints that hang in the public spaces, providing historically-minded visitors with a visual version of old Saigon.

The Rex Hotel,
Vertical gardens

Lastly let me note that the cruise ships that travel along the Saigon River to Ho Chi Minh City invite guests to visit Reunification Hall, the National History Museum, Thien Hau Temple, Notre Dame Cathedral, the French Colonial Post Office, Ho Chi Minh Park and the Rex Hotel! Normally the expression would be Rooster One Day, Feather Duster The Next. This time it is the exact opposite: from a very functional car showroom ..to a luxury hotel.


Andrew said...

War ought not be romanticised but The Rex must have been such a place to be during the war. Our Saigon hotel in 2000 was old and last decorated in the 1960s, complete with built in American car valve radios beside the beds. Of course like everything else in Vietnam back in 2000, they did not work. I think the country has come a long way for tourists in the past 15 years, and hopefully for locals too. Like most large Asian cities, transgender and very effeminate guys are perhaps not seen as desirable but accepted as part of society. Anyway, Vietnam is a very interesting country and I am pleased were saw before it became so geared for tourism.

We Travel said...

I was also in the Vietnam War generation. My brother and I were both fortunate that our birthdays were not pulled out of the barrel.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Imagine a time when car dealerships were built with such quality that they could later be transformed into luxury hotels. I cannot imagine that is the eventual fate for most car dealerships built in recent memory.

The Weekend Australian Magazine said...

The Vietnamese imagination is haunted by a literal belief in wartime ghosts. The air you breathe here is as heavy with ghosts as it is with humidity. The death toll of troops and civilians is disputed; a figure of a million seems likely, though the Vietnamese government doubles that. Add perhaps two million for the killing fields of Campodia.

Yet already the jungles have hidden most of the evidence, and memories are fading. To the young of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the past I am seeking is remote. Shopping is the new ideology.

Phillip Adams
The Weekend Australian Magazine
26th-27th September, 2015

Hels said...


I too believe the country has come a long way for tourists in the past 15 years. Saigon was colonised by the French during their long colonial era, so even back before the American bombing, the city looked French and attractive. But the city was very small back then.

Now Ho Chi Minh City is HUGE (8 million) and I wonder if the improvements have spread for the locals, as well as the tourists.

Hels said...

We Travel

I remember the 1965-70 era in Australia as modernising, liberating, energetic, political and full of great music. But it was also an era filled with fear and with distrust of Parliament. Especially regarding the Vietnam War

Hels said...


I was thinking of EXACTLY that situation when going back to the French Michelin Tyres Centre in Fulham Road London. The two storeys, made from ferro concrete and brick, were faced with glazed terracotta and filled with Art Nouveau elements. It was large, functional and beautifully decorated.

Yes the Bainier Auto Hall had to be expanded, but what a great use of 1920s architecture.

Hels said...

Thanks Phillip

What you say about the young people of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City sounded counter-intuitive at first. Why would a country devastated by invading armies want to forget its recent past? Millions of their citizens and soldiers were killed.

Then I asked some Australian 18 year olds what they thought of Australia's involvement in that immoral war - they didn't know what the Vietnam War was, nor did they know of Australia's involvement. Oh dear :(