For over 80 years, this old French garage-turned-luxury hotel has been a silent chronicler of the city’s trials and tribulations. The Rex was the legendary aesthetic backdrop to the so-called ‘five o’clock follies’, the press briefings that the American Information Service used to conduct for foreign correspondents during wartime. In the 60s, the Abraham Lincoln Library was also established on the ground floor. After suffering a bland phase as the Rex Trading Center during the 70s (hosting three cinemas and a disco-hall), the hotel has now undergone a series of refurbishments that have modernized its interior. The Rex’s highlight is, four decades later, none other than its iconic rooftop bar, where the old ‘follies’ are replaced by new ones, stunningly tempered by one of the city’s most romantic sunsets. 141 Nguyen Hue Blvd., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, +(848) 38292185.
This 1925 French heirloom on No. 1 Dong Khoi Street majestically opens to breezy and busy riverside views, somewhat irrationally blending colonial chic with Ho Chi Minh City’s contemporary floating frenzy. Stripped of its heavier period features, the Majestic still holds plenty of French poise in its rooms, like the signature parquet floors. Just make sure your room comes with a view, as in Ho Chi Minh City windowless accommodation is pretty common. The terrace of Breeze Sky Bar and M. Bar offer magnificent views of the river and city skyline, complemented by the Cyclo restaurant’s fine dining and local entertainment. 1 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, +(848) 38295.
Despite its name, the Grand Hotel might be a less conspicuous star of the French era Saigon, but this 1930s colonial beauty on the historic Dong Khoi Street has an exterior every bit as impressive as the best of them. Divided historically and aesthetically between the new and old wing, it is better to opt for one of the spacious original rooms with parquet floors and French windows in order to relive the memories of this colonial-era legend. It will cost you slightly more, but for the large part of the year the rooms are still reasonably priced. Among the rather flat modern additions, timeless details like the lobby elevator open a window to the past. An atmospheric swimming pool and a central courtyard also do their bit to complete the picture. 41-7 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, +(848) 39155555.
Inspired by the 15th-century Iberian caravelas, The Caravelle has starred in endless journeys of our collective imagination since it first opened on Christmas Eve 1959. A central figure itself in wartime Vietnam, the hotel provided the setting for countless professional and convivial meetings of foreign correspondents during the 60s and 70s (it housed the offices of NBC, ABC and the Australian and New Zealand Embassies, among others), who kept safe views of the action from the rooftop bar. Having added a luxurious 24-story tower to the renovated 10-story building in the 90s, the hotel these days mainly narrates its story though framed pictures on the wall. The completely transformed Saigon Saigon bar now observes the changing city-scape with effortless elegance. The hotel boasts a fascinating list of guests, including Sir Michael Caine and Bill Clinton. 19-23 Lam Son Square, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, +(848) 3823 4999.
The Continental, credited as the first hotel in Vietnam, is among the city’s most famous 19th-century architectural treasures. Like the Opera House (the former National Assembly), the City Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral, it sends shivers down your spine with its evocative 1880 colonial façade. It’s in room 214 that Graham Greene wrote part of The Quiet American, and the Continental features in both the book and the film. It also played a vital part in the Oscar-winning romance Indochine. But behind the imposing façade, the interior struggles to retain its star quality and charm and only parts of the decor are open to literary and cinematic nostalgia. As for the scandalous Continental Shelf bar, where spies, politicians and journalists alike used to casually mingle over a drink, it is now history. But take a seat in one of the front pavement tables of the Dolce Vita Cafe across the street from the Opera House, and nothing stops you from recreating times-gone-by. 132-134 Dong Khoi St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, +(848) 38299 201.