Historic Hotel In Vietnam Has Seen Many Changes

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

John Gardner, 54, has been general manager of the Caravelle hotel ( in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for close to three years. He is a native of New Zealand.

Q. Your hotel has quite a history: It opened as a luxury hotel in the 1950s when the city was Saigon, and was where the foreign press corps stayed during the Vietnam War. These days, it adjoins a new high-rise tower that looks like something from Atlantic City. Who owns it? The Socialist Republic of Vietnam?

A. It's a joint venture. A state-owned enterprise owns 49 percent; 51 percent is owned by a Hong Kong company that has a management contract on the hotel. I work for the Hong Kong company.

The Hong Kong company came to Vietnam in the 1990s and did a deal with the government's hotel company, and said, "We'll renovate the old Caravelle if you let us build the new tower on the land next door. The tower was built; the old hotel was renovated and joined to it to make one complex that opened in 1998.

An apartment or suite in the renovated Caravelle is $250 to $600 per night. In the tower, the average room is $190.

Our tower isn't the biggest or newest in the city — and there are a lot of them here.

Q. Sounds like the government has gone big-time for capitalism.

A. They have to: You can't stay in a state of poverty. Vietnamese culture is a bit like Chinese; these people have naturally been traders for centuries. It has nothing to do with government, and you can't suppress that for too long. That's particularly true in the former South Vietnam, which has millions of little businesses and shops all over. It's probably easier to open a business in a communist country like this than it is in a country like America.

Q. Who stays at the Caravelle?

A. That's changed since the global economic crisis kicked in. Eighteen months ago, it was 70 percent corporate and 30 percent leisure travelers. Now it's more 50-50. Nation-wise, Americans have always been the biggest market, though that has dropped since the crisis. Americans are about 12 percent of our business, with the Australians, Japanese, French, Singaporeans and Spaniards not far behind.

Q. American leisure travelers: Are these people who were there during the war?

A. A few, but not as many as you'd imagine. Many weren't here then but have a link. Maybe their uncle or a cousin was.

More Americans are here because Vietnam fascinates people around the world as a new destination. People who went to Thailand, Singapore or Hong Kong are coming here now. It's the new kid on the block if you want to see a place before it's maybe spoiled by too much tourism. They want to see a state that's a bit less developed.

Q. And that seems to be changing fast, right?

A. Unfortunately, the price of development is the loss of some of the culture and charm. And that's a shame. Lots of beautiful old colonial homes have been knocked down and replaced by skyscrapers.

Government sees the financial benefit of skyscrapers and such, but old icons are also national treasures. They'd never knock down the opera house, Notre Dame and the post office.

There are still tree-lined streets reminiscent of colonial times, and a few older hotels that are nostalgic. I doubt if they'd ever be knocked down.

Q. During the Vietnam conflict, the Caravelle must've been rife with intrigue and espionage. Do staff people ever find things — papers, microfilm, ammo — stashed under the wallpaper?

A. Not at all. When the new tower was built, the old building was completely gutted and renovated. The configuration of the rooms changed, too. The old Caravelle with small hotel rooms is now completely suites and apartments. So if there was anything stashed in the basement or behind the dumbwaiter, it's all gone.

Q. You're right in the heart of the city. What's super close?

A. Without a doubt, we're in the best location in Ho Chi Minh City. We're opposite the historic Opera House. It's 10 meters (33 feet) away, on the corner of Lam Son Square. Dong Khoi Street is close by. It's the most famous street in the city, with branded shops on a boulevard that was considered the "Champs-Elysees of Saigon." There's upmarket shopping, good restaurants and things like that.

One end of the street goes to the Saigon River and the historic Majestic Hotel. Go the other way and you're at Notre Dame, the big, red-brick cathedral that's a signature icon in the city. Opposite the cathedral is the famous post office designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame.

All this is within a couple hundred meters of the Caravelle.

Q. Do people call the town Saigon ... or Ho Chi Minh City?

A. Local locals say Ho Chi Minh City. Most foreigners who've been here for some time — there's a big expat population — call it Saigon.

If you're talking to locals, you'd say Ho Chi Minh City, out of respect. With expats, it's always Saigon.

The expats are mostly people who moved here in the last 15 years or so for business reasons. There's a huge Australian population, several thousand Americans, and people from all over Asia. You name it, and they're here.

Q. What's a prime souvenir of a visit to your city — and where would you buy it?

A. I'd go for something classy and typically Vietnamese, like lacquerware. That's all sorts of plates and little jewelry boxes and things like that where layer and layer of lacquer is painted on thin layers of wood. Top-quality lacquerware is beautiful and creative.

You can get it at a whole range of shops.

I'd go to the upmarket places near the hotel along Dong Khoi Street. Or the Ben Thanh Market — a big market that's a 15- or 20-minute walk from the hotel. They sell everything from T-shirts to food to watches. The quality of lacquerware won't be as good as in the stores along Dong Khoi, though.