HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - There are buildings so steeped in history, they may as well be haunted.
If human memories are what keep the ghosts lingering, the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, may be one of the most haunted buildings in the world. That's certainly the case for Americans who lived during the Vietnam War and particularly for those journalists who were there covering the war.
"If you were covering the war out of Saigon and not using military transportation, one preferred method of getting around was to hire a Caravelle Hotel car and a driver. As in all things Vietnam, incongruity was the norm, and the Caravelle cars were no exception — they were a fleet of beautifully preserved 1950s-era American automobiles. Riding in the back of one, I felt more like I was going to the prom rather than combat."
- David Hume Kennerly, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer
My first night on a recent trip to play golf in Vietnam was spent at the Caravelle. After spending about 22 hours in the air, airports and taxis, I was in the mood for a soft bed, not history. The Caravelle gave me that and the next morning, peering out the window, it gave me history.
From its windows, you can see the spires of the Saigon Cathedral, the tiny rooftop where the chaotic Saigon airlift happened. I looked to where I believed the old U.S. Embassy, since torn down, might have been. Way down on the street, residents were already buzzing around on motor scooters.
The Opera House is right across the street, and the Saigon River just a couple blocks away. The Hotel Continental is on the other side of the square, where the original "The Quiet American" was filmed.
"You were your own Jesuit in Vietnam. From the roof of the Caravelle Hotel it was possible to watch an Air Force DC-3 drop chandelier flares on the far side of the Saigon River. Somewhere there was trouble, an outpost under attack, or two patrols that 'bump in the night — and leaning over the entrecote grill to pour another glass of Bordeaux you would ask your dinner partner where she was going tomorrow and what she hoped to see."
- Ward Just, from "To What End, Report From Vietnam 1968."
You can get chills just thinking about it. All those black-and-white images from those tragic years, now here, live and in color.
The Caravelle was the center of the universe for the international media who covered the war. It's in the middle of the city, in Lam Son Square, and offered a sort of oasis in an otherwise chaotic place.
They started building the hotel in 1957, the major investors including Air France and the Australian government, which had plans to put its embassy there. It opened officially in 1959, with a local newspaper admiring its use of Italian marble, bullet-proof security glass and state-of-the-art air-conditioning system. It was Saigon's first luxury hotel, and it was destined to become a historic centerpiece as well as a five-star luxury hotel.
That history becomes even more acute when you head up to the rooftop bar, the Saigon Bar.
"In the early evenings we'd do exactly what correspondents did in those terrible stories that would circulate in 1964 and 1965, we'd stand on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel having drinks and watch the air strikes across the river, so close that a good telephoto lens would pick up the markings on the planes. There were dozens of us up there, like aristocrats viewing Borodino from the heights ..."
- Michael Herr, from "Dispatches"
There are no more war correspondents or CIA spies running around the Caravelle these days, or at least no correspondents. It's mostly tourists the government has been trying to lure and businesspeople trying to cash in on the booming Vietnamese economy.
Instead of cocktails and war-watching on the rooftop, you have Americans and Europeans working out in the fully-equipped fitness room and lounging in the Jacuzzi, steam room and sauna, or swimming in the "free form" swimming pool and ordering drinks and "light fare" from the pool bar.
The history is even more intriguing when you consider the hotel's life might have ended in 1975, the year Saigon fell.
"If you look up along Dong Khoi Street you can still see the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral. Along this thoroughfare, once called Rue Catinat, in 1975, a North Vietnamese tank rolled down to the Place Garnier. Pulling up opposite the Caravelle it is said to have turned turret and taken aim at the hotel's facade. Why it didn't fire is anyone's guess, but thirsty visitors with an appreciative eye for the heritage of this atmospheric corner of the city might consider raising a glass to whoever was giving the orders on that April afternoon."
- Name withheld at request
October 9, 2007
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