In the footsteps of Graham Greene at the Continental Saigon

In the footsteps of Graham Greene at the Continental Saigon

The famed hotel may no longer be grand, but it has old-world charm in buckets. Just don't steal the furniture
The Continental Saigon is atmospheric, grim, fascinating and hilarious -- all at the same time.

When I opened the French windows on to the balcony of my room at the Hotel Continental Saigon they squeaked and juddered.

Windows don’t do that at the Park Hyatt or the Sheraton just across the road, but then the Continental is different. It was here first.

It opened in 1886 opposite the opera house in what was known then as Place Garnier. The French author André Malraux stayed here in the 1920s when he was founding his anti-colonial newspaper Indochine.

The legendary U.S. reporter Walter Cronkite stayed too when reporting on what is known in Vietnam as "The American War."  

But my reason for coming to the Continental was to pay tribute to one of the best-known English "man of letters" of the 20th century, Graham Greene, who 60 years ago holed up in room 214 to start work on a novel about the genesis of that disastrous conflict.

Greene -- who had worked as a war correspondent in Indo-China for both The Times and Le Figaro -- took three years to complete "The Quiet American" and the Grand Hotel Continental featured heavily in the book.

It also featured in the two films made of Greene’s stridently anti-war novel, which did much to enhance his reputation but also raised the hackles -- and suspicions -- of U.S. intelligence agencies, which dogged him for the rest of his life. The first movie -- made in 1958 -- starred Audie Murphy as the titular American while Michael Redgrave played Thomas Fowler, the journalist who connives at his assassination.

An undated shot from the Continental's past. The hotel opened in 1886. The second film, dating from 2002, featured Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine, who was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Fowler.

Outside the opera house in Place Garnier (now renamed Lam Son Square) I could see where the American’s “Third Force” operatives detonated a bomb in both films. 

And looking at old photos I noticed that the H of Grand Hotel Continental was just outside my window, attached to this very balcony. Those original letters, which pretty much ran the length of the building, are gone now, replaced by modern signage. The Continental may no longer claim to be grand but it has old-world charm by the bucket-load.

Atmospheric, grim, fascinating, hilarious

We forget, of course, that charming old hotels were not always that comfortable, efficient or even reputable. In Greene’s day the hotel was owned by Mathier Francini, a Corsican gangster.

The Continental has always had a slightly louche quality. I found it by turns atmospheric, grim, fascinating, hilarious.  

On checking in, a handwritten note was taken of my credit card number and I had to bargain hard for a late checkout. I was left to carry my own luggage to the third floor where I found a wide internal veranda with a housekeeper clad in overalls waiting at a desk to open the door for me.

Quirky remnants of the Continental's early days include a brass letterbox set in the main door of each guestroom.He then looked pointedly at me until I tipped. Alas, I had made the huge faux pas of believing my guidebook, which claimed that tipping is an alien experience to the Vietnamese. It isn’t at the Continental. 

When I closed the French windows, the roar of motor scooters from below was silenced. My room was spacious but devoid of decoration. It contained two simple beds, a desk and carved wooden armchairs that were so heavy it’s difficult to credit the list of 25 charges on the bedside table warning visitors about pilfering from the Continental.

These ranged from VND 20,000 (US$1) for a coffee spoon to VND 3,500,000 for a chair.

Who in their right mind tries to smuggle out a rocking chair in their luggage?

Carved Continental coat hangers come at a punitive VND 300,000 each. I got the impression that this hotel has been swamped by souvenir hunters in the past.

But the little details were fascinating. A brass letterbox was cut in my door and anything posted through fell into a small cage. My handwritten breakfast voucher was dropped in while I was out at dinner. 

Breakfast was buffet-style, a mix of Western and Vietnamese fare in the courtyard downstairs in the shade of frangipani trees.

My fellow guests were about as international as you could get with a fair smattering of Europeans and Australians backpacking their way through Southeast Asia. 

This place is clearly on everyone’s "must-do" list for Vietnam.  Any business types I spotted were locals. International copyright lawyers make for the Park Hyatt with its swimming pool.

The hotel that time forgot 

The only part of the Continental that disappoints is the bar, which would be more gracious if it were housed off the courtyard. For decades it has been on the first floor overlooking the courtyard (hence the nickname The Continental Shelf among war correspondents who claimed they were safe from any grenades up there).

The view of "Place Garnier" -- as it was called in Graham Greene's day -- from the Hotel Continental Saigon. No filter required. It really is that pink at dawn. Today it’s known as the Starrynite Bar, its logo a mini-skirted Vietnamese maiden playing billiards. Not entirely clued in on marketing techniques, the bar proudly proclaims “Buy One Beer, Get One Beer” which struck me as the least you can reasonably expect when handing over your dong.

But at a time when hotels around the world are increasingly coming to resemble each other as they compete over ever-greater levels of pampering, trying to anticipate your every wish, it’s rather wonderful that the Continental has not moved with the times.

I’m sure if Graham Greene, or indeed Mathier Francini, came back tomorrow they’d recognize it instantly. 

They’d recognize the streets around Place Garnier too. The names may have changed but should you, like Thomas Fowler in Chapter II, exit the Continental and turn right up Dong Khoi (formerly Rue Catinat) you’ll still reach the neo-Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame.

And just across the road from the cathedral, you’ll see the Central Post Office, built the year the Continental opened and recalling a great cavernous railway station from the days of steam.

The Rex Hotel is still here too, as it was in Greene's day and so is the Chinese market full of over-eager traders. This is a noisy city but still very much the landscape of "The Quiet American." 

Hotel Continental Saigon: 132-134 Dong Khoi St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. +84 838 299 201. Room rates from US$80.