When I was younger, I remember reading a book in my French class that took place in French Indochina — a bygone region of French colonial territories in Southeast Asia that existed from 1887 until 1954. I can’t remember its title, but I can vividly recall the way it described the contrast between bustling, steamy Saigon, and the formal, polished manners of the French colonialists in Vietnam at the time.
When, earlier this month, I once found myself in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, the book and that contrast once again popped into my mind. I was in Vietnam as a guest of VietJet Air, a low-cost airline that recently launched direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Ho Chi Minh City.
The hotel, Hotel des Arts Saigon, was the last stay on our tour of the country, and, like many venues, public buildings and areas of Ho Chi Minh City, felt like walking into a scene from 1930s Vietnam.
Part of Accor-owned hospitality brand MGallery, the hotel opened in 2015 in a centrally located spot in the city. It’s within walking distance from Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, the Opera House and the Reunification Palace. It offers rooms and suites, overlooking the city, a spa, rooftop pool and three venues.
The Social Club Restaurant and Rooftop Bar on the 23rd floor, Saigon Kitchen, inspired by Asian street food markets, and Café des Beaux Arts, where you can enjoy afternoon tea listening to live piano music or classical tunes, maybe even with a book in-hand from the hotel’s library.
The Social Club in the evening is a favourite spot of the hotel’s General Manager, Philippe Le Bourhis. It’s where you can sip a crafted cocktail, listen to great music from a DJ and enjoy a magical sunset over the city. If you’re feeling up for it, you could also walk over the glass bridge above the Social Club.
“Sensations guaranteed,” Le Bourhis says. His other favourite spot within the hotel is the Café des Beaux Arts.
“It’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy the charming atmosphere of a bygone era, while listening to an old accordion song,” he says. “Don’t miss our art exhibits there, which include paintings from Vietnamese artists, as well as an old French phone and typewriter.”
My favourite spots on my one-night stay? The lobby, with its cream high-backed chairs, marble floors and towering ceilings and windows take in the Southeast Asian greenery from outside. A brass chandelier, antiques and paintings completed the room.
Though it was certainly grand, at the same time, it felt like the front parlour in a rich friend’s home. My room gave me that feeling too — it was in no way cramped, but it was still cosy, and felt like I was staying in that rich friend’s spare bedroom.
The other highlight for me? The rooftop pool. After a sweaty morning of sightseeing, it felt incredible to step into its cool waters, gazing at Ho Chi Minh City from above. Though nearly a century has passed since its French Indochina days, it’s still managed to beautifully preserve its balance of chaos, class and culture.