Location, location in old Saigon
Vietnamese dancers wearing yellow and turquoise variations of the elegant ao dai national costume are swirling beneath the statue of Ho Chi Minh. I watch this charming spectacle from my vantage point of the openair rooftop bar on the fifth floor of the Rex Hotel.
Behind Uncle Ho’s statue stands the People’s Committee building (City Hall), a flourish of French period architecture at the apex of Nguyen Hue Boulevard, the city’s popular pedestrian promenade that provides hotel guests with pulsating, neon-lit evening entertainment on their doorstep.
The Rex is within walking distance of almost everywhere a visitor would wish to roam in Ho Chi Minh City’s central District 1.
The Rex has undergone several reincarnations since it was built in 1927 as a car showroom and garage. During the Vietnam War it was a billet for US army officers and became notorious for the “five o’clock follies”, the derisory term for the daily military briefings to foreign journalists.
The Rex blossomed as Vietnam’s first state-owned five-star hotel after major renovations in 2008 and the west wing was further revamped in 2013. The Chanel display window facing Nguyen Hue Boulevard indicates a zone of high-end luxury yet the hotel refrains from boastful opulence; its interiors are grand but classic, with clean lines and a subdued colour palette. Extravagance is limited to exuberant floral displays in the lobby.
I enjoy tracing Saigon’s history through fabulous sepia prints that hang in the public spaces and along corridors. Another pleasing feature is the lush vertical garden rising from the courtyard beside the Cung Dinh restaurant. Facilities include two outdoor pools, the La Cochinchine luxury spa and a fitness centre. There are 286 guestrooms and suites, split between east, west and executive wings. Some corner suites are extremely spacious but are denied access to surrounding balconies “for security reasons”.
By comparative five-star standards, my “standard deluxe” category guestroom (28sq m) is small but adequate for an overnight stay, furnished in dark polished woods offset by lighter parquet flooring. The adjustable airconditioning is quiet; I have a slim writing table and small armchair, and the free Wi-Fi has a strong signal throughout the hotel. There’s a plush king-size bed, obligatory flat-screen television, and the bedside lighting control panel is a handy touch. But there is no view; my windows open on to an interior well with direct sight into rooms opposite, so I keep the curtains drawn.
The welcome fruit bowl helps offset the tiny bar fridge, kettle, tea bags and instant coffee sachets. The ensuite bathroom is spotless and the tub has a built-in leather headrest, but more tempting is the glass-walled shower with its substantial “drench-me” showerhead.
Breakfast, served in the fifth-floor Hoa Mai restaurant, is a bounteous selection of fresh fruit, juice and cereals, cold or hot buffet, plus eggs-to-order or traditional steaming bowls of Vietnamese pho. A top way to start the day is breakfasting at a table in the adjacent roof garden.
Lush vertical gardens rise from the atrium, above, of the Rex in Ho Chi Minh City’s central District 1, right