SAIGON — A sign of the times in Vietnam’s southernmost city is Le Meridien Saigon. A member of the Starwood chain and arguably this city’s most modern hotel, it officially opened this weekend, still something of a secret to taxi drivers who haven’t ferried enough guests there in the weeks leading up to the ceremonial opening.
Modernity aside, it has all the things that are right about being in Ho Chi Minh City, the more modern and politically correct name, starting with its location.
It towers over the Saigon River, providing fascinating views of traffic ranging from tankers to speedboats that negotiate between the water hyacinth plants that rise and fall with the tide. Around the corner is a quirky little street called Ngo Van Nam, home to restaurants like Quan Bui, recommended to us and home of the best food we’ve had in five days here since leaving the AmaDara after cruising down the Mekong River.
The hotel is staffed by the happiest, warmest and ridiculously friendliest people — and there are many of them, at every turn trying to help you out — you could hope to encounter in Southeast Asia, or anywhere else for that matter. There’s never a door unopened, nor a question unanswered, nor a business issue without a solution.
The rooms have all the current computer-driven necessities and gadgets, like energy-saving keys to the lights and electronic blinds to allow you to over-sleep, if inclined. That’s necessary, given the size of the windows that allow natural light to pour into the spacious rooms.
There’s a plethora of good eating in Vietnam, and this hotel has the most extensive dinner buffet we’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever.
While its facade smacks of modern architecture, everything inside has a taste of the French heritage that for 100 years was so much a part of Saigon, from the artwork decorating the walls to the music played on the sound system filtering into lounges and restaurants. Surprisingly, perhaps, French can be heard from the staff, as a second or third language…Vietnamese and English being the other two.
When the French left here — or were driven out — half a century ago, it’s unlikely they’d ever have foreseen one day a hotel called Le Meridien would be such a part of the landscape…right down to the French pastries in a shop off the lobby. The service is so personal that guests are cautioned when leaving the hotel about what and where is safe and what and where isn’t, and when you take a taxi the people at the front door know what cab you’re in and where you’re going — they give you a card with the hotel address to make sure the drivers know where your “home” is.
It is, after all, still new to the cabbies.
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