This beautiful room might be the lobby of any luxury hotel in the world, especially one dating, as this one does, from the first decades of the 20th century–a true golden age in hotel architecture. In fact this is the Hotel Majestic in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, the capital of Vietnam. That it reflects Western tastes is obvious. There are few traditional Asian motifs. The columns, the stained glass screens (at left), chandeliers, arched entryways, terrazzo floor and grand piano are what you might expect to see in a nice hotel in New York, Toronto or Paris. Only the potted papyrus plants give a tropical flair, and that’s not necessarily a sign that you’re in the the tropics; interior plants, especially papyrus and palms, are often used to create an “exotic” atmosphere.
I don’t know how close the appearance of this room today–the hotel was restored and remodeled in 1994–is to what it looked like in the 1920s, but the Majestic hasn’t always looked like this. It has a colorful and tumultuous history, as does Vietnam itself. Built in 1925 by a rich Chinese businessman, the Majestic was intended to cater mostly to French colonials; France had held Indochina as a colonial possession since the 1860s. During World War II when France was defeated and the Japanese scooped up Indochina, the Majestic was turned into a barracks for occupying Japanese troops. After 1945 Vietnam returned to French rule but only for nine years. Defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French went home and the Majestic became the property of the new government of South Vietnam, which used it to house official and diplomatic guests. Another remodel occurred in 1968 at the height of what Vietnamese call the “American War,” meaning the heavy military involvement by the United States in what was essentially Vietnam’s civil war. Communist North Vietnam won the war in 1975 but the Hotel Majestic was damaged in the final battle by rocket fire. Again it was used to house official visitors, and by then almost all of its old charm and even the name Majestic was long gone. The hotel’s return to its old charm began in 1994.
Vietnam is one of those curious places that, while technically a Communist country, often doesn’t look like one anymore. Indeed since the 1990s, when Vietnam sought to encourage Western tourism and invested heavily infrastructure to attract it, places like this have returned to at least something like the appearance of Vietnam’s colonial past. This is now a 5-star hotel with as fine food and service as any in Southeast Asia. The Hotel Majestic has made almost a full circle, within the fascinating life cycle of the history of modern Asia.