Airbnb in Saigon - a colonial era ruin springs to life

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03 Oct 2016

Airbnb is taking the travel world by storm. I recently visited a couple of Airbnb apartments in one of Saigon's most interesting colonial era buildings, the Nguyen Van Hao flatiron, nearby Ben Thanh market.

In many ways Airbnb is the logical extension of a craving for authenticity and real experiences that has been a growing feature of travel for decades now. Watching the rise of Airbnb is fascinating. I'm a host in Australia and I've used Airbnb in Australia, the UK and France. I’m less interested in the tech juggernaut cult, and more interested in what the evolving experience of accommodation tells us about the evolving interests of travellers.

When Airbnb first burst on to the scene a few years ago, like many, I assumed it would be a new option for budget travellers. It didn’t occur to me that it would be embraced by luxury travellers and business travellers as well.

My guess is it didn’t occur to the major international hotel chains either. With a valuation around $30US billion, travel publisher Skift recently observed that Airbnb is now worth more than Hilton and Hyatt combined.

Last week, I went to check out a couple of Saigon apartments in an historic French colonial building, that are popular Airbnb stops.

Saigon has jumped on the Airbnb bandwagon in a big way and while tourism to the city may be flagging in some market segments, travellers seem to be looking increasingly to Airbnb as an alternative to conventional hotels.

Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon

 

Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer Welcome to the Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
 
Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon

 

The curves of the Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer The curves of the Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon

 

The curves of the Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer The curves of the Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon

 

Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon

 

Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon

 

Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon

 

Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon

 

Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon

 

Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nguyen Van Hao building, Saigon

 

I wanted to check out these apartments because they seemed to capture the appeal of Airbnb to me and other travellers I speak with. They offer a sense of heritage and place that most international hotels, despite their PR, fail to. They also offer a sense of connectedness to Saigon in all its messiness.

You may not always like the street noise, but you’ll definitely remember where you are. And memories of morning breakfast on the street will likely last a lifetime.

Guests at places like this really will have experienced Saigon. And while “authentic” might be one of the most overused adjectives in travel industry, the craving for authenticity is real and ever more pressing. And the big hotel groups face a huge challenge as they try to meet this craving. Turndown service, evening cocktails and canapés may not cut it with travellers who want to have a real sense of where they are. And these travellers are ready to accept the uncertainty and potential risks of staying in apartments and private houses backed up by Airbnb reviews.

Saigon's Airbnb apartments are offering value for money. The large two bedroom apartment in the video goes for less than $120US a night. It could comfortably accommodate 4 - 6 people.

The appeal of the conventional hotel isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. Many travellers are satisfied with the time-honoured model. But Airbnb is eating away at a sizeable chunk of the market. And hopefully other players will offer variations on the Airbnb modek in due course too.

I hope hotels start to fight back as well. There are lots of things hotels can do to provide an experience more integrated with the local environment. But managing that stuff across top-down multinational organisations will be hard.

 

The Nguyen Van Hao building

The Nguyen Van Hao building is a special piece of 1920’s Saigon heritage architecture with its flatiron, art-deco features. Nguyen Van Hao was a major automotive parts supplier in the city and used the structure as a residence, offices and warehouse. It's located at the junction of Tran Hung Dao, Ky Con and Yersin streets not far from Ben Thanh market.

The building's now in a dismal state of disrepair and in need of rescue. And while Landon Carnie’s renovations, as a tenant rather than an owner, were naturally constrained, his investment is an important signal of the economic viability of Saigon’s heritage architecture.

Saigon is being pulled in two directions. Small entrepreneurs are turning heritage buildings into apartments and cafes - adding to the substance of the visitor experience. Meanwhile, developers and city officials are obliterating heritage as fast as they can. The city's wider economic interests seem to always lose out to the ambitions of individual property owners and developers.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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