Saigon skyline from the Palace Hotel - 1993 and 2013 - Rusty Compass travel blog

Saigon skyline from the Palace Hotel - 1993 and 2013

| 04 Mar 2013
04 Mar 2013

2013 marks 20 years since I first moved to Ho Chi Minh City. It's a big personal milestone. I'm an appalling nostalgic at the best of times so this year's likely to be especially bad. You've been warned!

Right from my first visit to Vietnam in June 1990, I was hooked.  I'd do anything to wrangle a return visit. Happily, I was working with a company that was setting up the Vietnam Investment Review newspaper, so frequent visits became possible.

The energy of Saigon was infectious - as it is today. And it was obvious to everyone, locals and visitors, that Vietnam was at the start of an amazing transition. At 25, I knew I wanted to see it.

Saigon may not have been Vietnam's most beautiful city, but it was friendly, fun, and as you'll see from the video, relatively quiet - even charming.

Even in 1993, I carried video and stills cameras around a fair bit of the time. Unfortunately, most of the material I shot in those years has been lost. But I have found some footage so I'll share some of that.

There are plenty of changes as you scan the skyline. I've written enough in the past about unnecessary disregard for heritage in Saigon so I'll pass on the obvious opportunity here. And anyway, the modern Saigon skyline doesn't look too bad from this vantage point.

You'll note a brief shot of a building on the Saigon River, The Saigon Floating Hotel. For most of those travelling to Vietnam around 1990, this was the place to stay.

Known then as "the floater", it was dragged up from Australia's Barrier Reef in a hurry to service the incoming business and government delegations that were swept up in the hype of Vietnam's "doi moi" market opening. Many were sure, including a good many charlatans, that Vietnam was where the next fortune was to be made.

For most, the riches proved illusory.

And by 1997, with new hotels popping up around town, "the floater" was no longer welcome. Like many businesses that followed, its period in the sun was brief. Its success its downfall.

One of Saigon's most decadent parties was held to farewell the floater in 1997.

The Saigon Floating Hotel was owned by Japanese giant of the time EIE, but it was nominally considered an Australian investment. Australian corporations had high hopes for Vietnam at that time. Telstra, BHP Petroleum and the ANZ Bank had major investments. 20 years later, only the ANZ Bank remains.

The Floating Hotel's Downunder Disco and the Q Bar were the two main late night venues in the city's modest early 90s nightlife landscape.

Apocalypse Now, the great survivor, was a tiny, grotty, hole in the wall on Dong Du St. It was next to a more suspect establishment ambitiously named, the B475 Bar. Somebody finally worked out the name and the B475 was unceremoniously shut down that same year - never to be heard of again.

Hien and Bob's opened around the same time. It's still delightfully frozen in time on the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Dong Du Sts.

Just like now, rooftop bars had their appeal back then - perhaps more so. It was easier to conjure the historic significance of the various watering holes in the knowledge that they'd barely changed since the 60s and 70s when iconic Vietnam War journalists gathered to exchange stories over a drink or watch the chasers across the Saigon River. Unsurprisingly, the bars have since been renovated within an inch of their lives.

I was in the habit of taking visitors to the Rex, Caravelle, Majestic and Palace Hotel rooftops. They were all wonderful celebrations of high kitsch decorated with elaborate bonsai animals and fairy lights.

The Palace was a favourite because of the views. From memory, it was the tallest building in Saigon. It was certainly the tallest rooftop bar. You could see all the major landmarks - the former US Embassy, the People's Committee Building as well as the riverfront. It was a great place to talk about Saigon's past, present and speculate about the future. 

The staff were disinterested enough that it was possible to climb to the service area at the very top of the building for a panoramic view that was definitely off limits. It was a great place for a few beers and quiet chat.

One day in 1993, I took the video camera with me and shot some footage of the city skyline from there. Here it is.

I recently went back up to reshoot, as best I could, the same view. I couldn't get to the same spot - it's now congested with mobile phone towers - nor did I have a long lens on hand, but this will give you a sense of how things have changed.

In some ways the changes look dramatic. In other ways, they don't seem so big. This is twenty years and an economic revolution later after all.

And that's how I feel about Vietnam too. There have been huge changes - and some things have barely moved at all.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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3 comments so far

Thanks for the memory's. I stayed at the Palace in 1989 at the time there was a 10:30 p.m. curfew. Top floor of the Palace was the restaurant with tight staircase leading up to what they called a small swimming pool but may have been the water tank ?.

  • tibi stiasny
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Saturday, 27 April 2013 23:17

Hi Tibi, Yep, I remember that tiny spiral staircase - and then another one that went to the top of the building. Pretty sure the tiny pool was there then as well. Cheers. Mark

  • rusty
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Thursday, 02 May 2013 00:59

Thnx for posting these comparison videos, Mark Bowyer. I searched this very topic to see if any Palace skyline videos were posted. It was a bonus to see the 93 view. We visited in 06 and stayed a total of 4 days at the Hotel. This is the smallest pool I have ever swam laps in. The pool floor actually resembled a possible water tank or cistern, but well restored for pool look and feel. The View from this location and the adjacent deck and bar were beautiful and tranquil. Visible were all the elements of the city, which included sections seen in your 93 video, it was a picturesque collage of past and present. I do notice the skyline has grown significantly, blocking some of the waterway view. I also ran through the downtown streets in cool early morning, which gave me an intimate look and interaction with Ho Chi Minh city. It really is an international hub and has an even more free feeling, in many ways than here in the States. Thanks again, cheers, Dave

  • Dave
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Sunday, 04 August 2013 03:37