Grande dame with frisson

Vietnam Heritage, September-October 2011 Advertorial-- In the very heart and possibly soul of Ho Chi Minh City there resides a grand old dame. She stands serene and as they say in Vietnamese ‘đẹp lão’ (attractive in an elderly manner). English is by and large a sexless language and does not lend itself easily to the personification of objects or to assigning them female gender. Notable exceptions are ships, possibly cars and venerable historic hotels. The ‘lady’ I am referring to is of course the Continental Hotel. I was welcomed to her bosom in the form of an invitation to lunch and an interview with Mr Nguyen Khoa Huan, the food and beverage manager.
We sat down to an immaculately naped table in the ‘Lafayette Restaurant’. There is a fine view through french windows to the opera house and Lam Son Square, the ground zero of southern Vietnam. Just a few yards in front of us must have been the very spot where the bicycle bomb blew up in the novel and film The Quiet American. We got down to the nitty-gritty of ordering lunch and a menu was produced. I had expected Vietnamese food, but this, I discovered, was a European restaurant serving French and Italian dishes. I asked Mr Huan if it was possible to eat Vietnamese here. The customer is king and a menu from the Vietnamese kitchen was swiftly put before me. Eventually I decided to compromise and select chả tôm, prawn spring rolls, as a starter, at VND150,000 ($7.50). The European menu was extensive. Each section, Chicken, Duck, Fish, Pork, Lamb, Seafood, Steaks, Pizza and Pasta, offered a number of alternatives. I opted for the baked sea bass with herb crust and fresh vegetables for VND220,000 ($11). I was shown the drink list and selected freshly squeezed pawpaw (papaya) juice at VND56,000 ($2.80), which arrived swiftly, setting the scene for a little conversation.

Using rising intonation I posed a question to Mr Huan. ‘This restaurant was until recently I believe an Italian restaurant?’ Mr Huan sat poised and calm reflecting the character of the hotel herself. Occasionally a flicker of a smile lit up his Buddha-like face. He talked in slow, carefully calculated English. Yes, this had been the Venezia restaurant and the man behind it a dear friend and boss well beloved by all the staff, a true Italian who never drank water. When he had known he was going to die he had done a very un-Italian thing and willed that he be cremated and his ashes returned to a Vietnamese pagoda for two years then scattered on the Saigon River. His name was Signor Guido Cora and his spirit was with his friends in Vietnam.
There was another question I had for Mr Huan. Was it true the hotel was haunted? I had struck a chord. Mr Huan’s eyes went bright and his face reddened. Many of the staff were afraid to sleep in the Conference Hall. Once a week senior staff were required to stay overnight at the hotel to be on hand in case of emergency, a fire for example. They bedded down in the conference hall – that is, if they dared. Mr Huan had tried this duty just once. He had locked the doors from the inside, according to the rules, to stop staff neglecting duty and popping in for a nap. He had been woken by a television. He had thought this strange and switched the television off at the mains. A little later he had been woken again, by the television turning itself on. The sequence of events had been repeated several more times during the night, with no logical explanation. There had also been funny goings on in room 120. Guests from all countries had reported inexplicable noises originating in the room, giving them sleepless nights. Mr Huan went silent there. I wondered if you had to pay extra to have a genuine ghost in your room.
Next, while lunch was being prepared, came a brief tour of the hotel. Now was the time to let Mr Huan know that the hotel for me was a very special old girl as I had spent my first six nights here in Saigon back in 2000. I also attended several conferences here, totally unaware I might have had a ghost peering over my shoulder. Nevertheless, Mr Huan, with his charming manner, made it all sound like new. Over there in the corner was the table at which French President Mitterand had dined. We were now in La Dolce Vita corridor, where, as you could see, friends met to drink coffee and eat cake and ice-cream. Then the hall of the Continental Palace restaurant, with the original brass pots and pans displayed on the wall. We were now entering the inner courtyard. Over there in the corner was the preferred spot of Mr Graham Greene, author of The Quiet American. I tried to ask about the hotel’s association with the French author André Malraux. André would have a lot of explaining to do to this magazine if he were alive today. He stole Indochinese artefacts and was caught illegally trying to take the heritage back to France. Somehow, he ended up Minister for Culture.
A generous serving of around a dozen puree-of-prawn spring rolls awaited me on my return to the table. I savoured them dipping each in a accompanying saucer of sweet and sour sauce. This was perhaps pandering to the expectations of foreign clientele. I would usually have preferred the traditional chili ‘nước mắm’ (fish sauce), the pungency of which may not suit all guests. The sauce I received made a nice change anyway.
Next came the pièce de résistance. The sea bass was a very tasty morsel topped off with something similar to the stuffing you get in a Christmas bird and in butter sauce. At first I was a little wary to see it accompanied with vegetables ‘à la nouvelle cuisine’. But these came reasonably well cooked, added to the visual appeal and did not come in starvation rations. In fact they decorated the plate well in four different colours – light green of asparagus tips, orange of what I presumed to be yams, darker green of courgettes and white of potatoes. Eating veggies of different colours is healthy and I took this as an offset to indulging in a calorific sweet course.
The dessert menu is mainly in French. There is banane flambée, crême caramel, crêpe suzette and fromages varies, not to mention an array of flavours of ice-cream. I went, however, for the tiramusu, an Italian cake with a strong chocolate input. This costs VND65,000 ($3.25). I rounded off with an expresso-stlye black coffee. I forgot to ask how much the coffee was but would estimate around VND20,000 ($1).
All aspects of the meal were first class and I left the table both satisfied and replete. Totalling everything up, I estimate the lunch came to about VND510,000 ($25.50) all included. This, for a first-class place in Vietnam’s most expensive square mile, represents great value for money
Asians in general place great importance on both respecting and caring for the elderly. This is highly laudable but I am not quite sure to what extent they can personify old buildings and treat them as they would Grandma. To the side of the Continental in recent months the Eden Mall block has been torn down. For sure most of it was probably not worthy of conversation. Yet, on a corner of it was the original Givraly café, almost as iconic of old Saigon as the Continental herself. For me the razing of the Givral was a crime against Vietnamese heritage. To the rear of the Continental the grand old edifice of the Ministry of Education and maybe the most beautiful old French villa in town have been razed to make way for what? – the most ugly shopping mall this side of Tucson Arizona.
Anyone who looks lasciviously at the Grand Old Dame, eyeing her up as mere bricks and mortar and square metres of prime real estate, had better watch out. She is protected by powers well beyond them. Firstly, the old girl herself is of redoubtable spirit and would conk the envious with her handbag. She knows that without her bang would go the city’s claim to be the Paris of the East and along with that a whole load of tourist dollars. Then there is the curse of the ghosts of room 210 and the conference hall, with its red-eyed hell of sleeplessness and unstoppable TV. Finally, do not meddle with the ghost of Guido Cora, who elected to send his spirit back to Vietnam in order to protect the love of his life. May the Grand Old Dame live to be a thousand! You may even wish to haunt her yourself.

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