BY RITCH PICKENS
(No.6, Vol.6,Aug-Sep 2016 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
The Rex Hotel combines Western architecture and a Vietnamese spirit
First time visitors who come to Ho Chi Minh City and who stay at the Rex Hotel could find themselves quickly ticking off items on their list of things to do and experience. Firstly, there is a show of Vietnamese traditional music by the famous Duc Dau players featuring the rare stone xylophone in their colourful traditional costume to be enjoyed while having dinner at the Cung Dinh (Palace) restaurant. Secondly, the Rex is a famous place to try out Vietnamese food in all its regional variety. So good it is that it even attracts locals, especially at breakfast time. It is famous for its oxtail rice noodle soup. If you wish to learn how to make Vietnamese food, there are cooking classes here too. The specialist Vietnamese restaurant on the upper level is called the Hoa Mai (Apricot Blossom). Located in the very heart of town, the main shopping streets are right on its door steps, whilst the renowned Ben Thanh market is but a short stroll away. Finally, short taxi rides will take you to the major museums and other attractions.
Guests who stay at the Rex will also find themselves in very good company too, so to speak. Among the famous people who have stayed here is King Olaf of Norway, as well as a Princess of Thailand. A President of Ireland has been a guest here too. Duc Phap Vuong Gyalwang Drupka, the head monk of a school of Himalayan Vajrayana Buddhism and the state religion of Bhutan, has also stayed here; I remember seeing his entourage in the lobby one day. I also remember chatting to members of Tottenham Hotspur Youth F.C. in the same place. But the one celebrity guest that might be called a living ghost who loves to haunt the Rex is United States Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry. He has memories of when U.S. military officers were billeted here. In particular, he likes to head for the Rooftop Garden Restaurant, where journalists were daily briefed on the war in what was nicknamed 'Five O'Clock Follies'. We think of the Rex as historic. In fact, it only opened its doors as a hotel after the end of the war in 1975. But the block it occupies is historic, having originally housed a garage and the Abraham Lincoln Library. It will celebrate its ninetieth anniversary at the end of September and the Rex has plans to make this a very memorable occasion indeed.
In September, the Rex will become the first hotel in the country and possibly South East Asia to incorporate a theatre within its premises. The stage is already being constructed in the open square area that features a vertical garden, the leafy vines that make for what I call the hanging gardens of Saigon. On a nightly basis, there will be a one-hour cultural performance from 8 p.m. until 9 p.m. The basic cost of a ticket will be the equivalent of $15 per adult with half-price for children. There will be a number of ‘packages’ on offer. You will be able to include the performance in the price of your accommodation. You may wish to dine while you watch—that is another package. In co-operation with tour groups it can be included as part of a day out. They will also be bespoke programmes for the corporate market. The theatre itself will operate as a separate company known as the ‘Rex Golden Lotus Theatre Co’.
The main feature of the show will be the ‘Water Puppets’, that theatre genre unique to Vietnam, originating in performances in the northern rice fields, which depicts scenes of rural life and amazingly includes underwater fireworks. This will be supported by a kind of classic form of Vietnamese opera known as 'Hat Boi’, which whilst deriving from Imperial Chinese courts, has distinctive Vietnamese and popular elements. To the delight particularly of the younger audience, a lion dance in which a lioness gives birth to her cub will also be included.
I sat in the executive lounge, which looks down on the Vertical garden courtyard having afternoon coffee, cakes and savouries and listening to Tran Thi Minh Hanh, Deputy General Manager and Lam Thi Anh Nguyen giving me all these details. This how modern theatre began, I pondered, at least in England. In Shakespeare's time, plays were enacted in the courtyards of inns.
Another matter which makes this hotel stand out is that the staff is a hundred per cent Vietnamese. I was told they do some training in Singapore. Do not let this put you off trying the western dishes. The chef does these to perfection. I can heartily recommend in particular the mouthwatering 'Roast Duck a l’orange'. There is also Western popular entertainment most evenings up on 'The Rooftop'. One memorable night, I was taken back in time to the tunes in vogue in my teen years of the seventies which might have been on the lips of many an American G.I. in those terrible times of war.
Until now the motto of ‘The Rex Hotel’ has been 'Your Vietnam House' and that would have summed it all up. However, now that it soon will be your Vietnamese cultural theatre as well, this may require some modification. What is for sure you cannot find so much under one roof anywhere else. Dear reader, please watch this space as I have been invited to the ninetieth anniversary celebrations of The Rex's block and to the inaugural cultural performance at the end of September. I look forward with pleasure to reporting back to you in October's edition.
141 Nguyen Hue St, Ben Nghe Ward, Dist.1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (08) 3829-2185