An hotel (and a meal) fit for a king

(No.1, Vol.3, Jan-Feb 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine, Advertorial)

Rex Hotel

What makes an hotel a great hotel? Aside from well-appointed rooms, one would expect courteous and attentive, but unobtrusive, service. The food and beverage needs to be of the highest quality whilst catering for a wide range of tastes. Location is of utmost importance. Not only does it need to afford pleasant views but it also needs to have easy access to good shopping and business areas and to places of interest. Then, perhaps not easy to define, it needs to have some kind of personality. Hotels are not people, so perhaps we should call this elusive quality atmosphere or ambience. This can be achieved through its architecture, decor, and furnishings or through the evocation of an era of more opulence and grandeur than our own or at least by possessing some clear historical connections.
One such hostelry which is endowed with all of these factors is the Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. Firstly, its rooms strike a balance between comfort and tradition, decked as they are with original Vietnamese decor.
No hotel could be better located. It is in the very heart of town, flanking the square fronted by the grandeur of The People’s Committee Hall, alongside a major shopping street and within spitting distance of such major attractions as the Notre Dame Basilica and the Reunification Palace.
Furthermore, this is one of Ho Chi Minh’s historic hotels. It is not historic in a European sense. The oldest inn in my grubby industrial home town dates back to 1384 with kings of England featured in its guest roll. The actual building, first used as a car dealership and garage complex, dates back only to 1926. Its first guests were the U.S. Army, and it only opened to the public as the Ben Thanh Hotel after the American War ended in 1975. It was dubbed the Rex, its old name, in 1990! Yet such is its fame due to the American War that many who come to Ho Chi Minh have at least a peek inside on their ‘things to do’ list. The five o’clock follies-the press briefings that were held on its terrace gardens during the Vietnam War, a key historical event of the twentieth century, is what makes this a truly historic hotel.
So far I have not mentioned the food and beverage. I was coming to that. I went along to try out some dishes on the aforementioned terrace at the Rooftop Restaurant. The hotel has a banqueting hall on the same level called the ‘Hoa Mai’, where buffet meals are spread out. On the ground floor are the Rose Garden Restaurant and the Paradise Coffee Lounge, both with the same Vietnamese and European menu. The latter is an informal place indoors to eat and drink with family, friends or business associates while the former is an exotic courtyard with vegetation that gives you the feeling of being inside a jungle. In the background, you will hear a waterfall, which on close inspection, is water continually falling off a large window into a trench of a pool.
We arrived at the ‘Rooftop’ at 8:15, just in time to hear the Filipino band warming up. ‘We’ comprises of me, my Vietnamese wife and our teenage daughter. And, dear reader (lucky you), it also means that for this article you get three reviewers for the price of one. My wife nicknamed ‘Madame Gourmet’ by an Australian editorial adviser of renown was along for her comments on the Vietnamese cuisine and who better to be in attendance for her musical insight than a pop-mad teenage girl?

a member of the Filipino band.
Photo: Angela Elizabeth de Rouvray

The trio got down to the serious business of ordering. I could not resist my favourite - honey roast duck which came with peppercorn, that caviar of a herb called coriander and gratinated roast potatoes. Madame ordered stir fried morning glory in garlic, sautéed chicken in ginger, lemon grass and chilli sauce and fried pork chop with mam ruoc - shrimp paste sauce into which to dip the pieces, not to mention the de riguer fluffy fragrant white rice. Batting on their own wicket the chefs did well, meeting with the not-so-easy to earn approval of Madame. I tried the dishes myself and found them all delicious.
Angela my daughter and I had soup in Western style as a starter. She ordered the seafood chowder with garlic bread and I had the soupe de coquillages au saffron (that’s mussel soup to you mate!). Angela leaned over and tried a spoonful of this. ‘Umm, that’s delicious’ she exclaimed and as she turned to taste her own she blurted out ‘Mine’s even better.’ We all fell about laughing!

Grill salmon steak with herb butter Asian green

Stuffed chicken with sticky rice

Orange ice cream.

Grapefruit salad
Photos: Rex Hotel

These high standards were maintained with dessert for which the chefs demonstrated their artistic skills. My daughter’s two scoops of ice cream came well decorated and in banana boat sundae style. Here we have to record a slight slip up which mattered not a jot-one of the scoops was supposed to be strawberry but even better what came was actually raspberry. My wife and ordered grapefruit, that fruit known for its cholesterol reducing powers. It came in slices forming a star with a strawberry at its centre.
The Filipino band, consisting of a female main singer and two gentlemen with acoustic guitar and electronic percussion, lived up to their country’s reputation of having the best entertainers in Asia. They played pop standards mostly from the post 1975 era-Aretha Franklin, Bee Gees, Carole King and Captain and Tennille songs were among the many. They even sang that haunting famous Filipino melody, Freddie Aguilar’s ‘Anak’. However, the one song that took me right back to the time of the five o’clock follies was ‘Hello Dolly’, delivered with an excellent Satchmo gravelly voice by the percussionist. Angela was impressed by the rendition of Adele songs and had her ears peeled for the music above even as we came away and were crossing the square down below.
I will not bore you with the details of the cost of the dishes but can tell you the bill (of course a reviewer, as part of the job, never actually gets to see one of these) with drinks (The Rex Hotel cocktail-Midori, crème be banane, pineapple and juice is a wow!) came to a total of around two million dongs. Of course you mere mortals who actually have to pay for your dinner would have to add 10 per cent, 15 per cent in service charge and tax to that. For a slap-up meal for a family of three with two hours of top-quality entertainment with the sultry night air of a rooftop garden I think you would agree that is not bad value for money.
To sum up, I give you a quote from Tim Page, a fellow Kentish man and a famous war time photographer (Kent is an English county) - ‘The King of residences has surpassed the norms of provision.’ You can add that it is hard to beat it too for Western musical accompaniment and its romantic nocturnal setting. All in all, the ‘Rex’ (which in case you missed out on a classical education means ‘the King’ in English), is undoubtedly the Elvis Presley of Ho Chi Minh hotels.

Rex Hotel
141 Nguyen Hue Boulevard
Ho Chi Minh City; Tel: (08) 38292185

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