(No.5, Vol.2 May 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
The Grand was a popular name for a hotel during European colonialisation of much of the world. I remember being shown pictures from our family album of a stay when I was just a baby at the Grand Hotel, Singapore. I returned as an adult only to find the grand dame in a dilapidated state on the outside and the interior a wreck. She had not seen any guests for a long while. I am happy to report that the Grand Hotel, Saigon, has escaped such a fate. She has lost none of her grandeur. On the contrary she has recently acquired a new wing which keeps in conformity with her original design so well that you would hardly notice the join. In spite of Vietnamâ€™s having regained its independence long ago, the Frenchness of this hostelry is well preserved, with European-style pictures adorning its walls and French popular song playing in the background. The high standards of the French culinary tradition also still prevail here.
One thing that might surprise you and give many a reason to pop into the Grand is that it has a wonderful collection of paintings on its walls, perhaps second only to the Art Museum. They all have a French flavour. The first one that might strike the guest is a large one of how the hotel might have looked when it first opened its doors, in 1930. The others on view on the ground floor are all of the hotel in its leafy avenue surroundings and are in a post-impressionist style. They all appear to be of the thirties but look carefully and you will spot one with the Bitexco tower, Saigonâ€™s tallest building, which was only completed just over a year ago. In the second floor restaurant there are many still-life pictures. The walls of the twentieth-floor Grand Cafe have a more modern-art flavour, with bright colours predominating. Most of the exhibits appeared to be original oil paintings but the Renoirs on the third floor of the new wing were obviously not. They are accompanied by paintings of Italian buildings and scenery and are likely to catch the eye of many a city businessman as they are outside the conference and banquet halls.
The expanded Grand Hotel romances steam and the Saigon River in paintings.
All this I saw on my tour of the old and new â€˜Grandâ€™ conducted by sales manager Miss Ho Ngoc Loan. We mounted the wonderful sweeping staircase with its gilded wrought iron balustrades and took a look at the new Saigon Palace restaurant on the second floor. It is spacious with a capacity for around two hundred. It offers international cuisine but at the time of my visit it was being used for breakfast buffet only. The grand opening was slated for 15 April so it will be ready for your enjoyment when this article gets to your hands. Also on this floor is the Eden Rock bar, despite its name a quiet and relaxing lounge in which to entertain your guests. If itâ€™s views your are after then take your meetings to the top and twentieth floor. From here a wonderful urban scape is there for one and all to enjoy. Some of the neighbouring skyscrapers may block the way a little but you can see a lot of the river right up to and beyond the recently constructed Phu My bridge. Turning inward to the city side, the facade of the old French Cathedral looks a picture as it is uncannily framed by the tower blocks of the Sheraton and Caravelle Hotels. Snacks and drinks are served on the terrace. If it is wet and windy, as it was when I was there, the Grand Cafe has an indoor section and even a private room for small gatherings.
All this activity was whetting up an appetite. It came as some relief when Miss Loan uttered the magic words â€˜have lunchâ€™. Soon we were seated at â€˜Chez Nousâ€™ restaurant. With its whitewashed walls and candelabras, it is well known, as it is alongside Ngo Duc Ke Street on the ground level. The internationally known Vietnamese Elvis Phuong was to be heard crooning French pop standards in the background: yet another Gallic touch to the â€˜Grandâ€™ experience. I am happy to be able to give a wide report on what is available here, as Miss Loan ordered Vietnamese dishes while I went for a classic three-course Western meal.
First to arrive at the table was the mocktail I had ordered, the intriguingly named â€˜Love Valleyâ€™. This refreshing and creamy drink consists of strawberry, guava, yoghurt and milk. At VND129,000++ I thought it a bit pricey but liked it so much that I shall be making it at home.
For an entree I had the goulash soup at VND100,000++ (that classic dish of beef and paprika popular not only in its native Hungary but much of the rest of Central Europe and Germany. After all the fiery chilli peppers my Central Vietnamese wife uses at home it was a pleasant change to be trying a sweet-pepper-flavoured soup. I was however a little taken aback to see instead of croutons a whole crust of garlic bread in the dish. This nevertheless took nothing away from my enjoyment of a favourite food I had long been missing. Miss Loan paced me with sÃºp bÃ o ngÆ° or abalone soup. We had both started well.
On to the main course. I chose a steak medium-grilled and I am pleased to tell you it came the way I like it, as one large, thick oval. All too often when you order steak these days, particularly at those places with any pretension of being French, it comes as a rather small, round lump drowned out with sweet sauces. The sauce here was an unobtrusive gravy enriched by the blood from the tender meat. Furthermore, and a real treat only available in a country such as Vietnam, which is a top world producer, it came with fresh green peppercorns on top. The steaks here are American prime cuts T-bone at VND590,000++, rib-eye at VND490,000++ and strip loin at VND390,000++. I had the latter, which, on returning home and comparing US and UK charts for cutting beef, I found to be not exactly the same as but would be classified as sirloin in Britain. Carnivores please note that from Tuesdays to Sundays there is a buffet BBQ with all these steaks and more. It costs VND890,000++ inclusive of a free flow of house wine and soft drinks as well as salad and dessert bars. Let me here add that Miss Loanâ€™s choice of the Vietnamese dish, gá»i bÃ², a salad with strips of dried beef, also looked tasty.
We rounded off things with lemon and chocolate cheesecake (VND120,000++) with Miss Loan not resisting temptation and diverting from the normal Vietnamese way of finishing a meal with tropical fruits. I had had a very satisfactory lunch in good surroundings and fine company.
8 Dong Khoi St, Ben Nghe Ward,
Dist.1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (08) 3823-0163, www.grandhotel.vn