For many years I’ve always been puzzled by the amount of interest Vietnam has been attracting, particularly among the businesses, of Asian descent or otherwise. Vietnam is classed as a developing nation in the early throngs of development.
I’ve never been to Vietnam so I know little of the mystique the nation of 85 million people, nor was I prepared for the surprises in store when I finally took a Cathay Pacific flight to the land once made infamous as the “Killing Fields” in the movie of the same name.
The first surprise that greeted me was at the airport. As I disembarked off my flight I discovered a rather clean and modern, not state of the art but modern nonetheless, airport. I had apprehensions about how difficult it would be to get a ride to the airport since I opted to take a taxi from the airport. I did Google Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and found lots of references to unscrupulous taxi drivers. The assurances of friends who’ve been to HCMC themselves did not dissuade my concerns.
Having paid US$9 from one of the stalls in the airport, my party of four – wife and two kids – found ourselves seated comfortably in a clean and airconditioned taxi. It took about 30 minutes before we got to our hotel – the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon (HCMC was formerly referred to as Saigon). The bell hop quickly helped us out of our cab, took our luggages, as we made our way to the front desk to check it.
We were greeted by Ms. Naomi Ino, a Japanese Guest Relations Officer, working on assignment at the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon (Renaissance). We were quickly whisked off to our hotel suite (yes, a Suite on the 12th floor) where we were checked-in, and given our keys. Ms. Ino, reminds me of many other guest relations staff at five-star hotels – they tend to be very courteous, highly knowledgeable of the hotel and the surroundings, and more than happy to share her experience living in HCHM (Ms. Ino is on a one-year assignment to this Marriott property.
The living room on Suite 1208 overlooks part of the city landscape as well as the Saigon River itself. By day, you can see throngs of motorbikes zigging and zagging between pedestrians and other vehicles. It is a chaotic scene and a nightmare for any tourist daring to risk a walk. But Ms Ino’s advice of keeping one’s cool as you traverse the streets paid off (more on that later).
The Renaissance is a 18-storey hotel complex. Whereas most hotels would have the swimming pool at the basement (as in the Marriott Sky) or somewhere in the lower floors of the hotel (as in the JW Marriott in Hong Kong)., in the case of the Renaissance, the gym, spa and pool is located at the top floor of the hotel. Guests using the pool get an unobstructed 360 degree panoramic view of HCHM minus the noise and air pollution from the street below.
Eating to your heart’s content
Our first taste of Renaissance cuisine was dinner at the Riverside Cafe. It was late when we decided to sample the Hotel’s contemporary menu. Each of us ordered something different from the Ala Carte menu. If presentation is half the experience then I can say that each dish offered nothing different from what I’d expect from any Marriott property. The venue reflected Saigon’s French colonial history with columns and pillars. I was glad we opted for Ala Carte as opposed to buffet.
Someone once told me that the most important meal of the day is breakfast. And yet I can’t see myself gorging on sumptuous breakfast buffets no matter how hungry I feel like it. The continental breakfast offering at the Executive Lounge is simple enough. You have a choice of coffee or tea. Slight changes to the selection occurs every morning with sausages, bacon, dimsum and eggs to complement the selection of pastries and bread. Fruits, cereals and freshly made fruit juices are within easy reach.
For fine dining experience, Kabin Chinese restaurant treats you to a wide selection of Chinese dishes. We were apprehensive when we first ordered Roast Duck. Having lived in Hong Kong for so long, I’ve come to benchmark every Roast Duck dinner against that of the Peking Garden chain in Hong Kong. The first hint that this is different was in the way the Duck served. At the Peking Garden, thin slices of duck meat are cut together with the crispy skin and laid out in a serving dish. It is up to you to put together the duck in hand-made, thin slices of Chinese pancakes. At Kabin, the duck skin and meat is neatly rolled into the same rice pancakes for served to you ready to eat. The taste is also different. In my humble opinion, each offers a unique interpretation of how a Roast Duck is served. Just how impressed was my family with the food? Our last dinner in HCMC was at Kabin and we made sure we had the duck again.
There were two other places for us to enjoy a meal – at the Atrium Lounge and at the Pool Bar. We took neither on this trip. The Atrium Lounge is a quiet place offering drinks and light meals for anyone wishing quiet conversation with nothing but a grand piano to distract you. The Pool Bar is a bar by the pool (what can I say?).
The gym is on the 18th floor, an unusual setting given that most gyms at most hotels are either in the basement or in e lower floors near the pool area. This gym is near e pool area, in fact a few steps leading to the open roof that houses the swimming pool and the Pool Bar. All the equipment you come to expect in a modern hotel are in this gym plus the added gym coach who roams around offering free advise when you need it, even when you are embarrassed to ask.
The pool is decked with recliners for sun worshippers. It’s not an Olympic size pool but then again no competition is planned here. It’s all about relaxing and being away from the rest of the world, 18 floors below.
Location. Location. Location.
One of the things that first got me worried before arriving in Ho Chi Min City was local travel. I was concerned about the horror stories I picked up from the Web. So I was very happy to find out that Renaissance is located just a short walk from a number of popular tourist attractions. So we ended taking walks to shop, dine or do what tourists do including massage.
WHAT I LIKE
Marketers often exaggerate the features of whatever they are selling. And I’ve seen this even in some hotels I or friends have stayed at, including in Hong Kong. Fortunately, this is not the case with the Renaissance. Whatever you read in the brochure or website, that is what you get when you check in at the Hotel. From the gym to the pool to the restaurants, everything is as advertised.
WHAT I DON’T LIKE
The limited selection of restaurants would be my only rant but I don’t think the Hotel Management meant for hotel guests to stay inside the Renaissance throughout the duration of their stay in Saigon. The result is you have the chance to experience local Saigon food outside and for the occasion when you just want to stay indoors, the hotel restaurants offer welcome respite from the hot, humid weather outside.
ONE MORE THING
This is one of those occasions when I find myself wondering what I could possibly have missed. And I can’t really think of any. Would I recommend the Renaissance Riverside Saigon Hotel? Absolutely! Would I stay there again if the opportunity presents itself? Absolutely!
I’d like to close this blog with a warning. The hotel itself does not have the opulence of a modern St. Regis Hotel nor does it have a the grandeur of a JW Marriott in Hong Kong. It does carry the ambiance of a Peninsula Hotel, albeit with fewer upmarket shops. But then again I didn’t choose the Renaissance Riverside Saigon because I wanted to shop til my credit card goes bust nor do I spend the day sitting in the lobby lounge. The point of visiting Ho Chi Minh was to see the city and suburbs. The hotel amenities are just the right level of luxury.