HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (Reuters Life!) - Decades before he stood on the roof of Baghdad’s Al Rashid hotel watching U.S. bombs rain down during the 1990-91 Gulf War, veteran journalist Peter Arnett stood atop Saigon’s iconic Caravelle Hotel watching a coup unfold.
The Caravelle has borne witness to the city, from the time it was known exclusively as “Saigon,” through the Vietnam War and the 1980s when Vietnam was largely closed to the outside world, into the renewal of the 1990s that brought the first signs of economic prosperity to the country.
This year the iconic hotel celebrates its 50th anniversary and Arnett was invited back to what had served as a hub for the foreign press corps during much of the 1960s and 70s.
The Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, who filed more than 3,000 stories on the Vietnam War for the Associated Press between 1962 and 1975, recalled watching the 1963 coup d’etat against southern leader Ngo Dinh Diem from the hotel’s rooftop.
“During a lull in the shooting I made my way to the Caravelle,” he said. There, on the rooftop, colleagues pointed out where the main battles were playing out.
“The rumors and the speculation of the months past were coming true before my eyes and I watched it all, with a glass of Johnny Walker Red Label in one hand, a cigarette in the other.”
As the war dragged on, foreign correspondents were drawn to the hotel’s rooftop terrace to drink, swap rumors and hammer out the reports that made their way into hometown newspapers, radio and television stations the world over.
“On three occasions — the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in ‘63, the Tet Offensive in 1968, and the fall of Saigon — I was watching here at the Caravelle,” said Arnett.
“As the pressure grew in the city in 1975 and the end became obvious, all the journalists in town moved in. Over a period of six weeks we saw rocketing, gunfire, and battles in the general neighborhood, so the Caravelle was the place to be.”
On April 30, 1975, Communist forces finally overran Saigon.
In the years immediately after the war, as Vietnam struggled to build its economy, the Caravelle fell into disrepair.
When things turned in the 1990s, though, the Caravelle followed suit, and was given a complete renovation adding a 24-story annex that opened in 1998.
Today, it competes with a proliferation of high-end hotels in what is now officially named Ho Chi Minh City, but none boast quite the same history.
From the moment it opened on Christmas Eve, 1959, the Caravelle was the most glamorous hotel in town and, at 10 stories high, the tallest.
It was the first to offer air conditioning and it had bullet-proof glass windows imported from France.
The rooftop served as bleacher seats to battles on the fringe of the city, but occasionally the war came to the hotel itself.
On August 25, 1964, a bomb exploded in room 514 showering glass and debris over the street below. Nobody was hurt, but there was structural damage.
On December 24 that year, another bomb exploded on the other side of Lam Son Square at the American billet at the Hotel Brink, killing two Americans and injuring 107 others who were there for a Christmas party. A Park Hyatt now stands at that site.
The day that Saigon fell, Arnett was at the Caravelle. At the 50th anniversary celebration he recounted the morning, quoting from his autobiography.
“I shaved and showered in cold water and selected a grey proletarian shirt for the benefit of the new city masters. I headed upstairs to the dining room, doubtful that breakfast would be served. But I was wrong. The waiters were on duty as usual.”
Editing by John Ruwitch and Miral Fahmy