A View From the Rex

by Sarah Tilton, Feb 1, 1995 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

Twenty years ago the rooftop bar at the Rex Hotel, then the American Bachelor Officer's Quarters, offered a view of the Vietnam war. Today, the sandbags are gone, the artillery fire has stopped and Nixon is no longer speaking at press conferences known as the Five O'clock Follies, but the roof of the Rex is still a welcome retreat from the chaotic streets. It has one of the clearest views of a place known officially as Ho Chi Minh City, but which many will only call Saigon.

The hotel was built in 1960 and originally included a library named after Abraham Lincoln and a dance hall famous throughout Asia. However, since being renovated in 1985, it has become better known for its modern business center, swimming pool, massage service, and roof bar that advertises itself as the place "Where the elite meet to beat the heat."

Some people think the roof bar has gotten garish with its topiary reindeer, six-foot tall statues of elephants, tiled fish tanks, flocks of bird cages, Chinese lanterns and Vietnamese Venus de Milo. But the taxidermy bear that looms over the fish pond and the cats with no tails that wander under the tables make it high-camp. It is the perfect spot for a morning coffee and baguette with homemade jam, a refreshing citron presse while you enjoy an afternoon breeze or a business dinner.

The cast of characters at the Rex is rivaled only by a Fellini movie. The head waiter (who remembers the rue Catinat when it was the rue Catinat) speaks fluent French while his younger staff is more proficient in American English. Over-accoutered tourists, journalists, Vietnamese women looking cool and elegant in their traditional ao dais and an occasional backpacker are spread out among the wrought iron tables covered with crisp white linens. Businessmen from Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Eastern Europe sit at the bar or settle into comfortable rattan chairs.

Stand at the edge of the terrace and you can see from the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral, built by the French in the 1880's, to the Saigon River. Directly below is the Hotel de Ville, a building that dates back to the turn of the century and looks like it should be in the South of France rather than in Southeast Asia. It's now the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee. A statue of Ho Chi Minh stands in the square opposite the ornate building and gazes down Nguyen Hue Boulevard.

The roof is the ideal vantage point for watching the streets below - the traffic, the daring pedestrians, the banyon trees. Groups of children can be spotted approaching unsuspecting tourists, grabbing the glasses off their noses, and running into the crowds. If you look closely, Fagin can usually be spotted in the background orchestrating the maneuver.

As the sun sets in Saigon, the giant crown perched on the corner of the terrace starts to rotate and a red neon sign saying REX flashes off and on until late into the night.

Rex (Ben Thanh) Hotel Information:

The Rex is among the most popular hotels in Saigon because of its location on one of the city's busiest corners, right in the central business district. The hotel was expanded in 1992 and the 120 rooms have undergone renovations, yet they have a bit of a dated ambiance. The rooms have air-conditioning, color TV, refrigerators, and IDD (international direct dial) phones. The hotel has a rooftop swimming pool, tennis court, business center, three restaurants, gift shop, tailor, art gallery, beauty salon (with haircuts, facials, manicures, and massages), and computerized billing.

We stayed in a suite which was great for a short business stay. There were two bedrooms, a sitting room, kitchen, and dining area. This allowed us to receive guests, serve drinks, have breakfast meetings, work and relax, all without leaving the air conditioned comfort of our temporary home. We recommend making reservations in advance (although we didn't take our own advice) because the hotel is nearly always fully booked. Although it isn't the cheapest place in town (confirm the current rates that start around $75), it is certainly one of the most convenient.