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Vietnamese Refurbish Historic Hotel

March 30, 1990

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (AP) _ It may have been the best-known 500 square yards of the Vietnam War: the Continental Hotel terrace, where spies, soldiers and journalists met at sunset to swap tales and numb the horror with drink.

After years as a military headquarters and extensive remodeling, the Continental and its ″Shelf,″ as the terrace was called, are open again and catering to the business crowd.

The Continental was built between 1910 and 1915, in the French era, and initially welcomed a colonial cast of rubber planters and Foreign Legionnaires.

Then the Americans came to fight, and to spend their dollars on the Shelf. Every night, they were ambushed by prostitutes, crippled beggars, pickpockets and the doe-eyed urchins selling flowers, whom hardly any could resist.

That era ended in April 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon.

Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. The French-owned Continental was summarily nationalized, as was the Rex a block down the street, where American officers lived and played.

Vietnamese military officers occupied the Continental for 13 years while communist authorities tried to impose their will on the free-wheeling southerners, with less than gratifying success.

Six months ago, the Continental began its fourth life. After two years of renovations, the hotel opened its 72 rooms to tourists and the foreign businessmen who are flocking to economically liberalized Vietnam.

War and its traditional intrigues are gone from the Shelf. The talk on the terrace these days is of investment opportunities, cheap labor, bureaucratic snags and how to get around orthodox communist functionaries.

Military green and safari jackets are the stuff of ghosts, replaced by the once-scorned jacket and tie.

The rooms on the three floors above are occupied by company executives and deal makers. They come from Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Western Europe and from the United States, although Americans are barred by their government from doing business in Vietnam.

Old-timers notice other changes, sometimes with regret. The Shelf has been glassed in, air-conditioned, adorned with neo-Grecian columns and crystal chandeliers.

″What I remember most about the Continental is the open terrace, the ceiling fans, the colonial atmosphere,″ George Belcher said. ″Now that’s all gone.″

Belcher, back on a visit, spent four years in Vietnam with the U.S. aid mission.

Dao Huu Loan, the manager, said the Continental’s history and architecture were of prime concern in the renovation.

″These days, around the world, there is a tendency to pull everything down, destroy tradition and the beauty of the past,″ he said. ″We have made some changes, but the basic structure is the same.″

Rooms cost an average of $70 a night, payable in U.S. dollars, and Loan said the occupancy rate was 85 percent so far this year. He hopes the Vietnam Year of Tourism proclaimed by the government will attract more non-business travelers.

″The most important thing is to improve the service every day,″ the manager said. He told an interviewer the 120 hotel employees receive above- average salaries, plus bonuses for good performance.

Loan’s government-run parcel of history competes with a capitalist oasis of luxury its general manager, A. Patrick Imbardelli, calls ″a monument to the new era in Vietnam.″

Imbardelli’s Saigon Floating Hotel is a 200-room steel behemoth that may mar the exotic atmosphere of the Saigon River, but offers foreigners direct- dial telephone service, French cheeses, California wines and a business center with personal computers.

Most of the guests so far have been businessmen, said Imbardelli, the first foreigner to run a hotel in this communist country.

His hotel used to be anchored at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, but did less business than its owners expected and was moved to the Saigon River docks last year. It is an Australian-Japanese venture.

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