One morning in 2001, I learned the meaning of the adage, "Every cloud has a silver lining". I was off for a weekend with my family to Nha Trang. We suffered the misfortune of a flight cancellation. We also enjoyed the good fortune of being accommodated at the First Hotel, only five minutes’ drive from the airport.
The room was comfortable and the food was excellent. We spent the afternoon relaxing in and by the expansive pool. I never forgot the pleasant experience. So, I was intrigued when I recently received an invitation to try their buffet lunch. I found the hotel had expanded greatly over the years, to include, among other things, a new wing, conference facilities, wedding halls, and more restaurants. The three-star hotel I had known has now been up-graded to a four-star and has diversified into so much more than just a hotel.
There was no better man to show me the changes than Sales Manager Mr. Pham Dang Quy, who has been working here since 1992.
First and most obviously, the swimming pool which was diagonally opposite the hotel seemed to have disappeared, with a large building replacing it. But no, Mr. Quy showed me it was still there, behind the new façade, now in a kind of a courtyard with outdoor tables set around it. In this pleasant setting, you can now enjoy meals of barbecued seafood and meats. Moreover, at the entrance, there is a patisserie where you can buy choice pastries, cakes, and breads not generally available in the suburbs.
Now directly opposite the original hotel is the new wing which brings the number of rooms up to just over one hundred and fifty. A security guard will ensure your safety in crossing the street, which is nowhere near the take-your-life-in-your-hands experience as you find in downtown Saigon.
Once over there, you will find a massage, sauna and beauty facility on the ground floor, as well as a VIP spa opposite and an entertainment facility for foreign passport holders. On the top floor, there is an atmospheric sushi restaurant with decor to make you feel you are in a rustic Japanese tavern and there are young Vietnamese hostesses dressed like geishas.
The new wing has a selection of framed pictures of old Saigon in the corridors. Each room also has pictures with local themes to make you feel that you are truly in Vietnam. Whichever category of room you choose, from Superior to Deluxe Suite, everything is here for your comfort; from tea and coffee making facilities to collectible toiletries in the immaculate bathrooms.
All this touring was whetting my appetite, so it came as some relief when Mr. Quy led me back to the main building for a buffet lunch. He introduced me to Mr. Do Quang Long, a chef of great renown, who has won a number of prestigious prizes. It came as music to my ears when Long suggested accompanying the food with ice-cold draught Tiger beer. At only 22,000 dongs for a glass, this is a bargain for a four-star hotel. I put the question to Mr. Long which I ask all chefs and which invariably evokes the same response. Mr. Long is no exception. ‘Who cooks at home’? I asked. ‘My wife’, came the reply.
First up on buffet parade came the salad bar and vegetarian section. I sampled the crinkly chips, the vegetarian spring rolls and aubergine (eggplant) fried in garlic. Then came a formidable array of chafing dish hurdles. Unusually, some of these housed delicacies in little saucers. Particularly savoury were the stuffed squid and the scallop croquettes.
Whilst this basically a Vietnamese buffet, there were two delightful dishes of European origin, which have been absorbed into Vietnam"s infinite cuisine. These were the chunks of beef cooked in red wine sauce and the spaghetti with Bolognaise sauce.
For dessert, I tried taro pudding with fresh dragon fruit and watermelon. I might have opted for one of the flavours of freshly made ice cream, but the calorie count did not allow it.
You will note below that the buffets on the weekend are a tad more expensive. This is because there are more seafood dishes in the mix.
‘First impressions last forever’. That is the motto of this hotel. That is my conclusion too. Returning after many years, I found the same core quality business of comfortable lodgings and fine dining. Only now, it has sprouted branches. In the airport area, this is now also the place where you are guaranteed care and attention if you are marrying off your daughter or you need to hold a business meeting or conference. If you enjoy Vietnamese, Japanese or Korean foods or fancy a decent gateau you will find it here. And if there is anyone for tennis or a dip in a long wide pool or a spa treatment, well, it"s all here now!
By PIP DE ROUVRAY
(VIETNAM HERITAGE - AUGUST-SEPTEMBER 2014)