The « President Hotel »

Photography : Laurent WEYL    

N°727, Tran Hung Dao road, in Hô Chi Minh City. Built at the end of the 70s, n°727, also known as President Hotel, was rented out to the American Army, who housed the YRBM-20 Naval Support Group. It was also a hotel for GIs. With its eight 13-storey towers it was the tallest, most beautiful building in the city in the 70s. In 1976, the official year of reunification in the country, the State housed high ranking officials in the regime’s People’s Army as well as senior civil servants, before housing lower ranking Culture Ministry personnel here. At the height of its occupancy, in the 80s and 90s, some 600 families (2,500 inhabitants) made it their home.
N°727, Tran Hung Dao road, in Hô Chi Minh City. Built at the end of the 70s, n°727, also known as President Hotel, was rented out to the American Army, who housed the YRBM-20 Naval Support Group. It was also a hotel for GIs. With its eight 13-storey towers it was the tallest, most beautiful building in the city in the 70s. In 1976, the official year of reunification in the country, the State housed high ranking officials in the regime’s People’s Army as well as senior civil servants, before housing lower ranking Culture Ministry personnel here. At the height of its occupancy, in the 80s and 90s, some 600 families (2,500 inhabitants) made it their home.
The eight towers are linked on each floor by a long transversal corridor. It is so wide that it lends itself to various sports or business activities.
Nowadays only a few businesses remain open, like this hairdresser which set up on the 4th floor more than four years ago. The expropriated and rehoused inhabitants from the building next door have maintained their habits and come and have their hair cut in the President Hotel. After the cut, the hairdresser also cleans the client’s ears.
In Vietnam the limit between the pavement and home is vague. Private and public spaces happily merge. In the shared area of the corridor, washing is hung up, a small business selling soup is set up, or people sit out there just to chat to their neighbours.
The building is made up of 8 towers (4 on each side), linked on each floor by a long transversal corridor that groups the whole building together. The inhabitants look out over each other with windows rarely facing out.
Once you have come into the building via a long, dark corridor, you have to climb one of the two staircases to reach the higher floors.
Nowadays only a few businesses remain open, like this hairdresser which set up on the 4th floor more than four years ago. The expropriated and rehoused inhabitants from the building next door have maintained their habits and come and have their hair cut in the President Hotel. After the cut, the hairdresser also cleans the client’s ears.
On each floor, part of a wall in the corridor is devoted to small ads in the building. The room number of a seamstress is given, a photocopying service, or rules on the cleanliness of the building…
When the building housed 600 families, there were many businesses : hairdresser, seamstress, grocery stores, cafés, nursery, phone boxes… It was easy to be self-sufficient.
With its businesses, spaces to play, nursery, encounters and discussions between neighbours, President Hotel is reminiscent of Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse.
Mr Hoang Long is an ex-singer with Vietnam’s Popular Army opera. He is waiting to be rehoused, like the other 130 remaining families in the building. This attentive grandfather walks his grandchildren down the corridor of the building.
Mr Hoang Long, an ex-singer with Vietnam’s Popular Army opera shows us a painting, taken from a photograph, where he is singing in 2000 during a television show devoted to ex-servicemen. In his apartment, all the walls are covered in similar paintings. Souvenirs of his life devoted to the Communist Party and Uncle Hô’s dictates.
A small café-restaurant whose nickname is Bun Bo Hue (a popular soup in Vietnam) on the 1st floor. We meet Mrs Bac Thayh Thuy there (with grey hair), an ex-set designer with the state theatre group Doan Cai Luong Bo.
Mrs Bac Thayh Thuy was one of the building’s first inhabitants. She was therefore, along with 400 other families, a priority case for rehousing. She moved into a modern building behind the President Hotel with the other families. In her new studio apartment, she carefully unfolds the hammock she used in the jungle on the front lines during the war against the Americans. She acted with her theatre group in order to motive the North Vietnamese soldiers.
The building’s façade, on Tran Hung Dao road, is the only side of the building with windows facing out.
Mrs Thao with two of her sons, Thin and Hung. She lives on the 2nd floor, next to her parents, who run a small grocery store. They come from Soc Trang in the Mekong delta.
This pool on top of the building hasn’t been maintained since the Americans left. Only Mr Dung has access to it in order to clean the water tanks daily. To get there, he has to go up to the 12th floor where the GIs had a dance floor that is now abandoned. On the 30th April 1975, the roof became a helicopter landing pad to take the last remaining American soldiers who were fleeing.
A view of the area. Even though Vietnam is becoming more modern, using Singapore as its model, towers and apartment buildings are still in the minority compared to the traditional tall, narrow houses.
Mrs Chi Suu lives on the 6th floor. She came from North Vietnam with her husband more than 20 years ago. She has put up a sign in the corridor which reads « Phong 631 ao daï - ao bà ba ». In room 631 she makes shirts and traditional Vietnamese dresses. She isn’t a priority to be rehoused. She didn’t manage to get an apartment in the building next door. She’ll have to move to an area far from the city centre.
Life in this building is traditionally working class. Most of the people were low-ranking civil servants. A mother and grandmother run after children in the corridors to feed them. In Vietnam, up to a certain age, children don’t have to eat at table.
Mr Chi Tam, 71, lives on the 2nd floor. He looks after his granddaughter who he rocks in a hammock for hours while watching the television set up in the corridor. He also looks after his wife’s grocery store. He is retired and is waiting for his move, without knowing where he’ll be going. It will most likely be in one of the council apartment blocks being built in Hô Chi Minh City.
Mr Chi Tam’s grandaughter has fallen asleep in the hammock opposite the fan.
In the small café on the 1st floor, people pass the time of day in any way they can, while waiting to be rehoused.
With its 13 storeys, including the roof, President Hotel dominated the city in the 70s.
More than 400 families have already been rehoused. A large number of rooms, if they haven’t been rented out to students, remain empty. The building feels like a ghost ship.
Mrs Hau and Mr Long came here in 1998 and moved into room 656 on the 6th floor. They live modestly and are waiting to be rehoused along with the remaining 130 families. They will move away from the city centre. According to the law, this move away entitles them to compensation equivalent to twice the surface of their current home. But the authorities are reluctant to apply this law and the 130 families have grouped together to try and claim their right.
Than lives in a room without furniture on the 8th floor. There is only a bed, a television, and weight-lifting equipment that he happily lends out.
Thi and Chi live together as a couple. These young girls left their families who don’t agree with their homosexuality. Chi works in a shopping mall. Her income just about allows them to pay their rent, even though it isn’t high. They sublet a room from the owner who lives on the same floor.
Chi, who is androgynous in appearance, has had a Thai talisman tattooed on her right forearm which protects her from bad luck.
This large apartment building which has 8 towers, looks like a ghost ship.
When 400 families left, many students sublet a room in the building. The price is very reasonable. The inhabitants prefer having the rooms full rather than empty, which also limits squatters and burglars. The rent helps pay for the upkeep of the building.
Mrs Hoa and Mr Duc on the 11th floor. He gives maths lessons and his wife cleans. She also collects left over rice from the families in the building, which she dries and sells in bulk as pig feed. The couple live very modestly.
The building hasn’t been properly maintained for 15 years, dating back to when the first rumours of its demolition started.
Two friends play xiangqi in the corridor, a Chinese chess game. They are both smoking water pipes, an object that is nearly only seen in the country nowadays.
The building hasn’t been properly maintained for 15 yearsdating back to when the first rumours of its demolition started.
There is a ghostly atmosphere to the place ; stairwells and corridors are filled with discreet shadows who survive while waiting until they have to let the demolition teams take over.
The eight towers are linked on each floor by a long transversal corridor. It is so wide that it lends itself to various sports or business activities.
Students and young workers were able to sublet two rooms after the departure of the rehoused families. They know it is temporary, but they appreciate the cheap rent and proximity of the city centre.
Cement tiles, which were used a lot during colonial times, cover the floor in some places. Their refined decoration is in contrast with the dark, reinforced concrete walls.
This place is like a city within a city and many door-to-door salesmen come through daily to sell fruit, vegetables, tombola tickets and to collect boxes and drink cans to recycle.
When there were 2,000 people living in the building, a Popular Committee (resulting from the Communist Party), set up on the ground floor. It was similar to ones seen all over the area. It was also used as a library for children. Now it is only really used as a meeting room. On the banner, above the Vietnamese and Communist flags, it says : « Long live the glorious Communist Party. »
The hundreds of more or less broken letter boxes in the entrance corridor bear witness to the history of the building.
The entrance is on Tran Hung Dao road. Pedestrians, motorbikes, bikes and peddlers disappear into the long, dark corridor to get to the stairs and the bike park.
Goalkeeper during a game of football, this young man guards his goal which is the width of the corridor.
The building is built like a kind of bunker where no windows look out. This allows the building to be kept cool and well-ventilated as the sun practically never penetrates it.
This family has little means and cooks as they would in the country, on a coal stove. To do this, she sets it up in front of her room on a long, narrow outside passageway.
1st floor in café Bun Bo Hue during a power cut.
A young boy takes the stairs on the ground floor. At this point, he is between two towers and stares at the façades and windows to check that no-one throws their rubbish or bin out without looking. For several years the shared parts of the building have been cleaned from time to time when the inhabitants all club together.
Many inhabitants say that the building is haunted. An idea that gels perfectly with this large, inhospitable building at nightfall.
In the staircase this graffiti is found on several floors. « Ma » means ghost. The building is thought to be haunted and the inhabitants willingly believe in the ghosts that haunt many Vietnamese legends.
While the Americans were here, several elevators were in service. Now they are bricked up. Very soon after the war, the doors and cables were stolen to be sold.
Mrs Phuong’s family live on the 10th floor ; three generations live in the same 24m2 room. Mrs Anh, the grandmother is 75, and her granddaughter, Thao is 11. They are watching television, the only sign of modernity along with the computer.
As is the case everywhere in the world, little girls like borrowing their mother’s shoes.
In Vietnam, the limit between public and private spaces is vague. The Vietnamese live a community life, under the gaze of others, with the door open. It is common to take over the public space in front of your home. Here it is the building’s corridors.
Once the building has been entered, you have to go down a long corridor, with decrepid and damp walls to get to the motorbike park.
The windows of each tower face each other, none looking out, apart from on the tiny façade which faces the main avenue.
The particular atmosphere of the place, its rough, vintage decor make it a desirable place for film directors, fashion photographers or film students (as seen here).
In the distance, the Bitexco tower, the highest and most modern in Hô Chi Minh City, with its helicopter landing pad and the luxury of its space. The urban and social contrast is blatant. Soon this building will be demolished and probably replaced by a luxury apartment tower or a shopping mall, a sign of the times in a country undergoing an economic boom.