An Lam Retreats Saigon River hotel was once Mr Lam’s private home: you’ll be wishing you lived here too, thanks to green, leafy gardens, river-watching rooms and zingy Vietnamese food. This quiet Saigon sanctuary has peaceful nooks with rattan chairs and bright cushions to relax in, and the hotel’s speedboat will whoosh you to the city centre in just 25 minutes.
Get this when you book through us:
A bottle of sparkling wine upon arrival plus the restaurant's best table (right by the river) reserved for you each night
38 suites, spread across seven tranquil garden villas.
Noon; earliest check-in, 2pm. Both are flexible, subject to availability and a fee.
Double rooms from £194.40 (VND5,666,144), including tax at 15.5 per cent.
Breakfast is included.
Look out for statement design pieces by Mr Lam, formerly a furniture-maker. We loved the curved wooden staircases and the circular sun beds, positioned opposite each other so you can admire your companion as you sunbathe, instead of lying like canned fish in a row. The ‘spa’ is really two treatment rooms and a yoga/relaxation area: unwind with a massage or a spot of synchronized bendy stretching.
At the hotel
Gym, spa, yoga classes, free WiFi throughout, onsite parking, laundry service. In rooms: iPod dock, desk, minibar with snacks including Mars chocolate and Tiger beer, espresso machine.
Our favourite rooms
Don’t be deceived by the hotel’s modestly named rooms: All combine locally sourced natural materials Thanh Hoa granite stone, Bat Trang ceramic mosaics, and hand-made rattan furniture with a balcony, terrace or garden, meaning nobody goes home without enjoying stellar views of the surroundings. The river-view villas each have a big private pool and terrace overlooking the river: hours can trickle away here, lost in contemplation of the water world around you. If you want to be able to bag the best table for lunch, Sunset has direct access to the restaurant: when Raymond Blanc stayed, he kept popping into the kitchen next door.
The large central pool is flanked by tropical gardens, wooden loungers, hanging lanterns and hot-pink bougainvillea.
With three treatment rooms, the spa offers a range of massages and couples treatments. There's a sauna, steam room, classes and coaching, too.
To avoid going home decorated with bites, bring or buy insect repellent: the lushly beautiful river-perch makes the hum of mozzies inevitable.
The hotel’s free speedboat service leaves District 1 Pier twice daily: 12pm and 2pm
Little Smiths are welcome: under-fives stay free of charge and six to 11 year-olds stay for half price. Babysitting is available (from US$10 an hour); cots are free; extra beds are US$60 a night, and the chefs will tailor dishes to fussy palates.
Bag one of the three tables along the river in the ‘Luc Binh corner’, overlooking the water and the Buddhist temple surrounded by palm trees on the other side of the river bank (lucky Smith members get first-dibs on one of these tables each evening).
Cool and Continental: shift dress and Chanel references (pearls, ballet flats) for her; chinos, linen and cologne for him.
Of course the main restaurant, Sen, surveys the river – they’d be mad not to capitalize on those views. It’s open-air on three sides, with crisp white linen and Vietnamese lanterns typifying the hotel’s fusion of French and Vietnamese elements. There are comfy rattan chairs with big cushions to sink into, perfect for long lazy breakfasts and even longer romantic dinners (start with gỏi cuốn, rice-paper rolls, and move on to succulent duck magret). Breakfast includes platters of fresh fruit, waffles and traditional rice, noodles or pho: fuel for days spent exploring Ho Chi Minh City or venturing to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Pick from the riverside champagne bar, the Cigar Lounge or the Chill Out Lounge: you’ll be well looked after and well refreshed at all three.
Sen Restaurant take orders until 9:30pm, poolside service for snacks and drinks is available until 6pm, and the bar stays up as late as guests do.
Food is available from 6.30am; drinks are available 24 hours.
An Lam Retreats Saigon River’s location is a big part of its charm: it’s set on a secluded spot by the Saigon River, just a 25-minute boat ride from Ho Chin Minh city centre.
The most convenient airport is Tan Son Nhat International Airport, 15 kilometres from the hotel (www.hochiminhcityairport.com). The airport has a domestic and an international terminal, and offers direct flights to 54 cities (including Melbourne, Singapore, Hong Kong and London). Return airport transfers can be arranged with the hotel; car pick up for two is $65, and van pickup for groups of three to 14 range from $70 to $80 a group. Let staff know your arrival times.
The closest train station is Saigon Railway, 16km from the hotel, serving Hanoi, Danang and other cities. Train services can be unreliable, so it might be best to hop on internal flights where possible.
Saigon, the closest major city, is a 30-minute drive away. There is free onsite parking at the hotel, but you're unlikely to need it: travelling round by car isn't recommended, due to the crazy congestion and erratic driving.
The hotel offers a free speedboat transfer from District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City (at 12pm and 2pm daily), which takes around 25 minutes to reach the hotel. The hotel’s free shuttle boat will also take you back and forth, and you can charter a boat until 6pm (ask staff for more details).
Worth getting out of bed for
Ensure you’ll still be eating gỏi cuốn and pho when you’re back home, by taking a cookery class with the friendly hotel chefs. Staff can also arrange brilliant day trips by boat, exploring Saigon’s wonders: the Cu Chi Tunnelsand the lush rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, for example. If you’re into golf, head to Twin Doves Golf Club: ask staff to arrange your visit.
Square One at the Park Hyatt makes for a memorable meal, thanks to five different dining rooms, some of the city’s best seafood and a floor-to-ceiling wine case featuring more than 1,500 bottles of international wines. For a meal with a side of views, dine on the terrace at Shri Restaurant – the Euro-Asian menus are commendable, but the setting's what will really knock your nón lá off. Another on-high eatery worth trying is Secret Garden, where you'll get home-cooked Vietnamese dishes in leafy environs.
Chill Saigon is Vietnam’s first skybar, and it’s likely to start a trend. The food here is as good as the dazzling views, and every seat is positioned to have a front-row vista of the cityscapes. Blanchy’s Lounge, at 95 Hai Ba Trung is renowned for its top-tier drinks, so expect ambitious and elegant creations, packed with flavour – and dance-all-night DJ sets.
It’s been a while since Mrs Smith and I have lain in a four-poster bed at 3pm, freshly bathed and clutching large glasses of Malbec, with no intention of moving until morning (save for a quick cocktail at sundown).
It's somewhat indulgent, but we feel it's justified for two reasons. Firstly, we’ve earned it: our arrival at the boutique hideaway on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City is preceded by a night in a Mekong Delta homestay that takes the word ‘authenticity’ to its most extreme definition. Think hard wooden beds, a family that spoke as little English as they had interest hosting us, mozzies galore and a community of dogs barking every 10 minutes throughout the night. We learnt a lot about Vietnamese village life, loved it, and would probably not do it again. We are ready for luxury.
Secondly, An Lam practically purrs you into bed. Our Deluxe room is lavished with all manner of sofas and soft spots to recline and repose dotted around a number of rooms separated by a huge wood- and glass-panelled wall. Like all the best hotel enclaves, it takes about half an hour to explore the place, as we wander across polished wood floors to the sumptuous bathroom stocked with local toiletries, out onto the private terrace, and back into a closet of proportions that would make a Kardashian verdigris with envy.
Sensing our wine tasting is going to go on for the long haul, we pad over to the Electrolux espresso machine and are perusing the global sachet selections for a half-time caffeination when our butler rings. Sorry, did I not mention the butler? They come with the room. He wants to know how we are getting on, if we want clothes folded, that sort of thing.
Eventually we tear ourselves away from our pamper palace and explore the grounds. A grand wooden staircase – built by Mr Lam, the furniture-making former owner – takes us downstairs and past a glass-fronted kitchen in which chefs are whipping up delights for the evening. Raymond Blanc has apparently given his seal of approval in the past. Margaritas are served under trailing tropical branches and we hide among the bright bougainvilleas as the sun dips across the Saigon River, before retiring back to our room. I’d love to recount more of day one but this is a family website.
The following morning, after a phenomenal fuel-up on crêpes suzette and the kind of coffee that electrifies you into action, is a lot busier. A 20-minute speedboat bumps us through the river’s carpets of vegetation into Ho Chi Minh City itself and we are quickly thrust into urban life.
They have an interesting way of getting around in Vietnam’s largest city. It essentially involves jumping on a motorbike – with your husband or wife in tow, plus any kids you might have propped up on a stool between your legs – and zipping into a cascade of likeminded individuals, then driving at high speeds on any side of the road, pavement or roundabout you choose until you screech miraculously to a halt at your destination. It takes a while to get used to.
Several shops and museums (including the thought-provoking War Remnants Museum) later, Mrs Smith and I are hoisted unceremoniously onto the back of one of these bikes each for a breakneck street-food tour of the city. As we careen among kamikaze bikers across numerous suburbs, our meals go from intriguing (fried liver and papaya salad) to divine (pork and beef soup with lemongrass) to testing (grilled chicken feet) to downright offensive (developing duck embryo). The frog’s legs, on the other hand, are much better than we’d remembered, even if they do have a tendency to repeat themselves on the long and winding taxi drive back to our hidden hotel.
The food at An Lam offers no such surprises. In fact our only criticism would be that the schizo Gallic/Vietnamese menu keeps us in a permanent state of indecision. When you’re forced to choose between French toast and pho to start the day, you end up having both and extending breakfast far beyond its normal boundaries.
In fact, time does become elastic at An Lam. While Ho Chi Minh City operates at full tilt and Mekong tours zip you around the sites in a flash, this spot encourages you to stop, slow down, and perhaps read that Graham Greene novel set in Saigon’s sweaty streets. Even the river glides by at an admirably languid pace.
With our flight home looming, we know we can’t while away every minute in a luxurious trance, so we force ourselves into an air-conditioned 4x4 with a private guide – organised by the hotel – to visit the nearby C? Chi tunnels, the famous subterranean outpost of the Viet Cong resistance army during what locals refer to as the ‘American War’.
It's fascinating, but the hotel’s magnetic pull stops us from dallying too long. Having scrambled through the claustrophobic passageways, fired the odd AK46 and felt a queer sense of exhilaration as the guns’ cordite floated into our nostrils, and watched a brilliant piece of anti-US propaganda in an underground bunker, we are soon back at An Lam, face down on a massage table, receiving a pummeling in the Swedish fashion, and wondering how we can bring our butler home with us.