Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Episodes: From the world of the Saigon Halong Hotel

Entering the Saigon Halong Hotel is like entering a bizarre world where all the people behave like early prototype robots from Japan circa 1968. Gaze into the staff's eyes for long enough and you'll begin to wonder whether there is anything behind them other than an old network of wires, capacitors, and transistors; watch them move and you'll swear you can hear the gentle whirring of servos mindlessly going about their business.
More on the staff later.
Our room is huge. When I say huge I mean it is bigger than my girlfriend's house which is a two up-two down victorian terrace. We ask for a double bed; they give us two. The giant TV, which would usually consume all space in a normal room, looks tiny and distant; think Sun in solar system becoming Sun in Milky Way and you will go some way to understanding what I mean. The decor is like something from a 1980s DIY magazine that nobody bought; it's thick yellow and pink stripes everywhere; you'll feel as if you have wandered into the middle of rhubarb and custard. And then you open the curtains. The view is stunning; You realise the room has to be huge; it needs windows wide enough to accommodate the vastness and sheer brilliance of the scene. This is where the the Saigon Halong Hotel scores all of its marks; it's not what it has to offer but what it can show you from its windows.
Enjoy the room as much as you can for it is away from this sanctuary that the goose pimples appear, where the deep feelings of uneasiness begin to set in. Any floor above the lobby is deserted and dark; you get the feeling the hotel is powered by a generator that runs on wax. There's also music which one would normally hear in a furniture store; the whole place exudes abandoned cruise ship. And then you hear the whirring; a member of staff approaches. In your desperation you run to the lift and find yourself pressing the button for the restaurant; down the rabbit hole you tumble.
It's in the restaurant where the weirdness really kicks in. It occupies a huge space; there is seating for thousands; and yet there are no customers. You won't be sure if it's open; as you venture a few steps inside you'll get looked at as if you were something new, some traveller from outer space. Eventually you are asked if you need help. As you explain your desire for food their faces will go blank; within the confines of their circuitry darkness will descend; and then they'll shut down completely. Eventually you'll be approached by an updated model who will show you to a table. You will be given a menu to share because, apparently, there is only one copy, And then you'll meet the waiters.
The waiters have been over trained. They have been programmed to think they work in a Michelin starred restaurant. However, somewhere there is a bug in the system; nothing is done with 100% accuracy. Beer is poured into your glass but most of it hits the table; everything is served from your right, even if this means they have to walk and crash through obstacles; you'll be given two knives instead of a knife and a fork; and all the time they'll be smiling, eerily, like characters from a John Wyndham novel.
The food is of a pretty good standard but every meal is preceded by a course of cold toast. Needless to say, it is not the food of a four star hotel; it's the usual Vietnamese mix of noodles, rice, pizza and pasta. After the restaurant you'll probably need a drink. The hotel has three bars but one of them has gone missing. There are signs for it everywhere but they'll send you round in circles. Your only option is to go to the lobby bar or the 2nd floor bar; both are, once again, deserted. In the 2nd floor bar there is, surprisingly, a human being. His smile is sincere; he greets you as though you're the first person he has seen in years, which is quite possibly true; and he makes the best cocktails. I fear that, one day, upon discovering he does not have "made in Taiwan" printed on his behind, the hotel managers will make him leave. You'll leave him to return to your room, afraid to look back in case he's already been shipped off.
And in your room you should stay. Here you can revel in the view and, more importantly, avoid the robots.

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