It's ironic that amid the spot lit glare of all the stalled construction projects, the one to be completed on time is the most controversial. Controversial in that removing and relocating the residents of this iconic, colonial-built site that was once the toast of the Parisian set, was a protracted, bad-blooded battle. Controversial also that this project is headed up by Pham Nhat Vuong, the man behind Vincom Center B, the shopping mall diagonally opposite. All meaning that this Ukrainian-Vietnamese billionaire has carved himself out a strategically located slice of downtown Saigon.
But amid the subterranean levels of car and motorbike parking, mixed in with the Singaporean-style, fast food-brand food courts. And found inside the endless levels of shops selling wares that most of this metropolis's population can't afford, there is another significance to this monolith.
Besides the Park Hyatt, it represents the first major downtown development that has truly attempted to keep with the glamour and colour of this city's past. The art deco exterior, with its stained glass windows and colonial, column-esque façade, together with its copper detailing is reminiscent of the shopping alleys of Paris, endeavours to return this former downtown icon to its original glory.
Lord of the Malls
Built in the 1930s opposite the Continental Hotel and the Opera House, the original Eden Mall was truly an icon. Modelled after department stores like Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, with its Gallic chic it was the city’s first shopping mecca. It later played a central role in Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American — Greene is supposed to have written much of his novel in the mall itself — and it also housed the famous corner bakery, Givral. Although Givral has made a comeback with a newer version of itself in this megalith, it’s the historic facade that it’s best known for. Its wartime customers included Pham Xuan An, who worked as a reporter for Reuters and Time while leading a double life as a source of intelligence for his superiors in Hanoi. Xuan later joked that he should call himself General Givral, given the amount of time he spent in the café.
In more recent years, a lack of care saw Eden Mall deteriorate. Prior to being knocked down, there was a final attempt to bring back some of its past function and glamour. An air-conditioned, faceless shopping mall was carved out of its interior, a motorbike park built in its bowels. And while the infamous bookshop Xuan Thu, opposite the Continental Hotel, continued to fashion a good business, the interior of the mall didn’t quite make the grade. It was often empty.
Today’s version attempts to bring back some of the Galeries Lafayette charm that would have inspired the building of its predecessor. Except for the aesthetics of its exterior — the effort to bring back some of the charm and allure of colonial Saigon is laudable — it is instead no more than yet another shopping mall, another temple of worship to the god of consumption. Yet, thanks to location, location and location, and its façade, it is presently top of the food chain, the ‘Lord of the Malls’, so to speak.
As the old saying goes: One Mall to rule them all. One Mall to find them. One Mall to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.