Cocktails & Tracer Rounds: The Caravelle Hotel Gave Vietnam War Correspondents a Rare Glimpse of Combat

January 21, 2021Matt Fratus
Vietnam War Caravelle Hotel war correspondent coffee or die

An unknown man poses for a photo while at the Saigon Saigon Rooftop Bar at the Caravelle Hotel in 1962. Photo courtesy of the Caravelle Hotel’s website.

From the terrace of the Saigon Saigon Rooftop Bar at the Caravelle Hotel, journalists from every major news agency sipped cocktails, drank a few beers, and exchanged war stories. Their vantage point in one of the tallest buildings in the area gave them a front-row seat to combat, a rare glimpse of the war happening just beyond the Saigon River. Mortar shells, tracer rounds, and red flares were as common as a spilt drink.

“Back at the box seat to war on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel, I watched the helicopter gunships and bombers attacking suspected Vietcong concentrations on the city’s outskirts and saw fires blossom on the docks downriver,” Walter Cronkite recounted in his book A Reporter’s Life. “I drove the several city blocks from the city center to the Chinese section, which the Vietcong had penetrated, and I stood in the still-smoldering ruins they had left behind.”

Cronkite’s experience wasn’t unusual toward the end of the Vietnam War. Inside the 10-story luxury hotel were Saigon bureaus from ABC, NBC, and CBS. International news networks set up their offices, and their journalists took refuge in the nearby air-conditioned rooms. It was the communication hub where news reporters repeated the cycle of riding the elevator from the roof to the lobby, reporting a story during the day, then returning to their bar stools for a nightcap with their colleagues to view the night’s violent show.

Hubert van Es fall of Saigon Vietnam war photograph coffee or die
On Aug. 29, 1975, Dutch photojournalist Hubert Van Es captured this historic photograph showing a helicopter evacuating people during the fall of Saigon. Initial reports misidentified the rooftop as the US Embassy and the helicopter as from the US Army. It was later revealed to be the apartments housing CIA employees, and the helicopter was flown by O.B. Harnage, an Air America helicopter pilot contracted by the CIA. Many journalists had evacuated the Caravelle by then, but Van Es chose to stay behind at a different hotel to take one of the most iconic pictures of the Vietnam War. Screenshot courtesy of YouTube.

The famous hotel that first opened on Christmas Day in 1959 had modern five-star amenities including working elevators, Italian marble architecture, restaurants serving French cuisine, and bulletproof-glass windows. The guests were reminded of this last feature when the war pushed into the city on Aug. 25, 1964. The Viet Cong snuck into Room 514 and placed a bomb in it. Fortunately, the foreign journalists who were targeted were all out on assignment or away from the hotel, and the blast only caused structural damage to three floors.

While the majority of guests were from the news media, the Caravelle Hotel also hosted two embassies, the New Zealand Embassy and the Australian Embassy, as well as American soldiers, Vietnamese intellectuals, and diplomats. Richard Rice, an Army special forces soldier assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group, remembered having to buy classier clothes in town before he went to enjoy the Caravelle Hotel.

“That was the cool touchstone. It was the classy place to be in Saigon in 1969 and 1970,” Rice told Go Ruck in 2017. While seated at the rooftop bar, he recalled his first tour to Vietnam. “It was home to a lot of expats and there were journalists here. There were diplomats here, and as a young E-5 I thought it would be really cool to go hang out with those bastards, and it was.”

Rice’s fondest memory when he revisited the Caravelle more than four decades later involved a surreal moment he experienced after grabbing drinks at the hotel bar with an Army friend. They were on a double date, and the young Vietnamese woman he was with had invited him back to her parents’ home. He was spending the night out on a screened-in patio two or three floors up when he heard footsteps running from roof to roof above him. The startled special forces soldier pulled out his pistol, but the young woman eased his fears — only for a moment, though, because she told him it was just the Viet Cong traveling from one place to another.

“The rooftop freeway,” Rice recalled, “that’s how they moved. They moved across roofs then because the roofs weren’t as noticeable as they are now, everything was much more level. They could run blocks on roofs, then run across cables and keep going.”

After the fall of Saigon, the Caravelle Hotel was taken over by the government and renamed. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Caravelle Hotel regained its original name. Although it has seen many renovations, the Saigon Saigon Rooftop Bar hasn’t changed much. In 2015, some 40 years after first arriving to cover the war, retired journalists calling themselves the “Old Hacks” returned to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. Their war reporting days behind them, the return trip was a welcome reunion and a time for reflection. 

“It’s a dirty secret being a war correspondent,” Matthew Naythons, a photojournalist who returned with the group, recalled “It’s exhilarating. If you survive.”

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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