A floating hotel that ranked among the finest places to stay in Ho Chi Minh City has sat shuttered in a North Korean port since the killing of a female tourist in 2008.
The 89-meter hotel was built in Singapore in 1988 and spent an unsuccessful year in Australia as the John Brewer Reef Floating Hotel.
Japan’s EIC Development Company bought the hotel in 1989 and sent it to Ho Chi Minh City, where it was managed by Australia’s Southern Hotels.
At the time, Saigon (the former name of HCMC) was experiencing a flood of foreign visitors that overwhelmed the city's small number of crumbling old hotels.
The world’s first floating hotel became an instant hit while anchored on the waterfront along Ton Duc Thang Street.
Its managers renamed it the Saigon Hotel. Most people referred to it only as “the floater.”
The towering structure housed 201 five-star rooms, a restaurant, a gym, a swimming pool and a tennis court.
Two new bars Q Bar and Downunder Disco were added, making it a premiere nightspot.
A screen capture of the NK News site
In 1995, the hotel charged up to US$335 per room per night in a country where the average person earned less than $288 a year at that time.
Its appeal began to wither in 1997, however, when old downtown hotels--the Continental, Majestic and Rex, to name a few--were renovated and the New World joined the market.
Following two years of flagging business, the Japanese investor sold the hotel to South Korean Hyundai for around US$18 million, according to a NK News report.
Hyundai Asan, the tourism arm of Hyundai, towed the hotel back to Singapore for renovations.
The hotel was renamed Haekumgang and taken to Changjon Port in North Korea, where Hyundai obtained a license to invest in a grand tourism project during a rare thaw in bilateral relations.
Park Seong Wook, spokesman for Hyundai Asa, told the Washington Post that “the reasons behind the purchase (were) likely that it was a good alternative to starting a large-scale construction project from the ground up.”
The hotel was popular among South Korean visitors between 2000 and 2008.
A Google Map photo shows Saigon's former floating hotel now languishing on a dock in North Korea
Soomin Seo, who visited the area five times as a journalist from 2000 to 2004, told NK News that the floating hotel was more modern and comfortable than those in the capital, which Seo said were plagued by “unreliable plumbing and sporadic electricity.”
A single North Korean soldier put and end to that in 2008 when he shot and killed 53-year-old Park Wang Ja.
The North Korean government claimed the tourist ran into a military area and did not heed warnings to stop.
South Korea requested a joint-inquiry into the killing, but it was rejected.
The ensuing fracas raised tensions between the two Koreas and crippled tourism to the north.
The hotel has sat unused for the past six years.
Hyundai Asan employees who have visited the hotel say it's still intact, but the paint has worn off. During its time in North Korea, the hotel also lost its floating pool and tennis court.
Some amenities have been added, however, including a casino.
A company spokesperson said they have no plan to relocate the hotel, but will wait until tourism returns before reopening it.