Escaping the noise of the city needn’t mean a long plane or bus journey. Lorcan Lovett finds peace much closer to home in an architect’s pet project.
Think Cu Chi and think muddy hands, crooked backs and a day trip exploring its famous tunnel network, but the district has a much more tranquil side in the shape of a beautifully designed villa.
La Maison De Campagne is just over an hour from downtown Saigon, although its bucolic surroundings feel much further from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Architect and owner Thanh Thai, 62, did not only pour meticulous thought into the villa’s location, he focused on the structure, the food and the ethos of the staff, creating an ambiance perfect for relaxation and introspection.
We parked our bike in the shade of a tree and ventured towards a flowery opening, skipping ahead a few steps to see Thai’s impressive feat of architecture – clearly a labour of love.
Water overflowed from a large pot, streaming along the sides of a rectangular pool and back into its opposite end, eventually reaching the pot again in a perpetual flow of good qi.
On top of the pot an ornate chandelier sparkled in the early afternoon rays and running parallel to the pool were the six rooms, lounge and dining room, each with its own view of the water.
The symmetrical layout offers a calming feeling, like many other quirks of the villa. I use the word ‘villa’ because ‘hotel’ doesn’t fit; there is no reception, no room numbers, no set times for meals, no check-in or-out times unless bookings follow straight after, and no ‘no entrance’ signs.
Thai has created a place that’s open, honest and without fuss. It has nothing to hide, so when wandering the area with the two family dogs, you may see the odd cigarette butt or rogue piece of litter caught in a bush.
The architect walked us to our room which adhered to the underlying principle of attention to detail, hosting all sorts of curious knick-knacks such as an old wooden box for Buddha and an intriguing painting of children running in the moonlight.
In the lounge we flicked through books on travel and architecture, and examined a plate full of old matchboxes that rested on a piano. Thai says he’s picked up most of these items on his travels, especially from Paris where he has lived for most of his life.
In 2002 he returned from Europe with a goal: to design the perfect country house (the name of the villa in French). At first he hosted family and friends; the lounge filled with Saigon’s fledgling architects, poets, writers and painters on effusive weekends.
Then two or so years ago he let the public enjoy his project, and the mix of Oriental and Western styles amid the intimate environment hit a note with couples and young families.
Within half an hour of my arrival it felt like I was plodding around my own house, if my house was a strikingly constructed Romanesque structure in the Vietnamese countryside.
A rooster or the gentle sigh of a dog sometimes interrupted the unbroken sound of running water, but other than that, the only diversion was the harmonising feng shui of the property itself.
We took a walk outside as the sun was creeping down, heading for the river rather than the busy road, and watched men load the sand barges I often see lazily float past from my balcony in Thao Dien.
Women rinsed their clothes along the banks, men fished, and crisp packets bobbed along like jellyfish.
Craving the water ourselves, we returned for a swim. The night was cloudy – sitting in the pool’s Jacuzzi below a sky teeming with stars would have been a treat – yet the place still glowed in the golden LED lights.
Then our growing appetites led us to the few tables gathered beneath Chinese lanterns near the kitchen. The chef visits the local market twice a day and cooks on request. We had steamed beef with ginger, star fruit, green bananas and salad which we wrapped in rice paper. After this came caramelised braised river fish in a clay pot with vegetables and pineapple, producing a zingy, fruity broth.
In the morning we went for another swim. Other services advertised include a steam room, sauna and massage however these were not available during our visit.
Thai, who left Vietnam during the Tet offensive of 1968 when he was at a Dalat boarding school, joined me for my breakfast eggs.
“Le Maison De Campagne is still my house and the client is still my guest,” says the hospitable host. “I think guests like the place because they feel at home, not like a hotel, nothing commercial.”