A look inside the penthouse of one expat-Vietnamese couple who injected colour and personality into their plain Saigon home. By Ruben Luong. Photos by Christian Berg.

Behind the design A look inside the penthouse of one expat-Vietnamese couple who injected colour and personality into their plain Saigon homeBehind the design A look inside the penthouse of one expat-Vietnamese couple who injected colour and personality into their plain Saigon home

The penthouse apartment on the 25th floor of Hoang Anh Gia Lai 3 in District 7 had high floor-to-ceiling windows, plenty of natural light and a terrace overlooking the city. But overall it was hot and ugly.

That is, until expat photographer Christian Berg and his Vietnamese wife Ann Ha, a social media specialist, enlisted their mutual friend and freelance designer Dang Ha Vi, 30, to refurbish the apartment’s living area, kitchen and garden mezzanine.

In Ho Chi Minh City most homes for rent are convenient and pre-furnished, but don’t always tell a story about the people living there. Long-term expats, like Berg and Ha, can end up settling for outdated, less inspired domains.

As working creatives, updating their penthouse was an artistic decision, but also a matter of improvisation. To reduce excessive heat and light, for example, Vi added lush, towering plants. Or to conceal a heinous air conditioning unit, a latched wooden facade frames it, displaying ornate oriental carvings that allow for ventilation.

I visit the apartment on a Saturday afternoon, a few days after Ha returned from a three-month sojourn in Singapore. She says she’s been gradually cleaning up in the 24-square-metre living area, where graphic bean bags from local furniture brand Uma pile around a circular coffee table constructed in industrial wood. But there’s an organised clutter.

“I like messy spaces because it shows that somebody lives in it,” Ha says. “The spaces in magazines and décor books look very perfect, but it doesn’t show that anybody lives in it.”

Around a retro and primary colour scheme chosen by the couple, Vi designed a series of custom-made furniture built by carpenters in Tan Binh and Thu Duc districts — such as a cobalt velvet sofa — and then hand-selected items, such as a red porcelain pot from Binh Duong that acts as a side table.

“It’s about point of view, because people who have a lot of money will say, ‘Oh, I want this lavish thing,’” Ha says. “They want status symbols in their space, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about making a home.”

In the kitchen, one homemade renovation was to convert random glass panels into a giant chalkboard wall, where Berg and Ha wanted to write recipes or messages to each other. The kitchen, a decent 12 square metres, also has a custom-made island that can be moved into the living area for more light.

Berg, who travels throughout Asia on numerous photography assignments, decorates with souvenirs from his trips. A portion of the penthouse’s staircase was removed from the living area to accommodate a blank wall that features his souvenirs, like an old T-shirt from Singapore mounted on canvas, bleached-out retro film posters from Cambodia and a Japanese Okamoto brand condom box.

His photo studio is located beyond the wall and upstairs, next to a panoramic window showcasing the 10-square-metre garden mezzanine, where Vi had an army of bamboo trees installed for private and tranquil work environs.

In total, the couple allocated around $7,000 over the course of six months for Vi to redesign and redecorate their formerly inefficient space, but, as transients, they realise it’s only temporary.

“If I were to stay here forever, I would really just redo everything,” Ha says.