Simon Stanley finds that a relaxing weekend getaway is never too far away. Photos by I Am Vietnam.
First-time visitors looking for hotels in Saigon could be forgiven for quickly overlooking those outside of District 1. Even neighbouring District 3 sounds deceptively removed from the heart of the action. But Binh Thanh District? Where’s that? Over a river? Forget it.
A quick scan of Trip Advisor’s listings, however, reveals that quite the opposite is starting to happen as city-savvy travellers seek a more authentic, personalised alternative to your standard bed-in-a-box in the middle of tourist-town. While Villa Song in District 2 has been holding the review site’s number one spot for some time, another ‘outsider’ has been quietly creeping up the top-ten list since opening in May 2015.
“I want to stay there!” says my girlfriend as the website opens up. “…Where is it?”
I suspect her reaction is the key to I Am Vietnam’s success. The online photos are stunning. We’re looking for a relaxing weekend away without the hassle of planes, trains or hydrofoils, and our search ends about two kilometres from our front door, just over the Thi Nghi canal and a few hundred metres from Dien Bien Phu.
Having negotiated the zig-zag alleyway from Nguyen Cuu Van Street, it’s a welcome relief to realise that the photos do not lie. A sparkling colonial-style building hugs a corner in an old-school maze of hems dotted with ladies in pyjamas, aluminium food carts, front-room bodegas and scurrying chickens.
Entering via the street-level terrace, the sleek reception/cafe/restaurant is awash with French, yet also uniquely Vietnamese, charm. Decked out with retro seating in cool pastel colours, chunky wooden tables and exposed brick and pipework, the bright and airy space makes an ideal hangout for the local smoothie and wifi seeking crowd, as well as the hotel’s guests.
As its most defining design feature, the expansive patchwork of vintage-style tiling is another reminder of the charms of old Saigon, finding its way from the flooring to the tables to the shower cubicles. It’s bold yet subtle and sets this place well apart from the beige and brown hotel rooms you may be used to.
“I’m never leaving,” says my girlfriend as we enter the enormous fifth floor suite. It’s not that we were feeling particularly decadent when booking this place, it’s just that every room happens to be a suite, each boasting a kitchenette with dining table and a lounging area, luxurious bathtubs with separate showers, and enormous beds. Ours also opens out to a spacious balcony overlooking a rustling banana grove next door. We’re definitely not in District 1 anymore, although in reality it’s less than five minutes away.
“We are not very far away from the centre,” says general manager Ella Peddell, “but it is totally different here. It is quieter, cheaper, it has a more local feeling. You can see the Vietnamese people and how they live.”
Although Peddell and her staff will happily point their guests in the direction of Saigon’s best sights, tours and eateries, they also offer plenty of reasons to stay ‘at home’ and hibernate; reasons which we are all too keen to take advantage of. After a few lazy sunset beers on the balcony we descend to the hotel’s restaurant which cooks up a range of Italian specialities along with modern Vietnamese classics. The homemade Hawaiian quickly enters my top-three-pizzas-in-town list, and the happy-hour mojitos easily match those of their swanky D1 cousins. Even if you’re not spending the night, the restaurant alone is worthy of a visit.
After a soak in the tub and a night’s sleep so deep I start to have evil thoughts about my bed at home, the complimentary breakfast spread is just as impressive as the restaurant’s evening fare. Want to enjoy it in bed? No problem! I decide to save the continental option for day two and choose a Vietnamese banh mi bit tet to kick start our day of relaxation. A steak sandwich for breakfast never made so much sense.
Included in the price of each suite (with rates as low as $79 per room), guests can also enjoy one ‘special offer’ per night. Options include an afternoon tea for two or a complimentary meal. We go for in-room foot massages. Wow. Daisy, the in-house masseur, kneads my trotters until I practically melt into the sofa like butter.
Day two and we give our legs a much needed stretch as we are shown around the local market to collect ingredients for an in-house cooking lesson. Is it still touristy if you’re the only tourists in sight?
Peddell and her team are proud of the highly personalised levels of service they are able to offer. They know each of us by name and we quickly realise that there is no limit to their hospitality. “We take care of our guests like they are friends,” she says. “You are like a friend coming to my house and I want to take care of you.”