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LA MAISON DE CAMPAGNE

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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.

 

 

 

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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.”

 

 

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kgbagent

I AM VIETNAM BOUTIQUE hotel

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Simon Stanley finds that a relaxing weekend getaway is never too far away. Photos by I Am Vietnam.

 

 

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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.”

 

I Am Vietnam is at 30/57 Nguyen Cuu Van Street, Ward 17, Binh Thanh District.
For more information and to make a reservation visit www.IAmVietn.am

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NOSTALGIA AND HERITAGE IN THE HEART OF HANOI

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One thousand years of history provides a firm foundation to the Apricot hotel

 

 

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While the odd hotel can stake a claim to a previous guise in a bygone era, the team at Apricot hotel has dug into the annals of history, uncovering vignettes of life stretching back some 1000 years upon the site where the luxurious hotel stands today in the heart of Hanoi.

 

“At each and every turn, the nation’s political and cultural capital is steeped in the past’s twists and turns stemming from triumphs by Vietnamese dynasties and struggles against occupation,” says

 

Le Anh Ngoc, Apricot hotel’s marcom manager. “And yet we were still intrigued to learn this piece of land and its immediate surrounds, shrouded in tales and folklore, are the underlying foundation of a series of buildings and at least one temple.”

 

Lining Hang Trong street a stone’s throw away from the legendary Hoan Kiem Lake, the ground beneath Apricot hotel – which opened its doors in April this year and pays tribute to the nation’s art scene with more than 600 original Vietnamese artworks – was part of a hamlet going back to at least the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225).

 

“Not surprisingly, the hamlet was Tu Thap painting village, which was famous for one very artistic custom,” says Le. “Villagers used to hang paintings above the front doors of houses to drive away ghosts and demons.”

 

 

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The village became home to two temples; each of which remain on Hang Trong today just steps from the hotel. Legend has it one of Vietnam’s greatest heroes, Le Loi, built Dong Huong temple in the 15th century to honor a singer who plied occupiers with alcohol, tricked them into sleeping bags and hurled them into Hoan Kiem Lake to drown. Deeper in the hamlet, the ancient Nam Huong

Temple originally stood where Apricot is today but was relocated in the mid-1880s when the French built a road around Hoan Kiem Lake’s circumference.

 

In 1886 then Governor-General of Vietnam Paul Bert demanded Hang Trong’s residents build brick houses within a year or sell their land to the city. While Bert died of dysentery that same year, most local people – many of whom had been robbed by a notorious gang – did not have enough money and were inevitably forced to sell their land to rich French buyers.

 

That same year on the very site where Apricot is situated today, a French Chamber of Commerce was established to help manage burgeoning trade fuelled by predominantly French companies based in Hanoi.

 

Following the establishment of a French street to the Hoan Kiem Lake’s west, checkpoints cropped up at the junction of Hang Trong and Nha Tho streetsFrench police forbade Vietnamese nationals from entering, granting access only to those who worked for French companies or passenger buses. Writer Nguyen Cong Hoan wrote that he was asked to duck down in the bus as it inched down the street collecting passengers. In 1914, when France engaged in World War I and many French nationals returned home to fight, the checkpoints were scraped, affording the Vietnamese free access to Hang Trong.

 

 

 

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Under French rule in the early 20th century, grand, luxurious Parisian-style mansions mushroomed around Hoan Kiem. Along the stretch from Hang Trong to Le Thai To – which Le describes as “typical of Hanoi’s architecture even today: romantic and elegant in scale and design” – emerged the long-running Phu Gia hotel and western-style restaurant, where Apricot hotel stands today.

 

“Back in its heyday, young men born into families in the Old Quarter had girls fall head over heels simply for a night out at Phu Gia; it was famous for its luxurious parties,” says Le. “Apricot hotel helps restore the area’s former glory. The history in the air is palpable.”

 

The bulk of clientele at the Phu Gia hotel were foreigners and Saigonese, with many foreign correspondents staying there while reporting on the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Shortly afterwards, with the mass exodus of foreigners and well-heeled and educated locals due to the widening divide in Vietnam in the lead up to the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam), a quiet spell fell over the Phu Gia.

 

In late 1958, Hanoi embarked on reforming its trade structure for Communism only accepted two economic parties: the state and cooperatives. A series of factories and hotels including the Phu Gia became state-owned while shops and xich lo (cyclo) companies joined different cooperatives.

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The Apricot hotel in Hang Trong 2015

After self-imposed economic isolation, in 1986 Vietnam introduced sweeping economic reforms and flung open its doors to the world, swiftly progressing from one of the globe’s poorest countries to being declared a lower middle-economic country.

 

In this midst of change, the Phu Gia became a joint-stock company and relished another lease on life. At the beginning of the 1990s, it had a “special” customer mostly every night, acclaimed writer Nguyen Viet Ha, who only ordered Johnny Walker. Whether by himself or entertaining friends, his bill was never less than nearly a $100, a staggering amount at the time.

 

Yet once again the good times came to an end. The Phu Gia closed its doors and became overgrown with moss during long drawn out negotiations between Phu Gia Joint Stock Company and associated parties with legal rights to the property.

 

When the negotiations finally finished, the old Phu Gia was replaced by the Apricot hotel; its French colonial façade, neo-classical interiors and its hundreds of artworks laying bare Vietnam’s history and soul help breathe a classical air into a street brimming with history.

 

“You can now feel antique Hanoi with every step, and it’s very nostalgic,” says Le. “When Hanoians look at Apricot hotel they can feel proud, and introduce a landmark to visitors that is more than merely a hotel; it contains the spirit of old Hanoi and affords travellers the truest Hanoi experience.”

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