Friday, 4 June 2010

The bizarre and the beautiful

Vietnam is home to some amazing architecture. Ho Chi Minh City in particular has plenty of interesting building, which surprised me as it's not generally considered an architectural gem.

In central Saigon, 19th century French villas are hidden down side streets. With beautiful gardens and cool high-ceilinged rooms they make exquisite cafes. Add the Vietnamese talent for making delicious coffee and it’s easy to become hooked on this combination of caffeine and class.

I've become addicted to iced coffee while I've been here, rich, sweet and very refreshing. The Vietnamese way is to make fresh coffee, add just a smidgen of condensed milk and then pour it all over ice. Drink one of these in the shaded courtyard of a French colonial era villa and life feels very sweet indeed.

The city’s small art gallery is also in a French-era villa. The quality of the art is variable but the space is amazing, with original tiles, beautiful stained glass windows, ornate iron work and high high ceilings.

Then there’s the Reunification Palace. A 60s building, designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu, it was the home of the President of South Vietnam and is famous in most people’s minds for the moment when a north Vietnamese tank broke through the fence and rolled across the lawn, signifying the end of the Vietnam war.

Today the palace is a museum and rooms have been left as they were at the moment of communist victory. You can visit the command bunkers below ground, see the cabinet rooms, the reception spaces for visiting dignitaries, even the private presidential areas.

The architecture is beautiful; wood and concrete and wide open spaces with constant glimpses of the gardens. I especially like the clever external cladding that allows the large windows to be fully open and cooling breezes to blow throughout.

The rooms themselves are decorated in a variety of tastes and my personal favourites are the cinema – swathed in deep red velvet – and the 70s gambling room (pictured). You have to love the round sofa.

Outside HCMC there are occasional glimpses of modernist French villas among the otherwise dull residential blocks, especially in the highlands. Dalat is a hill station, surrounded by mountains covered in pine forests, deep lakes, long waterfalls and temperature's of a comfortable 20-25C even in summer. It’s where the French went to recuperate from the tropical heat and the scent of pine needles beneath your feet and the chill in the air did bring Europe to my mind. For a moment I felt almost homesick for cool wet summers.

Dalat is also home to Hang Nga, known locally as ‘the crazy house’. It’s the work of 71 year old architect Mrs Dang Viet Nga and is a project that’s best described as Gaudi-esque.

With lots of colourful curved concrete, this tree shaped house with gothic back drop features a series of bedrooms, decorated in a surreal style.

The whole place is a work in progress – the day I visited the architect was visible on a distant roof, dressed black (but of course), wearing a traditional conical hat to keep off the sun and directing workmen on the next phase.

You can visit or choose to stay the night in one of the rooms...though frankly I would not find the staring eyes of that red cat conducive to sleep.

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