Sunday, May 16, 2021

In Vietnam, recreating French roots

A shabby rental house in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, transformed.

In Valerie Gregori McKenzie’s childhood home in Toulouse, France, the exotic was never far. Family lore was rooted in colonial Algiers, where three generations of Gregoris had lived until Algeria’s war for independence forced their return to France in 1961.

“I was raised in a family where the past took place in a dream country that didn’t exist anymore,” she said. “As an adult, I wanted to find it, and recreate it for my children.”

After stints in Paris, Los Angeles, and Nevis (of which she’s also a citizen), in 1992, Ms. Gregori McKenzie, 46, settled here in Vietnam, later establishing Song, an environment-friendly line of casual wear and home linens.

But it took 11 years before she found a home where she could recreate her family’s roots. And surprisingly, it was a dimly lit, termite-infested, 40-year-old property on the Saigon River in An Phu, an affluent enclave of expatriates about a 20-minute drive from the city center.

“It was a small, shabby house,” Ms. Gregori McKenzie said. “But there was just all this river everywhere. It had the best location.” She signed the lease the same day, paying $1,500 a month in rent. (Most foreigners rent in Vietnam, as there are restrictions on owning. It is also common to pay in United States dollars.)

A three-month, $60,000 renovation transformed the two-story, 940-square-foot structure and its fifth-of-an-acre grounds into a lush, barefoot-friendly haven for her twins, Tara and Aubrey, now 17 and in boarding school, and her husband, René Tayeb, 49, Song’s managing director. The family also includes two dogs, Kabul and Beirut, three cats, and 11 birds.

Ms. Gregori McKenzie’s environmental ethos coupled with her affinity for the past sent her contractor to the city’s French colonial-era warehouses, many of which were being torn down, to salvage materials. “I wanted the feel of an old Vietnamese country house,” Ms. Gregori McKenzie said.

Holes were cut into the home’s facade and filled in with mismatched shutters and windows taken from the warehouses. Their peeling frames left, as the French say, “dans son jus,” or as-is, while beamed wooden panels replaced the plastic ceilings and walls.

Antiques bought in Vietnam and Cambodia — a bow-legged side table, curvy Art Deco armchairs, carved platform beds — dominate the small rooms, while contemporary Vietnamese paintings and family photos jostle for space with geckos that scale the walls. (A fragrant homebrew of lemongrass-mint-lavender essential oils keeps the place bug-free.)

The French doors that replaced the back wall open up onto an expansive stone-and-wood terrace with panoramic river views, where meals are served under broad-leaved banana trees and towering palms. “As much of life as possible takes place outside,” Ms. Gregori McKenzie said.

Vietnam’s plentiful jackfruit trees inspired the home’s exterior, which was repainted a chartreuse, or jackfruit green, blending in with the verdant tropical garden.

Ms. Gregori McKenzie added two extensions that doubled the living area: a 270-square-foot outdoor, stone-tiled kitchen and two 430-square-foot, self-standing, thatched-roof structures — one a study/TV room and the other a bathroom. Both were built from wood salvaged from a century-old wooden home of a friend. Vietnam’s heavy monsoons require that the woven-palm roofs be replaced every few years.

The L-shaped worktable in the study was once a three-inch-thick ironwood bed, formerly common to Mekong Delta homes. “Each plank weighs over 200 pounds,” Mr. Tayeb said. “This stuff is everything proof.”

Two bedrooms were built atop the new kitchen, bringing the total number to four. Ms. Gregori McKenzie kept them small and minimally decorated, installing doors with wooden slats and painting walls red and mustard yellow to recreate “the simplicity of Caribbean life.”

Termites derailed the wood floors in the downstairs living and dining rooms, so in 2005 Ms. Gregori McKenzie replaced them with gray and beige cement tiles in geometric patterns that she designed. The hand-made squares are a carry-over from colonial times, when decorative tiles were used to keep villas cool and mimic carpets.

“Fort-de-l’Eau,” or “river fortress,” is spelled out in Spanish tiles on the front gate, the name of the Bay of Algiers resort-town where her forebears vacationed. “I’m living out the stories,” Ms. Gregori McKenzie said.

A three-month, $60,000 renovation transformed this two-story, 940-square-foot structure and its fifth-of-an-acre grounds into a lush, barefoot-friendly haven for Valerie Gregori McKenzie and her family here in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; they pay around $1,500 a month in rent.

The majority of Vietnamese are Buddhists, so Ms. Gregori McKenzie felt compelled to build this altar for her Vietnamese staff so they, too, would feel at home. The buddha sculptures were purchased in antique shops.

Ms. Gregori McKenzie framed and hung her son Aubrey’s childhood artwork in his room. The lamp has a wooden base and a hemp and mother-of-pearl beaded lampshade; it’s available for $140 at Song boutiques ( The carved wooden platform bed was purchased in a Hanoi antique shop 10 years ago for roughly $100.

The 430-square-foot bathroom was built in a new, thatched roof construction.Ms. Gregori McKenzie bought the wooden soaking tubfrom a Japanese exporter in Vietnam for about $100; a painting by a contemporary Vietnamese artist named Dinh Y Nhihangs behind it.

“When Aubrey chose this red color for his room, he was only 10 years old,” Ms. Gregori McKenzie said (Aubrey is now 17.) “I let him have it, but I added yellow to tone it down.” The wine-colored, gathered silk ceiling lamp is by Ms. Gregori McKenzie’s company Song.

Throughout the house, plastic floors and walls were replaced by salvaged wooden planks. Ms. Gregori McKenzie installed doors with wooden slats and painted walls baby blue, red and mustard yellow to recreate “the simplicity of Caribbean life.”

The kitchen was built outdoors to save space and mimic Vietnamese traditional life. Chi Bich, the family cook, uses the locally purchased rattan bamboo baskets as strainers. “They are more ecological and sustainable than plastic,” Ms. Gregori McKenzie said. “Though Chi Bich prefers plastic!”

The platform bed in Ms. Gregori McKenzie’s bedroom faces the window on the advice of a feng shui master. “I like to live with the influence of Asia around me,” Ms. Gregori McKenzie said. The gold lacquered lamps are by Song.

After termites derailed an attempt at wood floors in the downstairs living areas, Ms. Gregorie McKenzie replaced them with grey and beige cement tiles in geometric patterns that she designed. The hand-made squares are a nod to Colonial times, when decorative tiles were used to keep villas cool and mimic carpets. The antique armchairs, chest, and platform bed were purchasedfrom antique stores and private sellers inVietnam and Cambodia.

The 80-year-old ironwood dining table came from the house of a friend’s Uncle. “She inherited a beautiful Colonial house but had no interest in its old stuff, so she asked me to clear the space for her. It was wonderful,” Ms. Gregori McKenzie said. The chairs were made in northern Thailand; they are recycled wood.

Ms. Gregori McKenzie, her husband Rene Tayeb, and Beirut, their dog, on the expansive riverfront terrace. Here, traffic on the Saigon River is limited to the odd chug boat and clumps of floating water hyacinth.

Thu nhỏ
Travel consultancy