First published June 2015 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
Hidden deep within a network of tight alleyways, Ma Maison is a warm and bright boutique hotel in a typical, local Saigon neighbourhood. Decorated in French Provençal fashion, Ma Maison’s twelve guest rooms have a restrained colonial ambience and plenty of homely character. Located a few kilometres from the city centre, Ma Maison is one of the few international standard mid-range hotels that plug you straight into the ‘real’ Saigon. For travellers who want to experience genuine city life – not just the tourist traps, shopping malls, and glitz and glamour of downtown – this boutique hotel fits the bill. Check availability and rates HERE.
French ambience in a local Saigon neighbourhood: Ma Maison Boutique Hotel
MA MAISON BOUTIQUE HOTEL, SAIGON
Address: 656/52 Cach Mang Thang Tam Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City [MAP]
Website: www.mamaison.vn | Phone: +84 8 3993 1388 | Average rate: $50-$100 per night
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Find its location on a map and Ma Maison appears to be far from Saigon’s ‘must-see’ tourist sights. But, as the manager Hà is quick to point out, the hotel is equi-distant from all three of Saigon’s most important areas for travellers: the airport, central Saigon, and Chinatown are all 4km away; 10 minutes by taxi, or an interesting (if rather hot) 30 minute walk along the Thi Nghe Channel. To make things easier, the hotel provides guests with a detailed map of the area, which includes all the information you need to get from the hotel to the city’s major attractions: public bus stops and routes, taxi company numbers, walking routes and much more.
In the thick of it: view from Ma Maison rooftop
Ma Maison is particularly well-positioned for travellers who want to experience a different side of Saigon. On the cusp of four bustling, almost completely untouristed districts – 3, 10, Phu Nhuan and Tan Binh – it couldn’t be easier for guests to delve into local life. Anyone who’s spent enough time in this city knows that District 1 (downtown) is not representative of Saigon. For the vast majority of Saigonese, their city exists down alleyways, which branch off burgeoning thoroughfares, such as Cach Mang Thang Tam (August Revolution) Street, where Ma Maison is located.
Local colour: a street seller outside Ma Maison’s front gate
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Down a labyrinth of increasingly narrow alleys, the hotel proper can only be reached on foot or by motorbike: taxis drop guests a short walk away. While Cach Mang Thang Tam is a bustling but fairly run-down part of the city, down the alleys things change quickly – as they always do in Saigon – into a calmer, quieter, more affluent, residential world. Middle class homes – each one with typically idiosyncratic architectural flourishes – line the narrow streets; local rice eateries and soup houses dot the sidewalks; and alley life – the quintessential Saigon experience – goes on all around you. It’s a unique location for a mid-range Saigon boutique hotel. And the local area is made more accessible to guests by the useful, annotated map of the vicinity, handed out by hotel staff, on which you’ll find places to eat, cafes, bars, spas and convenience stores.
Hidden down alleyways: below the front porch of Ma Maison
The diminutive entrance – a black metal gate obscured by bougainvillea – gives the impression of arriving at someone’s private home rather than a hotel. Indeed, the land has been in the owners’ family for nearly 70 years. Originally a two storey building – constructed sometime in the 1940s, towards the end of the French colonial period in Vietnam – Mr Hà and his family ‘renovated’ the property (‘reconstructed’ might be a more accurate word) in the late noughties, adding two more floors and a modern façade, but keeping some French external features, such as the blue wooden shutters and a pale, yellow ochre paint job.
Late French colonial period: Ma Maison’s European facade
The reception-lobby-bistro area is cool, bright and breezy, thanks to an atrium leading all the way to the top floor; a typical feature of Saigon houses, which allows both light and air to circulate. A small, well-kept front garden leads off from the reception. The lobby-bistro is nicely furnished with a combination of hard, cold surfaces and soft, cushioned ones, creating an atmosphere of cosy comfort and coolness. There’s a warm mish-mash of decor and furniture: beautiful old wooden chests, dressers, tables and chairs; Art Nouveau-inspired hanging lamps; antique trinkets and kitsch figurines occupying shelves and desks. Somehow these elements come together harmoniously. The overall affect is tasteful, plush, colonial, modern, extravagant and restrained all at the same time. It’s also a very intimate and comforting space to be in – there’s nothing impersonal or generic about Ma Maison.
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Homely and comfortable: the lobby-bistro at Ma Maison
Opened in 2010, the hotel is owned, managed and run by two families. Between them they have a lot of domestic and overseas experience in travel, culture, language and art. One of the owners’ father is famous Vietnamese photography, Long Thanh, whose black and white images of Vietnamese life and landscape adorn the walls of the hotel lobby, staircase, corridors and guest rooms. English, German, French and Vietnamese are spoken fluently, so lack of communication should not be a problem. Staff are young, friendly, helpful and ever so slightly ingratiating, but this is not unusual in Vietnam and, if anything, comes from simply trying too hard.
Before ascending the cool, stone staircase to my room (there’s no elevator which might be a consideration for some people) guests are offered a welcome drink in the bistro which, unlike the ones at far more expensive hotels, is deliciously fresh and beautifully presented; a great introduction to your stay.
Sweet beginnings: the welcome drink (passion fruit juice) at Ma Maison
There are just twelve rooms at Ma Maison – three on each of its four floors – which are divided into three classes: Standard, Signature, and Deluxe. Rooms with balcony (Deluxe) are the most expensive, but it’s worth paying the extra money for the light and space – welcome luxuries in a city as busy and polluted as Saigon. All rooms are exceptionally clean, with polished wooden floorboards in the bedrooms, and beautiful blue and white tiles in the bathrooms. Beds are comfortable with stacks of (unnecessary) pillows, and the rain shower is so good it makes you want to leap out of bed in the mornings.
A touch of the Mediterranean in the bathrooms at Ma Maison
As with the lobby-bistro, room décor is elegant and plush but stops short of being over the top. Interior design is by Aline Ho, who is also responsible for the superbly restored French colonial villas at Ana Mandara Resort in Dalat. The theme is unmistakably rural southern France: wooden shuttered windows and soft lamp lighting; potted plants and flowers; decorative, gold-rimmed make-up mirrors and tassels on the curtains; floral-patterned tabletops, chair legs, cushions and bedclothes. It’s highly decorative but somehow discreet.
Elegant and plush: guest room interior at Ma Maison
There’s a colonial air of course – this being a ‘renovated’ French colonial villa in Saigon – but there’s nothing pretentious or garish about Ma Maison, which is more than can be said for the excessively ‘restored’ guest rooms at some of Saigon’s more famous grand old colonial hotels. There’s something almost playful about the adornment in Ma Maison’s rooms; it’s not so much fancy as it is fun. Even the vanity kit is a sumptuous little detail of decoration.
Nice touch: the vanity kit at Ma Maison
If the guest rooms at Ma Maison were represented by a French painter, they’d be a mixture of Renoir, for his exaggerated rosy colours and whiff of sentimentality, and Matisse, for his chalky, pastel pinks and simplicity of line and shape. It all adds up to a very warm, comfortable environment to spend a few nights in Vietnam’s commercial capital.
A touch of Renoir and Matisse: Deluxe room at Ma Maison
The mornings are full of birdsong and local vendors calling their wares along the alleys – noodle soups, coconuts, biscuits, sticky rice. During the day, the reassuring sound of the playground chorus enters the hotel from the high school opposite; at lunchtimes the smell of street food and home-cooking drifts up from the alleyways’ eateries and houses; throughout the day the horn of the Hanoi-bound Reunification Express can be heard as it departs Saigon train station, just a few hundred metres away; at night, the neighbourhood is silent. These are aspects of residential life in Saigon that all expats know well, but rarely do travellers get to experience it, because their hotels are located in downtown District 1.
The local neighbourhood: it may not look it, but there’s a world of beguiling sounds and smells in there
If you make your way up the stairs to the rooftop, where the laundry area is, there are panoramic views of the city. Look east towards the growing skyline of downtown Saigon. In the foreground you can see the white-grey arches of the old, French colonial train depot. It would be nice if they utilized this rooftop space – a simple little bar here would be a real treat.
Breakfast is included in the price and is taken in the lobby-bistro area downstairs. There’s a choice of Western, Vietnamese, and ‘healthy’ breakfast, but staff make it clear that you can pick and choose from all three of these options. Muesli, eggs, bacon, yogurt, noodle soups, and freshly squeezed juices make it a real feast. Get up early, before the heat, and you can dine outside in the front garden, under the bougainvillea. Complimentary, fresh-brewed tea and coffee is available throughout the day, both at the bistro and in your room, which is one of those perks that makes a real difference to your stay.
Complimentary cuppa: free tea or coffee throughout the day at Ma Maison
A boutique hotel should have a unique style, décor, or theme all its own. It should be small and characterful with an intimate ambience, and service should have a personal touch. Ma Maison has all of this. The only negative reviews I’ve come across are from travellers disappointed with its location. But I think Ma Maison’s position is its greatest asset: Where else can you find a hotel of this quality in the middle of ‘real’, local Saigon, with all the charm of its alley life and irrepressible energy of its main streets?
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Ma Maison Boutique Hotel, Saigon
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