An antique collector wrapped in a dessert chef shell

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David Campbell sits among the antiques at his Villa Royale shop at 8 Dang Huu Pho, Thao Dien Ward, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City

Traveling past the shacks and canal shanties on the District 2 side of the Saigon Bridge, a first-time visitor to the city would be hard pressed to guess what he or she might find once they reach swanky Thao Dien Ward, where the city's wealthiest foreigners and Vietnamese alike have staked out an exclusive enclave of mansions and rare imports.

Fittingly, an antiques & tea shop called Villa Royale has just opened up as the very essence of lavishness and luxuriance. 
Entering Villa Royale from the dusty streets that surround it is like traveling into a different dimension.

There, surrounded by art and antiques that would make any royal estate jealous statues, sculptures, rugs, paintings, furniture and all things art stands David J. Campbell, 46, with a clean apron and swift, skillful hands moving across a row of hot cupcakes, covering them perfectly with a neat layer of tempting chocolate. 

The Australian gentleman looks younger than his age and his movements to and from the kitchen are spry and energetic as he meets and greets customers.

Here, visitors stop for afternoon tea and cake while they browse the fast collection of antiques and vintage items, a veritable library of modern European aesthetic history. 

This royal villa opened three months ago and is elaborately decorated with exquisite works mostly from Europe and America, but also from North Africa, Australia and Asia. Campbell has collected everything himself, and he finds extra joy in being able to show it off and sell it while offering guests his other passion: morning tea, lunch and high tea in the afternoon.

From traveler to shop owner

An enthusiastic globe-trotter, Campbell moved to Vietnam three years ago after stumbling upon the country and falling in love with it during his travels. He took up studying Vietnamese at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City and now seems as at home here as can be.

A set of English silver spoon which dates back to early 1900s at Villa Royale
Before his trip to the South East Asia, he was a man of the hospitality industry back home.

As a chef, Campbell spent around a dozen years working for restaurants and hotels in Australia, England and Ireland before he came to work for Singapore-based hotel group Raffles and ended up as the company's Global Director of Sales.

But he wasn't satisfied being another cog in the chain and dreamed of being his own boss. Three months ago, he made that dream a reality with Villa Royale.

There's nowhere else he would ever want to realize that dream other than Vietnam, Campbell says.

"I chose Vietnam because I already have a lot of Vietnamese friends both here [Vietnam] and in Australia. I've been to many countries but I like Vietnam because I like the lifestyle"¦ it's comfortable," he says.

Tradition and the individual talent

Villa Royale is really more than Campbell himself because it's built upon his family's tradition of collecting and selling antiques and vintage items. But he's combined that with his own personal passion: being a chef and serving people cakes made by his own hands and recipes.

"When I thought of opening a shop in Vietnam, I decided to have it specialize in European antiques because there're already many places that sell Asian antiques and vintage items in Vietnam, so I thought European antiques would be unique."

Campbell travels a lot, and any time he does, he collects anything beautiful he can find: glass, silver, art, plates, "many, many things," as he says.

"I grew up with antiques," he says. "My family has a lot of experiences with it. Before coming to Vietnam, I was already an antique seller and buyer, and had a lot of clients."

As a merchant, Campbell is free and easy with his customers, who are at liberty to touch and hold anything in the shop, even items that are hundreds of years old.

Campbell says he prefers to give his customers enough time and space to explore every item they are interested in. He does not follow them around or watch their every move like so many other shopkeepers.

Campbell stays out of the guests' view and only shows up to greet or when someone needs his advice or help, or information about an item. And when that occasion arises, he lights up as he describes his items and their detailed histories. He's got a special love for each one, and for each one he also has the memory of where, when and how he obtained it.

He was unable to hide his joy when he shows off a photo of glass chandeliers displayed at renowned antique showrooms in Paris. They are the same as the one he brought to his shop from London.

Sweetness by many names

The tea room with its outdoor sipping area was born so visitors "can have a sit among the antiques and have a cup of tea or coffee or juice and enjoy the cake and some music," says Campbell.

He uses tea from The Wellness Group Tea Company (TWG), a Singapore-based luxury tea company, which he buys from an importer in Saigon. The cake and the European and American food for lunch are all his own creations.

With more than a decade of experiences cooking, Campbell knows how to make traditional cakes very properly, but he's more creative than that and offers an array of exotic creations. 

His most interesting cakes are his own unique inventions that combine such rare elements as white chocolate, chilies, beetroot and potato.

"Sometimes it's good to have something a little bit unique, a little bit different. Even this place is different. Maybe it is common in some other countries but in Vietnam I think there is not a place like this," he says proudly.

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