Absorbing Vietnamese life and aesthetics like a sponge, a French architect finds the inspiration for life and work in his new home.
After Paris and London, there's nowhere Didier Lemonnier would rather be than Ho Chi Minh City.
The French architect came to Vietnam two years ago as director of the AW2 Architecture Workshop.
"I've always wanted to live somewhere in Asia," he says.
Trained as an interior designer, the Frenchman spent years designing for Jean-Michel Wilmotte, Cartier and Gucci as a part of teams that rolled out concept stores in Tokyo, Osaka, Paris, New York and Beverly Hills.
After a stint as Director of Store Planning for Gucci Group's Boucheron Jewelry brand, he was most recently based in Bally, Switzerland with the same position.
These days, AW2 partners and Lemonnier are designing a Six Senses resort on Phu Quoc Island in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang and the Anariya Resort at Mui Ne beach in the south central town of Phan Thiet.
With major projects in the pipeline, the savvy Frenchman is optimistic about the future. "Vietnam and Saigon are growing so fast, so services are expanding. There are a lot of opportunities and more and more demand for high quality projects," he says.
Lemonnier and AW2 were designing the interiors and exteriors of projects ranging from hospitals to schools, "provided the project is interesting."
"To me, it doesn't matter how large or small the project is, I enjoy it all the same."
The architect is particularly proud of a new French school in District 9 that AW2 designed.
"The design combines contemporary and colonial architecture. My three children will go to the school and my wife will work there as a teacher," he says.
Je ne sais quoi
Lemonnier makes sure he doesn't get too busy, as relaxing and taking time to soak up the Vietnamese atmosphere is one of his top priorities. He and his family have traveled all over southern and central Vietnam.
"We cannot be unmoved walking through old streets filled with amazing history," he says. "I get a lot of inspiration for my designs [on historic streets] and I really would like to have the chance to join some projects to renovate some old cities in the country."
Temples are his favorite place in Vietnam, he says. "No matter where I go, the countryside or the seaside, the roofs of the houses here have something special: either they are made of tiles, palm leaves, or even straw."
As an architect, Lemonnier can appreciate the nuances of traditional homes.
"Palm leaves are beautiful and also functional. People arrange them one after another and then bend and fix them inside which makes a very nice pattern. The layouts of the temples give me inspiration. The traditional movable wooden screen is very simple, but so nice in the details."
The husband and father says he's infused Vietnamese designs into both his home-life and work.
"I like to visit the antique shops in Saigon. We came to Vietnam with books, music, kitchen stuff but no furniture. So when we are here we had to get everything Vietnamese. I like the lacquer wear and wood furniture here."
Though he misses skiing, Lemonnier makes sure he still gets out to the middle of nowhere as much as possible. He loves to rent a motorbike on Phu Quoc and ride from the middle of the island up to the remote north to visit fishing villages and eat fresh-caught local crab cooked by friendly fishermen.
"Sometimes we spend the weekend in Vung Tau or Mui Ne and visit the salt farmers."
His wife has the same appreciation for exploring.
"She goes to school by motorbike and she says she discovers something new everyday. Passing the same street on the same vehicle, but she always sees different things and there is always something interesting happening on the street."
For Lemonnier, the only problem with his time in Vietnam is that it passes too quickly, particularly the free weekends in Ho Chi Minh City.