Where there's a villa there's a way

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Vi Du café in Tu Xuong Street, which is run by Japanese expat Mayu Suzuki

At a time when many old French colonial-era villas in Ho Chi Minh City are being razed, left derelict, or replaced by skyscrapers, Mayu Suzuki, a Japanese expat, runs a small business in a beautiful French villa in Tu Xuong Street, District 3.

One and a half years ago Suzuki, 46, opened Vi Du (meaning example), a small shop selling women's and children's clothes she designs herself.

Just next to it in the villa she shares with a family, she also runs a tearoom serving simple drinks and foods including French and Japanese tea, Japanese coffee, cherry blossom and chocolate cake, tropical fruit juices. For lunch, it serves only one dish: Japanese chicken curry.

Vi Du opens from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. except on Wednesdays when it remains closed. It is on the first floor. A quaint staircase leads to it, and inside is a fusion of French and Vietnamese styles. The colonial architecture is evident in the high ceiling, windows, and doors, while the antique chairs and other furniture speak about the Vietnamese influence.

There is a feminine energy about the place. There are colorful decorations made of thread and beads she made herself, paintings of birds and butterflies, and panels of stained glass in wooden frames.

"I made the decision to move here very quickly," she says about the time when she was looking for a new venue for her shop, a tiny one in Dong Du Street that she had opened in 2001.

It took her just one month to prepare and move in. She brought all the furniture from her house.

"I bought the furniture over many years. These ceramic decorations that I brought from the first shop, I got by chance.'

One day she was going by taxi when she saw someone carry old-style ceramic on a wheelbarrow. She jumped out and asked if she could buy them.

"Even if I don't decorate the villa, it is beautiful. I hope Vietnamese change their minds and keep nice old things."

At Vi Du it is a one-woman show: She designs clothes, works with local tailors to stitch them, and sells them at the shop; she helps cook in the café and serves customers herself.

 "I can't make high fashion. I make handicrafts." She says she keeps some of the designs for years.

I ask her if she earns enough to afford to live in Ho Chi Minh City. She says: "After the villa rental and salary for staff, there is not much much left. But I am happy."

She is married to a Japanese man she met in HCMC.

Arriving in Vietnam

Suzuki first came to the country as a tourist in 1996 and again in 1997. She then quit her job in Japan to come and settle in HCMC.

She had travelled often to Paris and fell in love with HCMC's fusion of French and Vietnamese cultures with colonial buildings and food such as pate.

"I was surprised [to see the French buildings] and wanted to know more about this culture."

She worked as a waiter at a Japanese restaurant for a while before moving to an import-export company.

She married in 2001 and opened her own business in 2006.

"Many married Japanese women don't work after they marry though they live in HCMC for three or four years.

"I found the villa and fell in love with [it].

"I don't have an answer for why I have lived in Vietnam for a long time."

But she might head back home if for some reason she can no longer have the villa.

Asked what is the biggest challenge in running Vi Du, she says: "I like making cloth and cakes, and here I do that. So there is no difficulty.

"Now I enjoy life in Vietnam. Earlier I was bored."

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