The New Saigon
Glass towers may be going up like gangbusters, but Vietnam’s southern hub isn't only a hive for worker bees. An emerging class of community-minded trendsetters is going green, keeping it real and making what was old new again. By CONNLA STOKES. Photographed by MORGAN OMMER.
Published on May 19, 2016
The Vietnamese have a saying, cuoi ngua, xem hoa, which literally translates to "ride a horse, look at the flowers," but idiomatically means that if you're not paying attention, you may take in the general scenery but miss the important details. Anyone who's read the international news coverage of the 40th anniversary of Vietnam's reunification (in 2015) will be aware that reporters from all over the world galloping through Saigon were struck by the glitzy skyscrapers, highend malls, citywide development and general whiff of opportunity. The takeaway snapshot was of a boomtown enraptured with consumerism and American fast food—supposedly ironic ideals in a nominally communist land that spent a generation battling the United States.
But while McDonald's and Starbucks are, yes, new beachheads here, the voracious Vietnamese appetite for the dollar is fairly old news—and certainly not the reason for a trip to the city. "Pegging Saigon as a business hub rather than a creative one is sort of an easy shortcut," says American-Vietnamese artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran. He's the cofounder of Dia Projects, a gallery space for contemporary art in this financial epicenter. In this fast-evolving economy, the incarnation of progress is actually the growing segment of the city's tastemakers who have crested that capitalist wave and come down on the side of creativity—once considered more the purview of café- and artist-hub Hanoi. Call it slow-movement Saigon, made up of historically aware and environmentally conscious entrepreneurs and artists who now have the luxury to invent modern Vietnam 2.0.
Richard Streitmatter-Tran, artist and curatorial director at Dia Projects.
"It definitely feels like there is a turning point in the city right now—more voices are being heard while people are looking for something more authentic," says Hanh Huynh, one of a trio of owners behind The Common Room Project, a smartly, and sustainably, designed boutique accommodation on the edge of District 5 where everything is sourced locally. "We are idealists and the Common Room Project is our take on what we think hospitality should be—and I think other entrepreneurs feel they have something to say, too."
HANH IS REFERRING to guys like biochemist turned restaurateur Hien Ngo, whose family left Saigon for the U.S. when he was 12. Much has been made of Generations X and Y Viet kieu returning to the motherland to run start-ups and investment funds. But many of them see creative opportunities as well. "I used to fantasize of a romantic life in Saigon like those poems that I read, those songs that I heard," Hien says. "So one day I decided not to ponder anymore." He abandoned a PhD at Harvard to reconvert his old family home into Red Door Intersection & Lounge, where he can be found every evening explaining the thought process behind each intricate and beautifully plated dish that he has devised.
"We call the food 'evolved Vietnamese cuisine.' We look into how each dish is prepared traditionally and how we can elaborate the essence with our own interpretation in the here and now," Hien says. "But for us, Red Door is not only a restaurant but a meeting place where people can come to share their passion about anything. It is an intersection of ingredients and thoughts."
Red Door's "evolved cuisine".
This is much the same concept as The Common Room Project, where guests and staff intermingle and cook for each other, sharing meals and banter. People come and go but an air of communion always prevails. "We have had guests that have stayed at five-star hotels where they said they felt lonely and isolated,” Hanh says, "and then they come to the Common Room Project, where you don't have to start a conversation—you just join one."
THE RECEPTION MANAGER of The Common Room Project, Nguyen An is a hip, Instagram-enthusiast millennial who studied finance in Melbourne. She proudly cycles to work every day on an antique bicycle—a habit verging on eccentric in such a motorized city, even though just 20 years ago the streets were filled with pedaling women in ao dais.
Such is the pervasive retro-ready attitude also evidenced at her friend Anthony Tran's store Mayhem. This place is proof that not all young locals with money to burn drape themselves in Vuitton and Gucci. The city's growing cohort of young bohemians comes here to browse handpicked (and imported) vintage items—fedoras, army surplus gear, faded jeans and dungarees, George Webb shoes. Mulling over where he might go out on a Saturday night, Anthony quickly dismisses the idea that he'd be partying to house music on a swanky roof bar: "My friends and I prefer to eat and drink on the pavement where we can hear each other talk." His favorite spot is a street-level, family-run joint (right in the shadow of some of the newest high-rises) where chat is lubricated by a light, local rum and bottled beer, served on ice, the Saigonese way.
Saigon's new class buys their old digs at Mayhem.
Another nostalgic is 31-year-old Hoang My Uyen, who prefers to be called Ubee ("You know, like UB40!"). Though born in Dalat, she considers herself Saigonese and insists that anyone who loves the city can, too. A self-taught, and highly sought after, stock-market analyst, who never bothers going to her office, Ubee's real passion is Nguoi Saigon, a throwback-themed café with a family feel. "We don't have a menu. We just buy whatever is at the market and serve it for lunch or dinner," she says.
For Nguoi Saigon's regular music nights, locals of all ages come to listen to a genre of music called nhac vang, "yellow music," which originated pre-1975, (i.e. before reunification, or "the fall of Saigon," if you prefer). On a Saturday night, two dapper singers—one from the Mekong Delta, the other from close to the Chinese border—take turns crooning heart-rending ballads to a rapt audience. The lovelorn lyrics, if translated, might sound innocuous but performing nhac vang was forbidden for years after the American-Vietnam war due to its associations with the soldiers of the South.
The audience at Nguoi Saigon.
One member of the audience is Vo Thi Dung, a 23-year-old lawyer who was raised in a southeastern seaside town and who writes non-fiction under the penname Mac Thuy. Together Dung and Ubee have co-authored a book called Sai Gon Van Hat ("Saigon's Still Singing"), documenting the lives of singers, from cabaret to street performers. "We want people to appreciate the old Saigon while it's still here," Ubee says. "But also we want to document it. If we don't, what will our children read about Saigon?"
Perhaps it'll be picture books by young illustrator Trong Lee, another passionate "Saigonese" from a coastal town in the southeast. In his day job, he is a freelance architect, designing svelte interiors for fancy restaurants. But it's his fantastical sketches of landmark buildings and nostalgic watercolors of typical street scenes and vintage vehicles featured in a book called Old Saigon that caught the attention of Shyevin S'ng, the Malaysian-born founder of Vin Gallery, who champions artists who care about the environment and history of Vietnam.
Trong Lee and his Fictional Journey, at Vin Gallery.
Shyevin has held an exhibition of Lee's sketches, partly to help edge the artist close to his ultimate goal. "I want to create fairy tales…" Lee explains, before pulling out his smartphone to show images from his forthcoming project: a series of children's coloring books that he hopes will inspire in future generations a love of hometown heritage and history.
Naturally, this is a matter of increasing urgency in a downtown undergoing a corporate makeover. But waving to each of her customers as they arrive for another evening of nhac vang, Ubee doesn't blink when it is pointed out that one day there probably will be a skyscraper where her café sits today. Instead she smiles brightly and says, "All the old buildings can be destroyed, but our love and the spirit of the city cannot."
Ubee presides over Nguoi Saigon.
Dung agrees: "Rather than criticize negative things, we try to contribute something positive and highlight the beauty. Ubee and I like to say, 'If you cannot clear the garbage in the city, plant more flowers.'" To fully appreciate the paradise they've been cultivating among the parking lots, just be sure not to gallop through town too fast.
Dia Projects Contemporary art. 2F, 103 Dong Khoi, Dist. 1; +84 8 3823 8188; open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Common Room Project Sustainable boutique hotel. 80/8 Nguyen Trai, Dist. 5; +84 901 301 399; private suites from US$60.
Red Door Food Intersection & Lounge Evolved Vietnamese cuisine. 400/8 Le Van Sy, Dist. 3; +84 120 880 5905; open Wednesday to Sunday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Mayhem Handpicked vintage, imported fashion. 136/10 Le Thanh Ton, Dist. 1; 84-8/3824-4997; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Anthony Tran's favorite street-side bar (No name.) 19 Phan Van Dat, Dist. 1.
Nguoi Saigon–Café Le Saigonnais Retro music café. 1F, 9 Thai Van Lung, Dist. 1; +84 93 211 3103; open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Vin Gallery Specializing in eco- and history-focused art. 6 Le Van Mieu, Thao Dien, Dist. 2; +84 8 3519 4581; open Monday to Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
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