Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly known by its older name, Saigon, is finally finding its feet in the style stakes
They used to call it ‘The Pearl of the Far East’.
Contemporary visitors to Saigon – an edgy hornet’s nest of buzzing scooters and hand-to-mouth street commerce – might find that elegant colonial-era sobriquet hard to reconcile with their own first impressions. But as Vietnam’s economy blossoms, so too does a different kind of activity: Saigon is finally finding time for style. And in this maelstrom of a metropolis, these oases of well-tended calm are blessedly welcome.
But the thing is, you need to know where to find them. One vernacular characteristic they pretty much all share is that Saigonese quality of merging indistinguishably with the city’s urban fabric of crumbling concrete, sagging awnings and low-slung telephone wires. But rest assured, they’re there – Saigon is a city of pearls once more.
A steaming bowl of spicy pho is, of course, the traditional Vietnamese breakfast, but some mornings call more for caffeine than chilli. Workshop, one of Saigon’s recent raft of third-wave coffee shops, wears its name well. You climb a timeworn spit-and-sawdust staircase into a great chamber of concentrated activity.
Baristas juggle the apparatus for a range of brew methods that would put many an Australian hipster coffee joint to shame (‘Laboratory’ might be more apposite than ‘Workshop’) while half the clientele tap fixedly away at laptops. And even though the café is Western in vibe (think exposed brick and industrial fittings), this is no could-be-anywhere bubble – just as many locals come to enjoy the buzzy atmosphere and excellent coffee as do tourists and expats.
L’Usine Le Thanh Ton
The first two L’Usine addresses followed in the secretive Saigon chic tradition, their stylishness not so discernible from street level. But stylish they were (and still are), well-considered café-lifestyle shop-gallery hybrids that made L’Usine the standard-bearer brand for Saigon cool.
L’Usine’s latest venue shows how much the brand has grown in confidence and influence. Announcing itself loud and proud like a Beverly Hills boutique on a prominent District 1 street corner, this is an address that says L’Usine is ready to be judged by the same exacting standards that a similar venue in NYC, Melbourne or London would be.
That said, it doesn’t ape Western aesthetics. There’s much here that’s made in Vietnam, from their chocolate collaboration with Marou to food brands such as Sense Asia and Saigon Charlie’s, and homeware from Eugenie d’Arge.
Saigon can seem to be made up either of the old and faded or the flashy and modern, with little in between; and venues that have endured through thick and thin are hard to come by. This address is a bit different. Saigoneers have been fed and watered at 93-97 Dong Khoi since the turn of the 20th century. The site bore the name Café L’Impérial at one time and Bar Catinat at another, eventually becoming restaurant Vietnam House in 1992.
After shutting down for a while, the apparent raison d’être for this address – to satisfy the appetites of Saigon’s populace – has again come to the fore. And in spectacular fashion, too, thanks to Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen.
Nguyen – host of MasterChef Vietnam, founder of Sydney’s celebrated Red Lantern and Etihad’s ‘Food Ambassador’ – has taken on 93-97 Dong Khoi for his first restaurant in Vietnam.
His summer 2017 relaunch of Vietnam House was a collaboration with The Reverie Saigon, Vietnam’s only member of the heady Leading Hotels of the World ranks, and no expense has been spared, with opulent Art Deco interiors that evoke a particularly high-end train carriage, giving the restaurant a nostalgic ‘golden age of travel’ ambience. The food, meanwhile, sees Nguyen really flex his muscles, bringing together his Vietnamese and Australian heritage in a heady fusion.
The architectural remnants of Saigon’s colonial period give the city much of its potent mystique. Reminders of that French-ruled past come in many forms, from the Saigon Opera House and the Central Post Office to more timeworn examples (and revived addresses such as Vietnam House). Much of the later architecture that fills in the gaps is way more workaday, with little inherent romance.
So who would think to set up shop in a dilapidated post-colonial residential block such as 14 Ton That Dam? Well, it turns out that, as the pace of change in the city skyrockets, local bright young things have begun to yearn for Saigon xua or ‘Old Saigon’ in all its forms. Hence venues such as Mockingbird Café, the vintage-inspired, jazz-soundtracked café-bar that has taken roost in the upper levels of a building you probably wouldn’t want to take your grandmother.
Never mind shabby chic; this is more like squatter chic. But navigate the network of staircases and corridors so battered and graffitied they look post-apocalyptic and you’ll be rewarded with a hidden gem. A very rough one, granted, but a gem nonetheless. The prime spot at Mockingbird is the windowless room, open to the elements. Sipping a cocktail and looking out towards the river in this unreconstructed setting provides visitors with that raw, thrilling feeling of really being part of the city.
For drinks in a smarter setting, head 10 minutes by foot back toward the city centre and slip into The Alley Cocktail Bar & Kitchen, just off Pasteur. As so often in this city, the approach is unprepossessing – you might wonder if you’re veering toward the bin storage area – but step inside and everything – from the welcome to the speakeasy vibe – is just so.
The cocktails, meanwhile, are off the charts. Founder Minh Tan Pham, who cut his teeth at Park Hyatt Saigon and Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi, has brought much of his personal history to the bar: he uses fruits from his native Mekong Delta, and there’s the odd family heirloom and knickknack among the decor. Top-class mixology has generally been confined to Saigon’s high-end hotels, but The Alley is bringing it to the streets.
For such a hectic city, Saigon’s eponymous river is surprisingly sleepy. Villa Song Saigon sits like a dream vision of old-style colonial comfort at the hazy waterside, across the river from the city centre in the increasingly trendy Thao Dien district.
In fact, there is something slightly unreal about the hotel’s appearance, for it’s not actually from the colonial period: it just looks like it is.
Of course, that means the creature comforts are brand-spanking new, while the on-site bar and restaurant is one of the few places in Saigon that actually lets you sit right by the water.
Until the city’s metro is finally opened (supposedly in 2020), it’s best to take a taxi here. One of the biggest treats of a stay at Villa Song, though, is the hotel’s taxi shuttle service. Once you’re ready to leave the hotel’s tranquility and re-enter the fray, a speed boat will whisk you, James Bond-style, right into town. •
Photography by various establishments.
• Many of the city’s tourist sites are within walking distance from each other, but note that just crossing the road in Saigon is a challenge. That gap in the traffic you’re waiting for will never come — you simply have to walk out confidently and keep going, lest you confuse scooter drivers with your hesitation.
• Taxis are plentiful. A good local firm is Vinasun Taxi (hail from the street or ask staff at a venue to call one for you), or you can use Uber. Other options include the fast-disappearing cyclo (bicycle taxis) or xe om (scooter taxis). Few tourists take local buses.
When to go
The December to April dry season is the best time to visit. Tet (Vietnamese New Year) usually falls in January or February and sees accommodation prices rise.
Where to stay
Villa Song offers boutique accommodation, with 23 rooms set in a colonial-inspired building overlooking the Saigon River, with pool, spa and on-site riverside restaurant, Bistro Song Vie: villasong.com; lhw.com
Where to eat
• For ambitious coffee, try The Workshop: facebook.com/the.workshop.coffee
• The L’Usine venues offer a vast all-day breakfast menu, plus hearty salads, sandwiches and mains, which are mostly Western-accented using local suppliers: lusinespace.com
• If it’s time for a blowout, get a booking at Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen’s relaunched Vietnam House for perfectly executed local classics with Australian notes: vietnamhousesaigon.com
Where to drink
• To feel you’ve found the beating heart of alternative Saigon, it has to be Mockingbird Cafe: facebook.com/mockingbirdcoffee
• If you’re in need of something a little more refined, slip into The Alley: facebook.com/thealleysaigon
Where to shop
• L’Usine is a good one-stop shop — well, three-shop stop – for their nicely curated mix of international and local brands, spanning food to homeware, clothing and all things lifestyle: lusinespace.com
• The unofficial site Saigoneer has excellent cultural information: saigoneer.com
• Visas can be arranged beforehand with the Vietnamese Embassy in Canberra or the Vietnamese Consulates in Sydney and Perth. Alternatively, obtain a visa on arrival at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, having first applied online.