London in the swinging ’60s. New York’s punk-driven ’70s. Tokyo in the ‘greed is good’ ’80s. Hong Kong’s glamorous ’90s. Before they took their positions as global hubs, every major city went through its heyday – a peak, perfect-storm period where influence, freedom and creativity all set them on the right-here-right-now map.
I’ve lived in nearly every one of those metropolises, including growing up in Hong Kong in its prime. But things change – excitement plateaus, expenses rack up – and folks push on. My latest move landed me in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as we locals prefer to call it), Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan city. A capital during French rule, it’s a buzzing, hectic jumble of the colonial and local, from shophouses to high-rises – including Landmark 81, completed in 2018 as Southeast Asia’s tallest building – with its concrete jungle hemmed in by waterfront retreats.
There’s a youthful energy to Ho Chi Minh City, and not just because half its population is under 35. The numerous newly arrived expats are major contributors to this atmosphere. After Vietnam eased its foreign investment laws in 2015, an infectious vivacity began to sweep the city, and there’s now a feeling that something truly important is happening here. Things are cheap (for now) and the rules are in your favour (mostly), so opportunity is everywhere.
‘Hong Kong is expensive, Singapore is too sterile, Bangkok is too sprawling, Manila is too messy,’ says Viet-German photographer Morgan Ommer, who moved here in 2011 after more than 15 years in Hong Kong. ‘Saigon is just about right. People here are friendly and enthusiastic – and willing to experiment with new ideas all the time.’
Innovative, new hubs for business and leisure are cropping up all across town. An amble around District 1 – the city’s downtown heart – showcases the breakneck speed of its growth. Colonial buildings sit alongside shiny, avant-garde skyscrapers. High-end cocktail bars perch comfortably next to street-food carts. Long-time residents, returning Vietnamese and an array of global expats all rub shoulders over locally brewed craft beer and passionate banter.
The latter is a scene on any given evening at Pasteur Street Brewing Company, the first real craft beer bar in the city. Hidden down an alleyway behind the 91-year-old Rex Hotel, the humble upstairs space also doubles as a networking haunt for the city’s new and established entrepreneurs.
Since Pasteur opened in 2014, more than 30 rival craft breweries have followed its lead by setting up shops across Vietnam – and the surge sees no signs of letting up. Each sells craft beer for about US$5 (HK$39) a pop, which is reasonable at first thought, but for a country famed for its US$0.30 (HK$2.40) roadside bia hoi beer, the trend speaks volumes about how Vietnam’s tastes are evolving.
‘Saigon people are very open to new experiences, so it’s always changing; that makes the city feel fresh,’ says Phuc Doan, long-time Saigon local and founder of contemporary tailoring company SIR Tailor. ‘That’s why so many people in Saigon love what they do: they see it’s being welcomed.’
Work and play have a tendency to overlap in Ho Chi Minh City, and it’s attracting those looking to do what they love, with its rare balance of low cost of living, high quality of life and strong networks of friends-slash-collaborators. You see that in any entrepreneur’s daily grind, whether it’s at buzzing co-working offices for startups or quaint cafes filled with digital nomads.
Dreamplex is the best of the co-working spaces, a modern, multi-storey venue that hosted Barack Obama when he came through town. But there are dozens more of these shared spaces downtown, housed in structures ranging from converted communist-era apartments to exclusive mansions. And in late 2018, global leader WeWork set up its first Vietnam office.
Cafe culture, meanwhile, has always been big in Vietnam, with bare ca phe stalls found on nearly every street. But places like Vietnam Republic Coffee are transforming that basic framework into something more refined. Its minimalist interiors reference the city’s past, while its balanced coffee blends – sourced from Vietnam’s own highlands – are brewed using international methods: Chemex, Aeropress, espresso.
But for all its forward progression, Ho Chi Minh City isn’t the kind of place that forgets its past. Colonial remnants aren’t razed but restored, and grand structures dating back centuries stand proud and tall. Ancient Viet culture is ubiquitous, embodied in street-corner bowls of Hanoi pho and in pagodas occupying prime real estate.
The mix of old and new can also be found in the food scene. Take Anan, a restaurant opened by chef Peter Cuong Franklin, who lived in Hong Kong before recently returning to Ho Chi Minh City. Franklin’s upbringing in Vietnam and the US has given him a multicultural perspective, one that compels him to combine traditional flavours with methods acquired overseas. Tacos are filled with shrimp, pork and peanut sauce; foie gras and black truffles are stuffed into rolls. But more importantly, Anan’s food fuses perfectly with its space, housed in the kind of skinny building designed to avoid colonial-era taxes on French windows and overlooking Ton That Dam, a busy hawker street comparable to the wet markets of Hong Kong.
Also exemplifying this dynamic is Indika, on the fringes of downtown. The multipurpose space is about as rare a gem as one can find: it’s housed at the back of a local barbecue restaurant, in a dilapidated old French mansion (yes, it’s really inside both of those). On any given night, the manor-turned-millennial-meeting-place evolves with the crowd, morphing as needed into a live-music venue, a courtyard terrace restaurant, a chilled DJ lounge, a stand-up comedy stage or a ramshackle alfresco cinema. Whatever form it takes, Indika always features a dynamic vibrancy and intimate charm – and in this way, it’s analogous to Ho Chi Minh City itself, which can’t be defined simply because it never stops evolving.
‘Young people in Saigon are greatly passionate. Politics have dominated our story for a long time, but we’re now faced with living our best lives, and that energy is contributing to the city’s spirit,’ says Hoang Nam Viet, an artist and the owner of Hoang Thi Cafe. ‘I’m not sure if it’s a renaissance or just a spotlight after a long, dark night – but Saigon is finding its own way.’
Tourists who arrive expecting a rundown jungle are often shocked by the reality. They exclaim without irony, ‘This could be London or New York’. But we’re grateful it’s not. It’s Ho Chi Minh City, right here, right now.
This story was originally published in April 2019 and updated in September 2020