Entrepreneur Tuan Le shows the highlights of the city’s up-and-coming neighborhood
While parts of central Ho Chi Minh City are in the thick of feverish development, Da Kao ward in the northeast area of District 1 is marching to its own beat, slowly but organically transforming into a creative enclave populated by forward-thinking entrepreneurs. Among them is Tuan Le, the brains behind creative company The Lab Saigon and owner of eatery Bunker Bed & Breakfast & Bar. Born in Da Nang but raised in Los Angeles, California, Tuan returned to Vietnam and settled in Saigon five years ago. Here, he takes time out of his hectic schedule to show us the highlights of the city’s up-and-coming neighborhood.
10am: Breakfast at Bunker Bed & Breakfast & Bar
There’s no better place to start than at Bunker, a relaxed, all-day breakfast bar. “With Bunker, I’m trying to emulate Chinatown in ’90s LA, where I was brought up,” Tuan says. “Da Kao reminds me of it – there are cool things happening and there aren’t any existing plots making way for high rises.” The pancakes, bacon and eggs have gained a reputation for being some of the city’s best, while the huevos rancheros (rancher’s eggs, a popular Mexican breakfast) are a comfort food staple. Bunker also has three comfy bedrooms — ranging from US$22 to US$42 per night — available on Airbnb. 79/2/1 Phan Ke Binh; fb.com/bunkerbedbreakfastbar
1pm: A breather at Phuoc Hai Temple
Da Kao is home to one of the country’s most revered temples. The Taoist Phuoc Hai Temple, built in 1909 by Cantonese immigrants, is an atmospheric landmark that features fortified papier-mâché figures of characters and deities in Buddhist and Taoist lore. In its multiple chambers, which are awash with ribbons of smoky incense, the faithful can be found uttering their prayers in low, hushed voices. At a figurine of the City God — who wears a Chinese inscription that reads, “prosperity with a single look” — worshippers offer money and show their respect. 73 Mai Thi Luu St
2pm: Fueling up at The Lunch Lady
No visit to Vietnam is complete without a healthy dose of street food, and no street food conversation is complete without a nod to the dishes of the “Lunch Lady” Nguyen Thi Thanh — Nguyen’s cooking has been showcased on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Fortunately, fame — including a published recipe book — hasn’t gone to her head. Nguyen continues to create noodle soup dishes — and a different one for every day of the week — to consistent standards. On this day, it’s a bowl of crab udon, complete with a smorgasbord of prawn fritters, and spring rolls, both fresh and fried. 23 Hoang Sa
4pm: Shopping at Psyche
If there’s one name to watch for in this burgeoning creative zone, it’s Tuyp Pham, illustrator and owner of Psyche. Tuyp sells simple tees and bags that feature his original artwork. Some of these designs have also been hand-drawn directly on the different canvases, in “superior Japanese ink”. Sounds fancy, but it does have a practical purpose. “It keeps the items washing machine-friendly,” says Tuyp, with a grin. 59/22 Nguyen Binh Khiem; fb.com/psychesaigon
5pm: Art appreciation at Galerie Quynh
Galerie Quynh, established in 2003 and one of the country’s leading contemporary art spaces, has found a new home in a renovated townhouse in the heart of Da Kao. Gallery director Quynh Pham — who worked previously at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, as well as the Smithsonian in Washington DC — hopes to make the area home for a long while. “There’s the potential for bigger, more ambitious projects here,” says Quynh. Every month brings a new exhibition — until March 24, there’s “Alluvium”, a preview of projects in progress by 11 artists. 118 Nguyen Van Thu; galeriequynh.com
6pm: Sunset stroll along the Nhieu Loc–Thi Nghe Canal
The Nhieu Loc–Thi Nghe canal area is one of the city’s most serene spots. Footpaths follow the length of the river, and stretch for approximately eight kilometers — running through a number of districts — and make for the perfect place for long runs, light strolls or even fishing. The canal trail, which is flanked by Hoang Sa and Truong Sa streets, is also dotted with vintage-style cafés and local restaurants. Early morning and evening are the best times to take in the relaxing mood by the water.
7pm: Feasting at Quan Ut Ut
One of two branches of Quan Ut Ut (or “oink oink tavern”) is conveniently located on the banks of the canal. The outdoor restaurant, walled by repurposed shipping containers, serves up the city’s best American-style barbecue meals, along with a wide selection of local craft beers, all at reasonable prices. The gigantic, family car-sized smoker is also a sight to behold. The restaurant offers everything from burgers, smoked chicken, slow-cooked pork shoulder and more — but it’s the cashew smoked pork ribs that take pride of place on the menu. 60 Truong Sa, Phuong 17; quanutut.com
9pm: Drinks at Indika Saigon
End the night at Indika Saigon — House of Curiosity, a multi-room bar and event space that operates out of the backyard of a rustic, time-worn villa hidden away from the main street. Foliage and the roots of banyan trees creep over almost every outdoor surface, and bicycles, cyclos and random mannequins are strewn about. But the real draw is in its bar offerings — choose from local craft beers (like Te Te Craft Beer and Pasteur Street Brewing Company’s Passion Fruit Ale), homemade rum punch and several non-alcoholic smoothies and juices. The venue also hosts live music nights and flea markets on a regular basis. 43 Nguyen Van Giai; fb.com/indikasaigon
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Don’t miss: rhino murals at Phan Ke Binh street
In 2017, a collective of artists took action to raise awareness of global rhino conservation. In a bid to educate — and highlight the misguided myth about rhino horns having healing properties — 17 street art murals, with the simple message “Cuu te giac” (or “Save the rhinos”), were created. One of these pieces can be found on Phan Ke Binh street, which is a stone’s throw from Bunker Bed & Breakfast & Bar. fb.com/cuutegiac
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Q&A with Tuyp Pham, the owner of Psyche
How did you set up Psyche?
Tuyp: The idea came to me in 2014, when I was presenting my first solo exhibition, but it wasn’t until August 2017 that I opened the store.
Tell us about the work you do.
Tuyp: Quality comes first — I got this idea from observing and appreciating Japanese aesthetics. I use comfy, high-quality fabric, and I’m always rolling out new designs. Me and my team, we make sure there’s always something new in-store. When it comes to hand-drawn designs, I go with whatever’s on my mind at the time. And I don’t take pre-orders — sorry!
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Artist Truc-Anh at Galerie Quynh
Come April 5, French-Vietnamese artist Truc-Anh will present at Galerie Quynh for the third time. As well as showcasing new paintings, Truc-Anh will help transform the gallery’s large glass entrance into a dramatic painting that resembles the stained glass windows of a church. The exhibition will run until May 10.
Comedian Doug Stanhope in Vietnam
Major comedians rarely come to Vietnam, so don’t miss Doug Stanhope’s special appearance, as part of the Magners International Comedy Festival. On March 14, catch the American comic showcasing his sardonic humor at the Caravelle Hotel (District 1). Tickets are available at ticketbox.vn, with prices starting from VND700,000 (around P1,570).
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Smile magazine.