Cross the Bridge

A once-sleepy sub­urb of Saigon is coax­ing art lovers, shop­pers, and even the scen­esters and so­cialites away from down­town.

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS - BY CONNLA STOKES. PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY MORGAN OM­MER

A once-sleepy sub­urb of Saigon is coax­ing art lovers, shop­pers and so­cialites away from down­town.

IN 2007, WHEN I CROSSED the Saigon Bridge into Dis­trict 2 for the first time, I felt like I was leav­ing the city for the coun­try­side. I fol­lowed a snaking road into a neigh­bor­hood called

Thao Dien, which, cour­tesy of the me­an­der­ing Saigon River, and its mel­low, trop­i­cal am­bi­ence, felt ut­terly re­moved from the rest of the me­trop­o­lis. It suited the ex­pat fam­i­lies in the area just fine, es­pe­cially those en­sconced in large vil­las with lush gar­dens and pools. But de­void of his­tory and cul­tural at­trac­tions, and far from down­town’s charis­matic street life and rooftop bars, tourists had no rea­son to visit.

Five years later, when I moved to Saigon from Hanoi, Thao Dien had fur­ther blos­somed into a full-blown ex­pat en­clave with a mul­ti­tude of fam­ily-friendly restau­rants, bak­eries, gourmet stores, schools and spas. Ev­ery day felt like a lazy Sun­day af­ter­noon. It was cozy, sure, but far from cool.

“Yeah, when I first moved to Saigon in 2010, I had no in­ter­est in Thao Dien. In fact, I hated it—there was noth­ing to do ex­cept brunch,” says a sheep­ish Linh Nguyen, an English-Viet­namese en­tre­pre­neur, who, as much as any­one, can be charged with lead­ing the area astray, in a good way: now it’s be­ing touted as the hippest part of town. “What hap­pened?

One day, in 2012, my friend and I rode around Thao Dien and we saw all these va­cant lots of waste­land, and I just re­mem­ber think­ing, okay, we could do some­thing here…”

That some­thing turned out to be Saigon Out­cast, an out­door bar and events space com­posed of con­verted ship­ping con­tain­ers. With a laid-back, sum­mer mu­sic fes­ti­val vibe, it in­stantly di­ver­si­fied the de­mo­graph­ics of Thao Dien by at­tract­ing a younger, more bo­hemian crowd into the area—not that they were en­tirely wel­come. “We were lit­er­ally the out­casts,” Nguyen says. “But over the years, through host­ing mu­sic nights, craft-beer fes­ti­vals, farm­ers’ mar­kets, all-day par­ties for Songkran or Paddy’s Day, we’ve be­come a part of this com­mu­nity.”

Ever since Saigon Out­cast med­dled with its DNA, Thao Dien has been evolv­ing into a more di­verse, and, yes, in­ter­est­ing, part of town. Re­turn­ing yet again to this area once only known for op­u­lent abodes and kid-friendly eater­ies, I find a di­verse scene lur­ing en­trepreneurs and trend­set­ters over the Saigon Bridge—and tourists are start­ing to fol­low.

SOME DOWN­TOWN gallery di­rec­tors will likely de­mur, but Thao Dien is usurp­ing Dis­trict 1 as Saigon’s go-to des­ti­na­tion for Mod­ern art. In late 2017, Nguyen opened his sec­ond busi­ness, Soma Art Café, and it has quickly be­come a hang­out for the grow­ing num­ber of artists,

de­sign­ers, writ­ers and free­lancers in the lo­cal­ity. “We ded­i­cate our walls to emerg­ing artists,” Nguyen says. “Right next door there’s Vin Gallery, which show­cases es­tab­lished in­ter­na­tional and Viet­namese artists. I hope in the fu­ture this whole road will be seen as an ‘art street.’” An­other big player is The Fac­tory, Viet­nam’s first pur­pose-built art space, which cov­ers a vast 500 square me­ters; with an art­book store, an out­door bar, a café and a Thai restau­rant on site, it en­cour­ages vis­i­tors to linger. “We em­brace the ex­per­i­men­tal process here. Even if we can’t sell it, we’ll ex­hibit it,” prom­ises arts co­or­di­na­tor Bao Le, who ad­mits some of the more es­o­teric pieces they’ve shown have flum­moxed the oc­ca­sional vis­i­tor. “We’re happy to see so much art ex­hib­ited around

“Some still say this is not the ‘real Viet­nam’...I hope peo­ple can think of Thao Dien as just an­other side of present­day Viet­nam. Some­where con­tem­po­rary and cool”

Thao Dien. The more peo­ple are view­ing and dis­cussing art, the more con­fi­dence we have to present chal­leng­ing con­cepts.”

An eas­ier sell, per­haps, but still a re­cent trend, is Thao Dien’s vi­brant shop­ping scene, now at­tract­ing more day-trip­pers—some of whom come from down­town via the river on board the Saigon Water­bus. “My friends all warned me that a re­tail busi­ness in Thao Dien wouldn’t work. No­body came here to shop,” says Monty Truong, the French-Viet­namese co-founder of Kokoïs, a mod­ern bistro, café and de­sign store, and Bloq, a three-level din­ing, drink­ing and shop­ping com­plex. “But what we do is not straight re­tail. We cre­ate spa­ces to eat, drink, hang out and shop.”

The more you am­ble around Thao Dien, the more you will dis­cover stores be­long­ing to lo­cally based de­sign­ers with an em­pha­sis on

eth­i­cal and hand­crafted prod­ucts. “Some peo­ple still say this is not the ‘real Viet­nam,’” Truong says. “But for me, if I go to New York, I would want to ex­pe­ri­ence Wil­liams­burg.

So I hope peo­ple can also think of Thao Dien as just an­other side of present-day Viet­nam. Some­where con­tem­po­rary and cool.”

And while the area has long been home to a sub­stan­tial num­ber of well-re­garded restau­rants, when it came to nightlife, well, “God, Thao Dien was al­ways so dull. I never would have imag­ined we’d have a cock­tail bar or club here,” says Sean Mul­raine, the co-owner of Q Bar, which has brought more than a hint of down­town’s late-night panache to an area bet­ter known for ex­pat-owned sports bars and craft-beer tap­rooms.

In a pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tion that ended in

2011, Q had been a full-blown night­club (au­da­ciously lo­cated right un­der the iconic Saigon Opera House in the cen­ter of Dis­trict 1), but in spite of their nos­tal­gia for those heady times, Mul­raine and his part­ner, Phuong Anh Nguyen, de­cided to res­ur­rect Q in Thao Dien. The pair says many of Dis­trict 1’s most cel­e­brated down­town bars and clubs will soon open in Thao Dien, too. “We wel­come that. We want to be part of a scene, not dom­i­nate it. Like Bangkok in the 90s, Saigon is be­com­ing less cen­tral­ized. Dis­trict 1 isn’t the only place for a night on the town any­more.”

One of the ma­jor driv­ers be­hind this dy­namic di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion of Thao Dien is the huge num­ber of high-rise apart­ments that have been built in neigh­bor­ing ar­eas be­yond the Saigon Bridge. Where I once thought I was en­ter­ing the coun­try­side, I now see ur­ban de­vel­op­ment stretch­ing be­yond the hori­zon.

That ar­guably has only height­ened the ap­peal of Thao Dien’s sin­gu­lar iden­tity, es­pe­cially by the river­side, where you can bask in a balmy, bu­colic at­mos­phere and watch the world float by. “There’s no other neigh­bor­hood in the city that you can stay right on the river like this,” says Yega Thiya­gara­jan, the man­ager of Villa Sông, a high-end bou­tique re­sort in Thao Dien that at­tracts week­enders from across Asia. “We even have guests who travel here from the other side of town for a stay­ca­tion just to ‘get away from it all.’”

Sip­ping iced cof­fee on the river­bank at Villa Sông, with a view of the city sky­scrapers in the dis­tance, but far from the madding crowds, we both agree that this isn’t like the rest of Saigon, or any­where else we can think of. To­day, no­body should hes­i­tate cross­ing that bridge.

CLOCK­WISE FROMTOP LEFT: Creative minds re­fuel at Kokoïs, a café and de­sign store; Villa Sông is a river­side haven in Thao Dien, Saigon; Bao Le, the arts co­or­di­na­tor at The Fac­tory.OP­PO­SITE: Trendy shop­ping space Bloq.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: Plush suites at Villa Sông; Soma Art Cafe; The Fac­tory is help­ing to make Thao Dien a bea­con of art; Soma uses or­ganic beans from K'Ho Cof­fee; up­scale drinks at Q Bar.

The jour­ney to Dis­trict 2 via the Saigon Water­bus is a good way to avoid the city's choked road traf­fic.

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