getting hip in ho chi minh

 

At street level you could be anywhere in Ho Chi Minh City: columns of motor scooters take up much of the footpath; an ageless lady in green blouse and blue cotton pants ladles soup for men sitting around on low plastic chairs. But past these distractions, a shadowy archway partially obscures a set of steps that curls its grimy way upwards. On the wall, a cluster of quirky hand-painted signs – ''BUI SHOP'', ''vintage clothing'', ''Mocking bird'' – are the only hint that there could be more to this 1940s modernist residential block than meets the eye.

Welcome to 14 Ton That Dam Street in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

 From the outside 14 Ton That Dam looks like any other residential building in Ho Chi Minh City. 

From the outside 14 Ton That Dam looks like any other residential building in Ho Chi Minh City. 

 Entrance to 14 Ton That Dam in District 1, HCMC. Past the bikes and up the stairs. You need to know where you're going to find the hidden secrets of Ho Chi Minh's hipster shopping precincts.

Entrance to 14 Ton That Dam in District 1, HCMC. Past the bikes and up the stairs. You need to know where you're going to find the hidden secrets of Ho Chi Minh's hipster shopping precincts.

Inside, four floors of residential apartments have been taken over by young Vietnamese fashion designers, cafe owners and other retailers. But you won't find the address in any glossy tourist brochure. This is an underground scene where sometimes it's difficult to know where the shop ends and a person's home begins.  

 14 Ton That Dam. No lifts but fortune favours the intrepid at this edgy vertical shopping strip. 

14 Ton That Dam. No lifts but fortune favours the intrepid at this edgy vertical shopping strip. 

 Is it a shop? Or is it a private home? The truth is at 14 Ton That Dam and many other hipster shopping haunts in Ho Chi Minh City it's probably both. The ever industrious and entrepreneurial Vietnamese love finding ways to turn a Dong, even if it means opening your house to the purchasing public.

Is it a shop? Or is it a private home? The truth is at 14 Ton That Dam and many other hipster shopping haunts in Ho Chi Minh City it's probably both. The ever industrious and entrepreneurial Vietnamese love finding ways to turn a Dong, even if it means opening your house to the purchasing public.

 Op-shopping Asian-style at 14 Ton That Dam. HCMC is bursting with new shopping malls and fast fashion clothing outlets but for the young forward-thinking generation  it's all about vintage. 

Op-shopping Asian-style at 14 Ton That Dam. HCMC is bursting with new shopping malls and fast fashion clothing outlets but for the young forward-thinking generation  it's all about vintage. 

 One of the several coffee-shop-bar-restaurants in 14 Ton That Dam. 

One of the several coffee-shop-bar-restaurants in 14 Ton That Dam. 

 Who knows what you'll find tucked away on the four storeys of Ton Tham Dam in HCMC?

Who knows what you'll find tucked away on the four storeys of Ton Tham Dam in HCMC?

 

Driving the movement, says local Vietnamese-Canadian documentary maker Linh Phan, is a rising middle class. "The locals spend a lot of money. The country's quite young, so you have kids who are working, they live at home, so they don't pay rent, their food's all paid for, they don't have to pay for laundry, they don't have to pay for anything – so all the money that they get is disposable income."

 Things Cafe, 14 Ton That Dam Street, District 1, HCMC. We found plenty of people keen to escape the busy streets with some jazz, a coffee and plenty of vintage furniture. 

Things Cafe, 14 Ton That Dam Street, District 1, HCMC. We found plenty of people keen to escape the busy streets with some jazz, a coffee and plenty of vintage furniture. 

The economic and cultural conditions are also fuelling other movements: a new, more sophisticated cafe culture, a locally brewed craft beer scene and multifunctional venues that have come to define the current generation of young city dwellers. Saigon Outcast in District 2, for example, combines skating, rock climbing and live music to create a popular hangout. 

 Giant Jenga fun at Saigon Outcast in District 2, Ho Chi Minh City. 

Giant Jenga fun at Saigon Outcast in District 2, Ho Chi Minh City. 

  Saigon Outcast, a popular venue for live music, rock climbing and hanging out in the burgeoning expat suburb of District 2 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 

 Saigon Outcast, a popular venue for live music, rock climbing and hanging out in the burgeoning expat suburb of District 2 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 

Back at 14 Ton That Dam Street I pause to watch local kids pose for photographs in front of the building's textured walls. Looming behind them on the skyline is the Bitexco Financial Tower, a huge glass symbol of Vietnam's aspirational economic future.

 And...action! The grungy and quirky stairwells of 14 Ton That Dam in District 1 have become popular backdrops for budding young photographers, models, music video makers and fashion people in HCMC. 

And...action! The grungy and quirky stairwells of 14 Ton That Dam in District 1 have become popular backdrops for budding young photographers, models, music video makers and fashion people in HCMC. 

 Tanh Tung, architect and owner of Mocking Bird Cafe on the top storey of 14 Ton That Dam. His bar/cafe was among the first businesses to open in the building. 

Tanh Tung, architect and owner of Mocking Bird Cafe on the top storey of 14 Ton That Dam. His bar/cafe was among the first businesses to open in the building. 

On the fourth (top) floor I meet Tung Dong, 28, the owner of Mockingbird cafe, the first place to open in the building. A qualified urban planner, Tung saw the potential of the space back in 2011 and, after a quick renovation that turned a kitchen ventilation window into a balcony with sweeping views over Saigon River, he was open for business. "The building hasn't changed much," he says of the years since then. "People come here and open shops for a while and if the business goes well they can stay. But only very few shops stayed through the past four years. People keep coming and going." According to Tung, other examples of this kind of grungy vertical retail in District 1 include 95 Pasteur Street, 42 Nguyen Hue Street and 26 Ly Tu Trong Street. The places are always changing, so it's a case of exploring the city for yourself. 

  A patron enjoying the speak-easy-themed environs of Snuffbox, a sophisticated nightclub in 14 Ton That Dam Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 

 A patron enjoying the speak-easy-themed environs of Snuffbox, a sophisticated nightclub in 14 Ton That Dam Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 

Ho Chi Minh City's next generation

Huynh Ke Minh Tan, or ''Ken Huynh'', as he introduces himself, is sitting outside his cafe, checking emails. One of his three British bulldogs, Hippo, snoozes lazily beneath his seat. Inside the cafe a mix of 20-something Vietnamese designers, artists and students, are also buried in their laptops, drinking strong black iced coffees.

Huynh, a former boxer and only child, lost his parents in a fire accident when he was young. Today, he lives above the cafe, which he opened in 2014. "I wanted to open a place that had a lot of people. That's why I'm open now 24 hours. When I closed it was just only me in this house – very boring. Now […] I meet people from all around. I don't have family so I make a family."

 The retro interior of Heritage Republic, a 24-hour cafe/bar in Pasteur Street, Ho Chi Minh City. Ken Huynh is the owner, pictured here with one of his three British bulldogs. 

The retro interior of Heritage Republic, a 24-hour cafe/bar in Pasteur Street, Ho Chi Minh City. Ken Huynh is the owner, pictured here with one of his three British bulldogs. 

Huynh's cafe is decorated in cycling paraphernalia and analogue equipment such as video games and film cameras (Huynh is also a photographer, see his Instagram feed @age.13 ); jazz plays over the sound system. The look is definitely Saigon hipster but when customers drop by for a takeaway, unlike almost everywhere else in Vietnam, they don't leave clutching bunches of plastic bags. "For young Vietnamese, the new generation, we want to protect the Earth, says Huynh, "so that's why I give a 10 per cent discount for bicycle riders and I never use plastic bags. We want to make Saigon into an international city and we want the world to know what's in Saigon, what Vietnamese [people] are all about."

 A patron whiling away her day in Heritage Republic. 

A patron whiling away her day in Heritage Republic. 

Heritage Republic, 10 Pasteur Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Phone +84 98 978 61 68 or visit their facebook page. 

TRIP NOTES 

 FLY
 Several airlines fly from Melbourne and Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City direct, or with single stopovers. See Virgin Australia, Thai Airways, Vietnam Airlines, Qantas, Royal Brunei and Jetstar.

 VISIT
 Saigon is rich in culture and history but the city can appear confusing to first time visitors. Sophie's Art Tour is a great way to get to know the city. You'll be taken through private collections,  museums and contemporary art spaces, guided uncovering fascinating insights along the way. US$55 a person, phone +84 121 830 3742 or see sophiesarttour.com 

STAY
Accommodation options are plentiful in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietn am's second largest city. Huong Sen Hotel is a three-star hotel with a pool in the centre of the city, District 1, double rooms from $A125 for budget beds, try Hong Han Hotel in the backpacker district, double rooms from $A40. 

Peter Barrett travelled at his own expense.

This article first appeared at traveller.com.au on May 6th 2017.