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