When I initially settled in Saigon in September, people would ask me what was there was to do here? My response then, was that there wasn’t too much to do except eat – a lot. I’d spend most late afternoons in search of tantalising street food that would lead me to some great finds within various nooks and crannies amongst some questionable alleyways. It wasn’t until I started meeting up at with James from Nomadic Notes at various cafe workspaces around District 1, and ticking off the cafes from his comprehensive Saigon Cafe guide, that I realised the cafe scene was as he calls it “on steroids”. Every day, I’d visit these unique cafes to work out of, and despite some of them not being the most comfortable spaces to work out of, they would make up for it with their character and creativity.
It was a recent morning spent on Tim Doling’s Saigon Heritage Tours that proved to be a turning point on how I perceived Saigon and the importance of historical and cultural preservation of these buildings. As I roam through the streets and look up at the buildings, it’s difficult not to feel as though each and every one of them have a unique story to tell whether it be from the period of French occupation, up until the end of the Vietnam/American War.
As I’ve continued to discover new cafes to work out of, I’ve realised that many of them are located in some obscure and perceivably abandoned buildings. As I return and further explore the nuances of each building and its occupants, the more I realise that there is a unique microcosm of commercial businesses and residents, coexisting within these spaces that are teeming with history and character.
You could walk by the building at 14 Ton That Dam a thousand times over and not even think twice about entering. I was put onto this place by James who said there was a retro styled cafe called Banksy in an old building that I should check out. Since then, it has turned out to be one of the more interesting buildings that I’ve visited in Saigon.
As I found the address and looked into the dark space of an entrance, I wondered where the hell was I? The only thing that gave me the impression that I was in the right place was a hand painted sign pointing to a shop along a staircase to the right that was dimly lit by the creeping light coming from a broken window at the mid level.
Walking up the stairs to the first of four levels, I realised that there was more to this building than just the one cafe, as indicated by the names and direction to the stores, scribbled onto the walls of the staircase. Banksy Cafe was the first place that greeted me as I came out onto the central area of the first floor. Inside was indeed a retro styled cafe, full of hipster/fashionable and arty type decorations and people who were dressed the part as well. Despite the no smoking sign, the young staffer and several others were puffing away, so I didn’t stay too long.
On the same level, the building opens up into a sprawling maze like configuration. The only indication as to what other stores occupied the level were from pen markings on the walls, pointing out which area the shops were located. To the left, was a tattoo parlour, hairdresser and vintage shop and to the right, outside and into another section of the building behind a yellow wooden door was Things Cafe.
The interior layout of Things Cafe resembled somebody’s home, only with additional lounges. In the corner of the room is a painting of a dark tree, stretching out across the room and over the couches. Throughout the room, strategically placed knick knacks such as lamps and clothes racks give off the impression that you could also be inside a Salvation Army store where everything was for sale. With soothing melodies playing over old sound system, it’s an easy and relaxed environment where most customers was sprawled out on the lounges with their attention glued to their laptops or iPads.
Back to the central staircase on my way up to the second floor, I spot the Bitexco tower, literally framed by the opened window that was missing its glass panes. It towered over the surrounding buildings in the neighbourhood that resembled tiny Lego blocks. For something that is considered the jewel Saigon and a symbol of the city’s progress, I wonder what it mean for older buildings like these? Are they considered remnants of the past that no longer provide any use and under the constant threat of being demolished, to be replaced by multi story commercial complexes? It’s an all too common theme that seems to be occurring throughout the city.
Coming out onto the second floor and across the hallway, I spot a glass door with a swirly lollipop under the pink and aqua blue archway entrance to The Others Cafe. The entire scene is juxtaposed against the crumbling facade adjacent to a private residence. As I pass the resident’s home, I can see a grandmother holding her granddaughter whilst the television can be faintly heard in the background. They don’t seem to mind that I’m wandering around and encroaching in on their space, as the grandmother gives me a smile and encourages the grand daughter to wave and say hello.
Entering The Others Cafe is like stepping into a Japanese styled doll house, with pink candy striped walls, a stage in the shape of a cake and finished off with macarons suspended from the ceiling. Complete with staff dressed in anime inspired costumes with cat ears, it’s a bit of shock to the system as I exit the cafe and realise where I am again.
Coming out onto the third floor, I enter Nep Cafe. Inside, the furnishings seem to be custom made benches constructed from old metal shelves. At the front of the room is a miniature stage, where live performances would take place most evenings. I asked the owner how long they’ve been opened for and she says that they only open when she’s in town as she has another cafe in Da Lat that she goes back and forth between.
To the left of Nep Cafe is a sign pointing to a vintage shop within into a darkened alleyway. The vintage shop is clearly closed, with the only light in the space spilling from the neighbour’s door that is lined with old calendar pages and ironically flung open to allow the breeze to flow. The only sign of life comes from a television which is replaying a game of soccer, while an older lady is enjoying a midday nap on the typical wooden and cushionless couch.
On the fourth floor, at the end of the hallway, the only light source is coming from is a boutique fashion store. Like The Others Cafe, it seemed like an odd place for a higher end fashion store to be situated. I asked the worker there how long they had been opened, to which she responds, just a few days. It still had that new shop smell, with the scent of fresh paint and a thin film of sawdust coating the white tiles.
As I make my way out and down around the spiralling staircase, there’s a sense that the store owners in this building prefer the freedom of going about their own business and somehow manage to survive with the low customer numbers, possibly from the lower costs of setting up in a space like this. It’s not the easiest place to find or navigate, and also when entering each of the stores, a sense of trepidation always followed as I’d worry whether or not I had stumbled into somebody’s home or not.
As businesses close and new ones open in this building at 14 Ton That Dam, it proves to be an interesting look into the building’s past, present and possible future. Despite the constant cycle of changes, what seems to remain unchanged are the eye catching textures, random scribbling and the crumbling features that have some sort of story to tell that very few can seem to explain. I hope that when I return again in the future, it will still be there.