Nov 27, 2018
A once-sleepy suburb of Saigon is coaxing art lovers, shoppers, and even the scenesters and socialites away from downtown. By Connla Stokes. Photographs by Morgan Ommer.
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 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.
Thao Dien is about a 20-minute drive from Saigon’s central District 1, and a 40-minute drive from Tan Son Nhat International Airport. You can travel up the river on the Saigon Waterbus from Bach Dang Wharf in District 1 to Binh An station in District 2 for VND 15,000. It’s about a 30-minute walk from the waterbus station in District 2 to Thao Dien village, so it’s best to take a taxi. A metro line is in construction, and optimistically slated for 2020. saigonwaterbus.vn; waterbuses run from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Eat & Drink
An all-in-one urban space for dining, drinking, shopping and—for some—posing for selfies! bloqvietnam.com.
This alternative events space hosts music shows, theater performances, flea markets, outdoor cinema nights, food and craft beer festivals, and more. saigonoutcast.com.
Soma Art Café
Serves organic coffee by day, creative cocktails and craft beer by night, with regular exhibitions of emerging artists, and music performances. fb.com/somasaigon.
A stylish cocktail bar and club, serving classic cocktails with a twist (the martinis come highly recommended). Make sure to stop by for happy hour (5 p.m. to 8 p.m.). fb.com/qbarsaigon.official.
Villa Sông Saigon
A gorgeous luxury riverside boutique hotel with 23 unique rooms and suites, where guests can enjoy breakfast any time of day and avail of a free shuttle river bus service when visiting downtown. villasong.com; doubles from US$171.
See & Shop
A modern bistro, café, lounge and concept store in a leafy, renovated warehouse right in the middle of Thao Dien. kokois.com.
Established in 2016 by artist Ti-A, The Factory aims to be a dynamic destination for art, designing innovative programs illustrating the creative criticality of Vietnam today. factoryartscentre.com.
Dedicated to introducing international artists to Saigon while striving to discover and promote promising Southeast Asian artists to the international scene. vingallery.com.