Chris Mueller takes a stroll through an odd building complex in District 1 that provides a glimpse into the city’s past, while peering towards its future. Photos by Fred Wissink.
The entrance to 14 Ton That Dam Street in District 1 looks more like the beginning of a hem than a building. But one step inside and the sky turns to grimy ceiling and a set of stairs beckons visitors upwards.
Once at the top of the darkened and dingy stairwell, a small window gives a better view of the surprisingly beautiful building and its surroundings. The glass and steel of the Bitexco Tower looms over the ramshackle orange-tiled roofs of a bygone era below. Families have made the best out the old, French structures just outside the building, mending them with sheet metal and plywood. The homes surrounding it may be in utter disrepair, but 14 Ton That Dam appears to have many years left.
Few seem to know the history of the building, but Mel Schenck, a retired American architect living in Ho Chi Minh City, told me it is a good example of the modernist utilitarian apartment buildings built in the 1940s and 50s in Saigon.
“Vietnamese builders adopted a stripped-down version of art-deco for many of these buildings,” he says. “Often, as in this case, they focused design on one repetitive element, like the woven plaster or concrete screens above and below the window openings. These buildings provide the urban fabric of District 1, a backdrop for the more monumental buildings built for public uses. But they all add up to our impression of Saigon of the past as well as the present.”
While the architecture and history of the building is fascinating enough, this five-storey maze has some surprises tucked away between the dozens of apartments inside. On the first floor is an odd, eclectic café called Things Café. Everything here seems to be mismatched. Wood tables are paired with worn-out sofas and desks stuffed with old issues of magazines, drawings and odd notebooks, giving the cafe a vibe of a communal apartment for artists.
From Things, if you follow the arrow below the word ‘tattoo’ scrawled across the wall in black, it brings you to a little tattoo studio in the back. While I’d be nervous to get inked here, the arrows are worth following to get a better view of the courtyard below and the skyscrapers overlooking it. Leading down to the courtyard is a dilapidated set of stairs that look ready to crumble at any moment. On my last visit, a group of young Vietnamese, undaunted as usual, played violin while balancing on the shoddy iron railing.
Up the next flight of stairs, also in the back, is probably the oddest part of the building. A glass door with a stick-less lollypop below a blue and pink arch opens up into the Other Person Café. This is one of the strangest cafes I’ve seen in the city, not just for its décor of giant plastic desserts and candy-striped walls, but also for the teenagers hanging out there. When I visited, most of them were dressed in anime-inspired outfits. I asked a question in Vietnamese, only for them to respond in turn with maniacal giggling and hand-covered mouths. Feeling like I was in a twisted nightmare, I quickly headed to the 4th and last floor.
At the top of the stairs, strings of fairy lights led to the left down a darkened hallway, before ending at the Mockingbird Café. This surprisingly peaceful café is the quietest I have found in District 1. Run by Na, a recent university graduate, the space is sparse but comfortable. A few heavy wood tables and chairs are spread around the concrete floor and several cushioned benches line the walls. There is also a small, covered balcony overlooking the concrete monolith State Bank building across the street.
There are a few more businesses spread throughout the structure — some more obvious than others — and new ones seem to be regularly opening, proving that while this building may not be one of the most impressive examples of Saigon’s 20th-century architecture, it does show that it is possible for the city to successfully meld old and new.