Barbara Adam delves into the various incarnations of an old apartment block, 42 Nguyen Hue. Photos by Romain Garrigue.
At first glance, 42 Nguyen Hue in downtown Saigon’s “walking street” is a grimy utilitarian apartment block towering above the Fahasa bookshop that occupies the lower two floors.
A second glance reveals some intriguing signs decorating boxy apartment balconies. For this chung cư is part of the new wave of Saigon entrepreneurialism, where small businesses big on design and creativity are hidden in plain sight in dingy old buildings.
Exploring 42 Nguyen Hue means braving a dark motorbike parking lot, where thick black electrical wires, dangling like subterranean tree roots, enhance the cave-like atmosphere. Try to park here and you’ll be waved away by an angry-faced man, the same guy who collects the VND3,000 per person fee for using the elevator. Many of the businesses in the apartment block refund the elevator fee, but taking the stairs to explore each level can be very rewarding.
Connoisseurs of Ho Chi Minh City’s cafe scene would be familiar with 42 Nguyen Hue, which houses at least 16 cafes. Fashionistas, meanwhile, could spend hours exploring the boutiques and jewellery shops in the nine-storey apartment block.
There’s also a lot to keep foodies happy – and very well fed. From Hawaiian poke to sushi and Vietnamese cuisine, those intending to dine in the apartment block probably should use the stairs.
The stylish cafes and boutiques have given the 60-something-year-old apartment block a new lease of life. These small apartments were once home to Saigon’s movers and shakers, including Truong Buu Khanh, the first secretary of the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, who was called back to his home country after the election of US President John F Kennedy in 1961.
Khanh, his French wife Yvette and their four children lived in apartment 62 at 42 Nguyen Hue for two years, during which time he served as an interpreter for South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem and worked as the director of Vietnam Press.
Khanh’s son, Marcelino Truong, has vivid memories of his modest former home, and many of his former neighbours. “When we moved into it, in October 1961, it housed many government civil servants, among whom was my uncle, Truong Buu Dien, who was then President Diem’s press attaché,” Marcelino said. “Another uncle of mine, my father’s second brother, Truong Buu Lam, who was at that time the director of the National History Museum in Saigon’s botanical garden, was also living there when we moved in. He is now a retired historian living in Hawaii.”
Uncle Lam and his glamorous French wife Elvira lived a couple of floors above Marcelino’s family. Marcelino said his cousin Dien, who was around the same age as him, used to go up to the rooftop of the apartment block during the war to watch the flares and the flashes of firefights across the river over what was then the outskirts of Saigon.
Marcelino, who turned 60 this year, has returned to his former home several times since 1991. However, he hasn’t been back since 2011, and on that last visit he didn’t recall any cafes or boutiques in the apartment block.
The author, illustrator and painter, who now lives in France, was amused to hear his former apartment is now The Letters Cafe.
“Very appropriate,” he said. “Considering the many letters Mum wrote from there!”
In one of those letters, Marcelino’s mother drew a little map of their apartment, showing a tiny kitchen on the left of the entrance, and the children’s bedroom on the right. The parent’s bedroom is to the right of the main living area, which is labeled “salon” in the letter. The salon and the master bedroom both open onto the balcony.
The layout is the same today. The tiny kitchen is still on the left, but the children’s bedroom on the right is now a boutique selling Sweat 2Tee-brand fashion. Half the original living area is filled with ceramics for sale, while other half of the room, along with the balcony and master bedroom make up the cafe. The current decor is verty retro, with an old sewing machine, vintage photos, and macramé wall hangings.
The apartment block at 42 Nguyen Hue is a regular feature, albeit as a backdrop, in Marcelino’s first graphic novel, Such A Lovely Little War (2016, Arsenal Pulp Press). Three years ago, he spotted his former home in a film that was part of an exhibition at the Musée des Invalides in Paris.
The 1951 newsreel showed a parade of young Vietnamese officer cadets marching along what was then Boulevard Charner. In one scene, spectators can be seen waving from the lower floors of the apartment block, which was still under construction.
Marcelino has no plans to return to Vietnam anytime soon, but he still wonders what happened to his family’s beloved former driver, who also lived in the apartment block, in the servants’ quarters at the rear of the building.
The children called him chú Ba, or Uncle Ba, a common nickname at the time.
“After we left Saigon in 1963, he was drafted into the army, in spite of the fact he was married with five or six children,” Marcelino said. “I don’t know what happened to him or to his family.”
Like many of downtown Ho Chi Minh City’s older buildings, the future of the apartment block at 42 Nguyen Hue is unclear. One thing is for sure, there are many interesting stories the building could tell.
The Maker Showroom
A stylish boutique stocking locally-made and imported products, including men’s and women’s clothing and shoes, accessories, lingerie, cosmetics and bags. themakerconcept.com
Saigon’s first poke restaurant, serving a modern take on the Hawaiian dish that traditionally featured marinated raw fish. Served here atop rice, salad, or a combination of both.
Chic Bae 21
Lingerie and fashion boutique. chicbae21.com
Boutique selling Japanese-inspired women’s fashion.
Cafe and bistro with nostalgic vintage decor, serving Vietnamese food, desserts and vegetarian food.
Su Shi 79
Japanese food, including sushi, served in a minimalistic Japanese-style eatery.
Thinker & Dreamer
First of two branches of this languidly-named nostalgia cafe.
Bricks and mortar store for one of Vietnam’s first online handmade silver jewelry shops.
The Maker Cafe
Associated with the boutique on level 1, this industrial chic cafe was designed to gather people in a creative environment. The cafe’s menu offers salads, burgers, steaks, pasta, dessert and drinks.
Vietnamese lifestyle brand with Scandinavian influence, selling wall prints and printed canvas tote bags.
Women’s fashion boutique
Coffee shop with the tagline “talking with coffee”.
With its enchanting English tea room decor, this cafe spans two apartments, with another cafe wedged in between the two sections.
Thinker & Dreamer
Reminiscent of a family living room, this cafe is decorated with old maps and a photo of John Lennon and Yoko kissing.
The Bra Shop
The name says it all.
Makeup, perfume and skincare store
Cati Madeline Boutique
Light and airy cafe with a rotating food menu of classic Vietnamese dishes such as pho, bun bo Hue and hu tieu.
NauNau DIY Studio
Pretty little studio where you can make your own body products. Bookings essential. naunau.vn.
The Letter Cafe & Clothes
Nostalgia-style cafe, with ceramics and a little clothes boutique.
Coffee shop/bar with fussball table, dark decor and six types of beer, including Pasteur Street Brewery craft beer.
Clothing boutique, only open Wednesdays and Sundays 1pm – 9pm
Japanese-style tea house selling leaf tea and tea paraphernalia
Cafe and workshop, with drinks, dessert, beer and cocktails
Japanese restaurant with spectacular views from the balcony. Beer, shoju, wine and cocktails available.
Good coffee with fabulous view.
Delight Coffee Shop
Tea room and clothing store decorated with winter-bare tree branches draped with fairy lights
The highest cafe in the block, associated with the cafe of the same name on the 8th floor.
Nail salon with an attached boutique selling Japanese products and DIY materials for embroidery and scrapbooking.
Cutting-edge fashion boutique.