Rosemary Cook, a.k.a the ‘treasure hunt lady’, has been running Saigon Treasure Hunt Lifestyle Tours since 2013. She, along with her fellow treasure hunters, unearth hidden gems nestled in and around the city. Written by Claudia Davaar Lambie. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Rosemary Cook points to a Vietnamese drum tucked under some wrought iron shelves. “Now that would make a great coffee table,” she advises. Cook dreams aloud of the array of colours that she could paint it. She is full of quirky and creative ideas that she reels off excitedly: turning wooden palette trolleys into industrial chic tables; pharmaceutical chests into underwear drawers and restoring French wardrobes into contemporary pieces. Cook has been running Saigon Treasure Hunt for two years. She has been nicknamed the ‘treasure hunt lady’ and has become the go-to style and design guru of Saigon.
At Saigon Treasure Hunt Cook hosts a variety of tours and parties suited to different budgets and tastes. There are three main city trips: furniture and home décor; casual day out shopping and a luxury shopping tour. On all of the tours Cook takes groups of expats, locals and tourists alike to markets, alleyways and back lanes that are off the beaten track. She accompanies them to districts around Saigon which are rarely frequented by foreigners. The hunts run from 8am until 5pm which gives treasure hunters plenty of time to explore the unknown.
Both the furniture tour and the casual day out shopping tour each cost VND 1,800,000 which includes transport for the day and a spot of lunch. Cook unveils hidden gems down narrow streets and cul-de-sacs; dilapidated warehouses; and aptly named places like ‘Jar Street ’or ‘Wood Street.’ The luxurious tour is for those who want a ‘Sex and the City’ day with limo rides, lunch and champagne. These are suited for birthdays, bride-to-be weekends and other special occasions and the price starts from VND 4,000,000 and varies depending on the level of deluxe required.
The British native worked in London for 25 years as an interior architect and has an impressive collection of design awards under her belt. When she moved to Saigon, she was known among her friends as an expert when it came to all things stylish. In the beginning, Cook organised the tours for some fun with friends. “One day my friend said, ‘you know everything, take me shopping’,” she says. As its success grew, Cook was persuaded to take it on a little more seriously and the Saigon Treasure Hunt was born.
Having lived in Saigon for five years she has a wealth of experience and knowledge. Whilst on all of the tours Cook is more than happy to share as much style and design advice as possible. Even as she talks about her work, enthusiasm radiates from her and her brain works overtime as she energetically explains her tips and tricks about matching colour schemes; home decorative pieces; ideas of filling jars for Christmas presents and unusual places to buy buttons and fabric. She knows it all.
Cook wants people on the tours to have fun, get creative and be inspired by this stylish city. She reminisces about when she first arrived to Saigon. Social media was in its infancy and word of mouth seemed to be the only way to find out where to buy homeware and clothes. The creation of Saigon Treasure Hunt came along at the right time. It gave expats, both new arrivals and long-term Saigonites and Vietnamese a glimpse into what you can find here if you just look. Importantly, Cook explains that she wants people to feel confident in the city. “I want [them] to discover that it’s not a scary place and you can find incredible things here,” she says. Expats and tourists tend to stick to the mainstream shopping malls and retail outlets; never venturing into the unknown. “We don’t go to any ‘normal’ shops [on the tour],” she happily confirms.
Cook is by nature an explorer and with little Vietnamese prides herself on her inquisitive nature to research and plan the tours. “I will go to a district, walk down every Hem, take photographs and write notes,” she explains. What makes the tours unique is that it shows Saigon through ‘expat eyes’. It doesn’t matter if you can’t speak the language, Cooks wants people to go into alley ways if it looks like there is something interesting to be found. Like all expats, Cook has become a dab hand with charades to communicate with shop owners and always leaves with some nuggets of information that she can relay on her tours.
Impressively, since the tours began, Cook has taken around 500 treasure hunters around the streets of Saigon. Today, it is expanding beyond what she had imagined and she has now employed a partner in the business, Chi Nguyen, to help with the tours. As Saigon transforms everyday, it’s important that Nguyen is up to speed on what is going on, the latest news in the city and keeping track of the fashion and home décor scene here. With Nguyen on hand, Cook can focus on what she does best; researching new locations and offering a truly unique way of discovering Saigon’s hidden treasures for expats, tourists and locals.