From sleepy backwater to one of the most innovative and creative areas in Saigon, Thao Dien is in lift-off mode. Nick Ross crosses the Saigon Bridge to investigate a village-like enclave with its sights firmly set on the future. Photos by Bao Zoan and Vu Ha Kim Vy
There’s a map of District 2 doing the rounds of the internet, a plan which projects what this fast-changing area will look like in 2020. Look at the bottom right and you’ll see the purple and mauves of Cat Lai Industrial Zone, with its port area, factories and warehouses.
Move your eyes to the centre and you’ll notice Thanh My Loi and Binh Trung Tay, residential areas covered in light and dark brown. Dark brown means already developed, light brown means new developments. Based on the map, by the end of the decade the majority of this area will be made up of new building complexes; high-rises and villas. Little Singapore in unwieldy, large and boisterous Saigon.
Then look up to the top left and you’ll spy An Binh and Thao Dien. Most of the An Binh developments are new. Thao Dien, however, has already been developed. One of the few sections of District 2 — then part of Thu Duc — that was populated before 1975, the just-out-of-town village atmosphere that has long existed in this area first tempted non-local residents out here in the 1990s.
In the last five years the interest in both living, work, eating, drinking and shopping here has gone into overdrive. Much has been written about the impending transformation of Thu Thiem, the vast swampland area in District 2, just opposite downtown Saigon. Touted as the new financial centre of the city, a space that pitches residential and commercial accommodation side-by-side, and an area that could be the face of future Vietnam, it’s only now that construction is starting to take place.
In the meantime, the area that is showing its muscle is Thao Dien.
(Thao Dien Park)
Time and Place
In early 2008 Dragon’s Nest was launched. Located opposite what is now Thao Dien Village and Villa Song, the multi-storey, purpose-built villa was German-invested and stood on its own, surrounded by fields. Featuring a spa that mixed together a restaurant and bar concept with an outdoor pool, Dragon’s Nest came onto the Thao Dien scene, with publicity and chatter following its every move. Parties were even brought there with APE, one of the earliest promoters in the city, staging their first birthday celebrations on site. That was in April 2010.
Yet its location was too far out of the way and there were just not enough people living in the area to make the business venture work. At the time there was not enough reason for people not living in District 2 to make the then long journey over the bridge to go to a spa and restaurant. In the summer of 2010, Dragon’s Nest finally closed its doors. The investors had had enough.
Compare that to today and on almost every road in Thao Dien, new businesses are popping up. As a number of people we spoke to pointed out, the business climate is still not perfect. Yet, the knowledge that this area has immense potential is enough for erstwhile entrepreneurs to take the risk.
The number of people shortly due to be living in the area adds to this confidence.
About 10,000 apartment units are currently being built in Thao Dien, and across the highway in An Phu. Almost 5,000 will be finished in the Masteri alone by December. The Ascent, Estella Heights, The Nassim, Gateway and Tropic Garden; all are presently being extended or built. This means 20,000 to 25,000 more people living in the area by early next year. And that’s not to mention what will happen when the metro is finished in 2019.
It is no surprise then that business owners in Thao Dien are optimistic. Yet they know that to really bring in the clientele they need to make this village-like enclave into a destination, a place that will draw people out of other areas of Saigon to make that short journey over the bridge.
(Thao Dien Coffee)
On the Ground
Soren Husted and Pia Normann set up Copenhagen Delights in 2011, a family business specialising in clothes and accessories for babies and children aged up to about 11 or 12. According to Soren they opened their shop in District 2 “to reach the affluent Vietnamese customers as well as the expat community living in the area.”
Using imported fabrics and sewing the garments at their own facilities in Hanoi, Soren has seen first-hand how the area has developed into a “great shopping destination.”
“There are many high quality shops located here,” he explains. “It is not far from the centre of the city. The calm atmosphere in the streets and the presence of the river provides a more relaxed and authentic shopping experience.”
Jim Okuley from Nutrifort also sees the value of the ambience in Thao Dien. Opened eight years ago, his business NTFQ2 was the first fitness centre located outside one of the compounds.
“[Thao Dien] is small, compact and a family oriented community, like a village,” he says. “Over the years District 2 has grown to have great restaurants and bars, lots of shops, markets and spas. Now with Vincom close by [there is] great entertainment for all ages.”
Boasting a state-of-the-art fitness centre set in what Jim describes as a “unique facility”, an old converted warehouse with a restaurant attached, the architecture and design provides an open and airy environment yet a very cozy feel.
“NTFQ2 is a modern and timeless space that combines a fitness centre, with a healthy restaurant Good Eats,” he explains, “which caters to people who want the alternative option to regular fares around town, but still love delicious food.”
Boat House is another Thao Dien staple that benefits from the environment, in this instance, the leafy setting of APSC Compound and the Saigon River. The kind of place where you can relax and not hear a car or motorbike horn for hours, it’s one of the most peaceful locations in the city.
Jeff Puchalski and his wife, Maggie, took over the management of the restaurant just over a year ago and have since transformed it into a casual, ‘go-to’ place with “something for everyone.”
Serving up a growing assortment of American and Mexican cuisine, salads, wings, sharing plates and “some of the best drinks in the city”, what makes Boat House stand out for Jeff is “the beautiful view on the edge of the Saigon River” and the al fresco dining. He’s also added another element to the formula; live music five nights a week.
In the past year he’s noticed a change in his clientele.
“More and more people are gravitating this way for the first time,” he says. “Residents of District 2 have always made the 20-minute journey into the city for a good meal, so we hope we can make the trip [the opposite way] worth it for anyone around Ho Chi Minh City.”
He adds: “District 2 has always been seen as an enigma or a place that is too expensive for the average person. This is not true at all.”
A Short Walk in Thao Dien
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and I decide to spy out some of the businesses I’ve never been to before. So, braving the Hanoi Highway, I drive over to the main drag of Thao Dien. Down Nguyen Dang Giai is Austin Home. Set up nine years ago, with the likes of Mekong Merchant, which was originally a furniture outlet, and the long-running Linh Furniture, Austin Home was one of the first furniture showrooms to move into the area. It sells mostly top-end American brands that are produced in Vietnam; walk into the villa and you are struck by how grandiose and colourful the place is, how comfortable it all feels. Everything here is put together with a certain type of lifestyle in mind.
“We get a lot of designers and architects [shopping here],” says Austin Home’s McNeill Shiner. “Also, individuals who are looking to furnish their homes. We offer a free design consultation, so a lot of people take advantage of that. But we tend to attract people buying for the long term, not just for a few years while they’re here.”
One change Austin Home has noticed over the years is the nature of the clientele. Once almost exclusively expat, now, 90 percent are Vietnamese or mixed Vietnamese-expat couples, McNeill says.
This change is something I notice on my next stop at Nam An Market. One of the better top-end, boutique-style grocery stores in the area — now there are loads — besides the standard grocery store-style products, Nam An has a butcher’s counter selling imported meats, a charcuterie and cheese section, and a selection of fresh fruit and vegetables. Except for one expat lady, the rest of the clientele are Vietnamese or Asian. A few years ago in an equivalent type of store it would have been exclusively foreign.
I then head down the road next to Mon Hue and find myself at the much-loved Tama River. With its sushi bar area, this two-floored eatery with a mezzanine level is decked out in lots of wood, the décor created in different shades of brown. Serving up a wide range of Japanese cuisine including sushi, sashimi, tempura, yakitori, udon, soba and authentic izakaya cuisine, according to Chung, the husband of the owner, besides having the ability to attract both Japanese and non-Japanese customers, there are many reasons why Tama River stands out not just in Thao Dien, but in Saigon.
“There are many Japanese restaurants in District 1,” he says. “But they usually don’t have an English menu and you may find it difficult to choose what you want to eat. Our menu includes English language and pictures.”
He adds: “Our restaurant is suitable for everyone and any occasion — a sushi bar for a solo diner or for couples, tables for family dinner or business dinner, and a large Japanese-style private room for group gatherings.”
Bring on the Style
My next stop is at another Japanese-influenced business, this time Thao Dien Coffee. A newcomer to the area, like so many other restaurants and cafés here, from the rustic décor of Mekong Merchant and the garden-style dining at Quan Bui, to the more industrial design of Kokois or the more European set-up of The Loop, Thao Dien Coffee has been designed with taste and style.
Boasting two gardens created with triangular and octagonal seating and table tops flanked by lush tropical foliage, indoors is air-conditioned with white painted, bare brick walls, wooden table tops, cream upholstered chairs, an open kitchen and an atmosphere that is at once elegant and relaxing. And out front is a separate coffee bar, perfect for anyone searching for a quick takeaway. What it shows is simple — with more money and people coming into the area, clientele are expecting the local businesses to have quality. As with other relatively recent additions such as Lubu and MAD House, the bar here has been set very high. It is, after all, located opposite Les Trois Gourmands, a restaurant rated by many as the top French eatery in Saigon.
After trying out the Nepalese curry at Thao Dien Coffee, I drive a few doors down to check out the communal space at Snap Café. When the idea of inviting other businesses to share their space came along, it took a while for the set-up to work — there was a period where it felt like the space was constantly being redesigned. But now 11 shops sell their wares in the banana leaf-roofed Creative Village Space at Snap.
One such place is Amai, a shop dedicated to an innovative yet reasonably priced selection of crockery. Crafted in a range of colours from pastel through to greys, blues and pinks, the cups, saucers, plates and mugs have something a little unique about them — they’re round but not quite. With its concrete grey flooring, like the neighbouring clothing shops Chula and Metiseko, Amai is representative of a more chic, more contemporary Saigon, something on display almost everywhere I visit in Thao Dien.
Metiseko fits perfectly into this ilk with its floral designs and beautiful fabrics, crafted into clothing and accessories designed for the tropics or a European summer. According to Erwan Petzo, the brains behind the brand, the designs “take inspiration from Vietnamese traditions and landscapes [to create] original fabric that captures the essence of this fascinating country while remaining stylish and desirable.”
Based in Hoi An, when Erwan decided to expand to Saigon he chose District 2 to set up shop because “it is a beautiful area filled with nice shops, bars and restaurants.”
“District 2 is booming with innovative ideas and rent can be much less expensive than in District 1,” he explains. “[The key is] to make people, especially tourists, understand that District 2 is like a village within a city with a nice ambiance and places to stay, eat and shop.”
Indeed with places like Vesta Bookstore opening up, a centre that sells gifts, magazines, books, stationery and art supplies, and also runs art classes for both adults and children, there is also a growing cultural element to the area. Add to this Saigon Outcast, The Factory and Vin Space, and the trendy, village-like, cultural oasis that everyone is talking about is now a reality.
As I drive back home I encounter one of the main irritations that affects the lifestyle out here — the roads. At present the bridge connecting the main drag of Thao Dien with the next area down that is home to Riverside Apartments and the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC) is closed; it’s being rebuilt. Due to the construction of the metro and the apartment complex Masteri, the slip road running past Vincom is also cut off. This means to get to Riverside or the Vista I have to drive back to Saigon Bridge and then all the way up the Hanoi Highway. It’s a round trip of almost 6km.
By the end of the year this will be resolved; the blocked roads are part of the reconstruction of this area. Look at that map of District 2 and you can see that in 2020 a new road structure will be in place. Including a bridge to Thanh Da Island and through roads linking up the at-present cut off sections of Thao Dien, the transport connections should in theory alleviate rush-hour traffic and mean that you can get to all sections of the area without having to resort to the highway.
In the meantime, residents of the area have to suffer. It’s frustrating, yet there is so much positivity about the future of Thao Dien Village that for now the residents and business owners are prepared to grit their teeth and bear it.
(The bridge between Nguyen U Di and Vo Truong Toan is presently closed)
(Even District 2 has its share of graffiti)
A number of businesses in Thao Dien have teamed up to create a map of the area. The map is hand-drawn by Bridget March and is available at the following locations:
Austin Home Interiors
Home in Saigon Real Estate
Nam An Market
Quan Bui Garden
Thao Dien Coffee