Experience another layer of Saigon through stories from everyday locals
“I started this because I realized that every association with Vietnam revolved around banh mi, pho and conical hats,” explains Linh, the creator of Hidden Saigon (www.hidden-saigon.com), while en-route to our first stop on the tour itinerary. Linh continues, saying that the only way to truly experience the ‘real’ Vietnam is to go behind the scenes and experience the lives of the locals in an intimate bespoke tour.
Linh, image by Anna Nguyen
After meeting Linh and Bao, the tour guide and translator, we are ushered into an air-conditioned minibus with my new Hidden Saigon swag tote bag. The journey to District 5, Saigon’s Chinatown, is the perfect amount of time for Linh to become the first storyteller of the day.
While searching for a feature film location last year, Linh found herself in Saigon’s Chinatown meeting and chatting with local residents, street vendors, artists and culture makers who were all happy to share their story. Having disregarded prior encouragement from friends, colleagues and family about starting her own tour of contemporary Saigon, Linh came to the realization that it was exactly what she should be doing. Hidden Saigon was born a matter of days later, but Linh’s turbulent story of Vietnamese heritage goes much farther back.
Born on the tail end of the American War, Linh and her family fled Vietnam by boat in the years following. A significant part of her first two years of life was spent as a refugee, living two months of that on a boat somewhere between Indonesia and Australia as her family, along with over 30 other people, headed towards a new country. After living in an Indonesian refugee camp until the age of two, Linh’s family then moved to Canada where she was brought up surrounded by relatives.
“I was always the black sheep of the family,” she says, despite a strict and traditional Vietnamese upbringing. In 2007, Linh took the plunge to rediscover her roots and join her brother, who was living in Saigon after moving back 12 years prior. Before arriving in Saigon, Linh had lived in London showcasing the other side of Vietnam with events and festivals throughout Europe, while also working in media as a creative producer.
For Linh, settling in Saigon was difficult at the beginning. Locals laughed at her ‘old language’ when she used vocabulary that hadn’t been used since the 1960s; modern Vietnam had progressed beyond the dialect she grew up speaking with her relatives in Toronto. “It was a big struggle at first, but then I began accepting myself as a foreigner in Vietnam and everything became a lot easier,” she says as we pull up alongside a sticky rice stand. Bao, who has been listening in to Linh’s childhood stories, jumps out and picks up a sweet combination of sticky rice, beans, coconut milk and shavings—a typical mid-morning snack for locals.
Mrs. Khanh, image by Jaiko
In a city where construction is everyone’s next-door neighbor, Saigon’s Chinatown has managed to stand still in time. Here, French colonial buildings built in the early 1900s, antique tearooms and herbal medicine stores fill the streets. “Cho Lon is the wholesale capital of Saigon, you can buy anything and everything here,” says Linh gesturing around as we head into an immaculately- preserved apartment building complex just off District 5’s Tran Hung Dao street. Built between 1910 and 1913, and tucked away from the busy street, this building is home to many locals of Chinese descent, including Mrs. Khanh, a good friend of Linh’s who has kindly invited us into her home. Situated on the upper gallery of the two-story complex with an inner courtyard, Mrs. Khanh’s home is similar to the others with a Chinese shrine above the door, wooden shutters on the windows and colorful tiled floors.
Over a glass of Chinese herbal tea and while tucking into some sticky rice, Mrs. Khanh relays her life story, through Bao, while her two children
and husband continue going about their day around us. Mrs. Khanh was born in 1968, 18 years after her parents arrived in Vietnam from China and her heritage shines through in her home. Explaining the history of this unique building, she reflects on the simpler times before electricity, when everyone in the complex would sit outside in the evening gossiping. “Because of this, she was able to learn so much from the elders,” explains Bao, on behalf of a smiling Mrs. Khanh, who speaks Cantonese and Vietnamese but very little English. “The building was built on top of a cemetery so when we were sat outside, some people would see spirits moving around the complex at night,” Mrs. Khanh gestures to the Chinese shrines outside her home meant to ward off bad spirits.
Despite living in the complex since she was born, Mrs. Khanh acknowledges that the building is beginning to crumble and will soon be replaced with a modern multi-storey apartment complex. Saying goodbye to Mrs. Khanh and her family feels like saying goodbye to good friends; in the short time we were in her home, she opened up her life to our eager ears and enabled us to learn the history of Saigon’s Chinatown through someone who grew up here.
Cha ca & Cocktails
Arriving on Nguyen Canh Chan in District 1 for our lunch stop, it becomes evident that Linh has made local friends all over the city as we are greeted warmly by the restaurant owner before finding our seats at the metal table set out on the pavement. Lunch is an exciting fusion of typical dishes from central Vietnam: nem nuong (grilled pork sausage) and bun cha ca (grilled fish rice noodles). As we make rice paper rolls filled with pork sausage, sour mango, lettuce, cucumber and Vietnamese herbs, we each learn a little more about one another continuing to, as Linh puts it, create our own personal history through storytelling.
No two tours of Linh’s are the same and they can be completely customized to whatever you wish to do and see and whoever you wish to meet. Today’s tour, as Linh explains to me is “people and places, visiting everyday people in Saigon, but I also do culture maker tours where we visit artists and craftsmen working throughout the city.”
Gin House, image by Gin House
Having spent the journey discussing our previous stops while Bao retells the history of Saigon, we arrive at Gin House. Tucked away down a small alley, Gin House is one of the original speakeasies in the city. Behind a heavy wooden door, after pushing through red velvet curtains, we enter a world of gin. A small low- hanging, bare bulb, and candle-lit room, featuring a leather studded bar lined with bar stools and a 7-level shelf packed to the drafters of Gins from around the world greet us.
Vuu Thanh Tan, the 28-year-old owner of The Gin House, worked his way up through various bars and hotels before becoming a mixologist at Snuffbox. It was here he developed the desire to create something new and opened The Gin House almost three years ago. “There are lots of speakeasies in Saigon, but many of them are not doing it right, they are not hidden enough,” explains Tan. The term “speakeasy” originated out of New York’s 1920s prohibition period where bars hid away behind concealed entrances, deep in apartment blocks and away from the eye of the government who had banned the sale of alcohol.
Image by Valeria Mertsalova
Cocktail culture in Vietnam is relatively new. “It has only been in Vietnam for five years and [cocktail culture] has grown up a lot in the past two years,” explains Tan. “Now, the Vietnamese may know about cocktails but it is not a deep knowledge.” I watch in awe as Tan combines Tanqueray 10 gin, elderflower syrup, large ice cubes, and petite slices of lemon and Schweppes tonic in a bowl-like stem glass. “This is the perfect gin and tonic,” says Tan as he places it on the bar as we pass around tasters of his 20-plus homemade infused gins. “The flavor of gin is very flexible, it’s exciting to mix the herbs and fruit to see what is created,” continues Tan as he explains the process through which gin is made,
the final step being distillation in which dried or fresh ingredients can be added to determine the flavor.
Finishing off with a classic Mandarin Sour, a delicious combination of Jasmine syrup, mandarin fruit juice, gin and Angostura Bitters, Tan tells us that of the 145 gins on the shelves, ranging from the depths of the Cotswolds in England to the alleys of Tokyo in Japan, his favorite is their gin infused with vanilla and orchid.
The entire day was exactly how Linh had explained it to me earlier: “It may be places you have been to, or heard about, but you will have never experienced them in this way.”