“Thinking outside the box means you must get out of the box as well,” designer Ben Nguyen says about the creative process. “Step out of your comfort zone. Travel to a different city. Try new food. Walk different streets.” But, with our sincere apologies, we pull Ben back down to earth, and back to the city, to get his creative’s guide to Saigon.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
Ben was born in Hanoi. There, growing up, he had a typically negative Asian parent response to fulfilling his creative dreams. “Ever since Primary school, I wanted to be a designer…but my parents definitely tried to crush that dream,” Ben laughs. They strongly preferred he pursue any career except in the arts. But he found a way anyway. “I got a scholarship to study business at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Oita, Japan. And afterwards, I went to Tokyo to get my diploma in interior design.”
Having checked off his business qualification, and then his design qualification, Ben Nguyen has worked in interior design, graphic design, marketing and branding. He’s an inspirational presence on Instagram, where he shares insights into his design process and his work. And he’s also co-parent to two of our favorite dogs in the city, Crumpet and Butter.
But according to Ben, his most memorable project was also one of the earliest. It’s work he did for IKEA Tokyo. “That was my first full-time job,” Ben sighs at the memory, “and I got to design and build a room setting. It was and is a really big deal to me.”
“I guess I love bringing ideas to life,” he smiles. He’s currently doing that with District Eight, the hip, handcrafted made-in-Saigon furniture company that recently opened a pop-up showroom on Dong Khoi. So, there, in the shade of the Bitexco Tower, between musings on the creative process, we asked Ben Nguyen for his creative’s guide to Saigon.
What three things do you love the most about Saigon?
I love this city’s open-mindedness. It’s not a cliche to say it’s a city of dreams. It’s so welcoming towards new concepts and trends. Saigon is a place to truly work hard and play hard. And to have it pay off.
Second, I love the party scene in Saigon. There’s always something fun happening. Parties never end here. And finally, in Saigon, you can live the life you want to live, on a budget that fits. It’s a city that’s suitable for any size wallet.
Can you give us a one-day Saigon itinerary?
What I love about Saigon is that you can go out without an itinerary. But, you can still end up eating the best food, visiting the dopest cafes, and stumbling upon the hippest stores. Living in Japan made me love walking. It’s something I’ve transferred back to Saigon. I just love wandering around, camera in hand. If it wasn’t for walking around, I might have forgotten the thriving lives lived in the hems of the city.
Lately, in the morning, I stroll around Sala Park. It’s a great way to start the day. There’s an indescribable calmness there, and a freshness in the air. Instant good mood. There’s a running track too around the blocks if you want to be more active.
In the afternoon, the newly opened riverfront park at the bottom of Nguyen Hue is a new place to enjoy the sunset and to be inspired.
Then, in the evening, I recommend dinner and drinks along the canal on Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. There are hundreds of places – everything from Asian to Western, casual to fine dining. So far, I’ve never left dissatisfied.
Finally, take a midnight, destination-less bike ride. The city cools at night and you can catch a nice breeze pedaling around.
Where’s the best place in Saigon for coffee?
That depends on the type of coffee. I’m still a Hanoian at heart. So, if I go out for coffee the first thing I look for on the menu is egg coffee. Hue Cafe Roastery at 67B Xuan Thuy never disappoints. If I want espresso-based coffee, here at District Eight’s pop-up showroom, at 33 Dong Khoi, we make a good latte in an inspiring contemporary setting.
On the topic of design-conscious coffee shops in Saigon, I have to mention Rang Rang Coffee too. Their branding is really strong. And that’s reflected in each of their locations.
Where do you go to buy clothes in Saigon?
Where should we eat the best Vietnamese food in Saigon?
That’s difficult. There’s just so much to dive into. And any choice is going to be biased. For me, if there’s one place I could eat at every day, it’s Kho Qua Ca Chon, 202 Phung Hung, District 5. I always order their signature pork rib noodle and their bitter melon soup. They’re to die for. Add a little kick of chili sauce to the rich umami broth and you’ll be talking about it for days.
Visitors should try mi vit tiem, too. What places in the world serve such a tender giant duck leg on top of their noodles? I get mine at Tiem Mi Huu Ky, at 84 Nguyen Van Lac, Binh Thanh District. Another dish that made a huge impression on me is bot chien. At first I was apprehensive. Who eats fried dough? But one bite changed my life. Now it’s one of my favorite snacks in Saigon.
Where’s the best place for a business meeting in Saigon?
For me, any business meeting should be complemented with good food and drinks and a good vibe. For that reason, I’m choosing CTY Kitchen + Bar.
Where’s the best place in Saigon for a date?
I’m choosing Clay Saigon. It’s a recent discovery, thanks to their hosting of the Dior collaboration when they opened. I checked it out and fell in love with its inviting atmosphere, which, to me, has kind of Potato Head, Bali vibes.
And where’s the best place for fine dining in Saigon?
Hands down Roka Fella Saigon. I’m still dreaming of their Hiroshima oysters as we speak.
Where are the best cocktails in Saigon?
As a designer, I’m a sucker for a well-designed and illustrated cocktail menu like the one at Summer Experiment. It’s one of my go-to cocktail bars. If you haven’t been, try their Heaven Tears which is a spherified shot with melon puree.
And can you recommend any unusual places to eat dinner in Saigon?
Noir – Dining In The Dark is weird, in a good way. I’ve only been once. However, that night has remained vividly in my head ever since. It’s a mix of food, culture and education.
Where’s the best place to take in Saigon from a fresh perspective?
I live right next to the new Thu Thiem bridge. And I’ve gradually fallen in love with it for the way it connects two very different vibes, the calm of Sala – Thu Thiem and Saigon’s bustling CBD. And the view if you’re crossing it is so good you might want to stick around a while.
Finally, can you sum up Saigon in three words?
Crazy. Rich. Asian. There’s craziness. There’s richness, both in cash flow and culture. But it’s still so Asian.
Photos by Nghia Ngo for The Dot Magazine.