We met craft beer marketer and one of Saigon’s hottest drag artists and models Tien Ngoc Nguyen in one of Saigon’s most photographed old streets. There, between bouts of nostalgia, Tien gave us his tips to get the most of your time in Saigon.
Read on in Vietnamese
One of the most attractive things about any city is when you feel its residents are in love with its character and its quirks. Tien Ngoc Nguyen is one of them. “Take my childhood memories of Saigon,” he begins without much prompting. “My recollections are vibrant and vivid. I remember the clack of the wheels on my father’s cyclo, and the aromas from my mum’s sweet soup stall.”
Even so, the marketing manager is feeling a little self-conscious. As a model and sometime drag artist Tien Ngoc Nguyen is used to being photographed. But today he’s dressed down. “I’m not used to having photos taken when I’m dressed like this” he shrugs shyly, “it’s like I have nothing to hide behind!”
We’re meeting Tien Ngoc Nguyen to get his reminiscences of old Saigon and his guide (the latest in our series) to new Saigon on one of the city’s most nostalgic lanes accessed at 135 Tran Hung Dao. This small thoroughfare feels like a literal connection between the old and new side of the city — at one end it looks across to Saigon Ink and the modern backpacker chaos of Bui Vien Walking Street. At the other end are the wet markets and old shophouses of Nguyen Thai Binh Ward.
Who are you and what do you do?
I am Tien, but most people call me TinTin. I am in charge of marketing for an international F&B company, Tê Tê Craft Beer. Besides my primary job, I also freelance in fashion and drag to explore my boundaries and to stimulate my creativity.
What does Saigon mean to you?
Saigon is my home. And I don’t only mean home, the physical place. Saigon exists in my heart.
Those old days were soundtracked by the echoing voices of street vendors, the clatter of ice-cream carts, and the voices of characterful hawkers selling their comfort-food wares – desserts like sweet tofu or sticky candy. And I remember overloaded bicycles stacked with plastic bottles from scrap dealers. All these snapshots represent my formative years growing up in my Saigon – a simple but beautiful place. Despite those fond memories, it is exciting to witness the dramatic changes to this city that are happening right now, even though my heart will always prefer old Saigon.
Where should we go for some quiet time?
I treasure my peaceful time wandering around the busy streets near the Opera House, sometimes called the Municipal Theater, or chilling on the balcony at the Katinat Saigon Cafe on Dong Khoi street — maybe one of the best places in town to watch the world go by. I simply pick a book to read at random and occasionally check out hustle and bustle on the street below. I’ve learnt to achieve a calmness of mind amidst this constant chaos.
Where should we go for a date?
It depends on the potential of your date! In this city, I don’t think the perfect date requires fine dining or a special location. As long as there’s good food, I’m down. I adore Vietnamese food, especially indulging in the crispy pancakes at Bánh Xèo Ăn Là Ghiền, or the justifiably famous Phở Lệ and Phở Quỳnh. That reminds me, I once took my date to pick up Bánh mì Ô Môi, commonly known as Bánh mì Huỳnh Hoa, and together we sat at a small cafe on the street to enjoy. It was perfect. Dating the old-fashioned way.
But on special occasions, I do like a little change of pace. Hum Vegetarian is lovely, even though I’m not a vegetarian. Their food is creative, beautifully crafted and meticulously presented. Now, I’m drooling just thinking about their flavourful noodles and amazing desserts.
And if you want an extra-special experience, head to NOIR – Dining in the Dark. It’s a one-of-a-kind chance to test your adaptability to the darkness. And if you want to get intimate with your date, no-one will ever find out!
Where should we go for a party?
Sleepless Saigon is a reality. It’s hard to pick a single party place amongst the surging spate of new clubs and bars in the city. For me, the most important thing is the right crew. Together, we will have fun regardless of the location.
Where should we go to look more stylish?
My style is simple – I stick to plain T-shirts and jeans most of the time. So do you really want my advice on this? Okay, so once in a while I go shopping at The New Playground or at the Weekend Flea Market. These are some of the metropolis’ many zones established to cater to teens and young adults, with no shortage of cute little clothing and accessory shops. Simply put, they are a fashionaholic’s haven.
Besides, you can easily find lots of online clothing shops on Instagram. Sometimes, if you get lucky, you can find yourself a perfect bargain.
How would you describe the city’s main districts?
Busy, noisy, energetic but a bit dangerous. Watch out for pickpocketing whenever you’re on the road!
Where can we eat the best street food?
One of the best privileges being in Saigon is you can find a great diversity of street eats anywhere, especially in the alleys. The alley at 76 Hai Ba Trung is a must on your Saigon itinerary. The food there ranges from what seems like a thousand kinds of Vietnamese noodles to mixed rice paper with dozens of ingredients and Vietnamese spices.
And you have not really experienced Saigon’s cuisine without stepping into one of its popular snail restaurants. It’s an indispensable dish for locals and tourists alike. A well-loved hood for seafood is Vinh Khanh street in District 4. Trust me, all the food will blow you away!
Which high-end restaurant is worth our money?
My favorites include Blank Lounge in the renowned Landmark 81 building, and Social Club above MGallery Hotel. Good drinks, efficient service and nice music.
Where would we be most surprised to find you in the city?
You will probably be surprised to find me…blacked out in clubs after raving too hard! Or maybe not….
Where can we get the best cocktail in Saigon?
The Studio Saigon takes you on a cocktail tasting tour, with each cocktail named after a specific region or place in Vietnam. Booking is essential because the bar is actually a secret, hidden behind the bartender and resident artist, Richie Fawcett’s gallery.
Alternatively, head to Bann Bar for a customised cocktail just how you like it. Or try Kafnu Ho Chi Minh City, even though they are primarily an events and co-working space, they do an amazing signature Mekong Delta Cocktail. Don’t blame me if you leave these bars tipsy – I’ve been there, done that!
Where should we go to get a different perspective on Saigon?
It is common knowledge that Saigon is modernising fast. Just look at the rapid changes in District 1, District 2 and District 7. But if you have time to explore real shantytowns and local residential areas like District 4, District 10, and District 11 you will immediately see the obvious contrast. You will also gain an insight into how old Saigonese live their lives.
Where should we go to escape the city?
We all need to escape the city sometimes. Graceful, charming and historic Hoi An town is my first choice. It is the perfect place to combine culture and relaxation, although it’s already been invaded by tourists, so choose a quiet period to visit.
Another great spot is Dalat with its soothingly cool weather. The food in Dalat is extremely fresh, and tastes even more amazing on breezy days. Some must-try dishes are Bánh mì xíu mại, Lẩu bò Ba Toa, Lẩu gà lá é…
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and edited by David Kaye