As editor-at-large of Harper’s Bazaar and Regional Director for Rothschild Estates, I was the subject of a Dot Magazine interview in February. So, I was delighted to ask David Kaye, the guy who usually asks the questions, some questions…
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
David Kaye and I have a lot in common. We were both born and raised in the “teak tough” North of England before embarking on life journeys and business careers in Asia. David’s journey to Vietnam took in sojourns in Hong Kong and Japan where he worked in the educational publishing space. His passion for training and development during this time featured lots of travel delivering seminars around Asia, places like Seoul and Tokyo, and in more challenging and intriguing locations like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Having arrived in Vietnam to focus on print media with the world’s biggest education publisher, Pearson, and a major project with the Ministry of Education, David Kaye’s purpose evolved and progressed to Editor-in-Chief roles at online media companies like the now defunct AnyArena and also Vietcetera before assuming his current role at Wink Hotels. One early project was the launch of this, The Dot Magazine, which David still contributes regularly to.
Wink Hotels looks like being one of the most stylish and innovative hotels in Vietnam. And I think of David Kaye as one of the leading lights in our industry and thank him for the passion and energy he has shown to continually shine a light on all that is positive in the lifestyle and hospitality sector in Vietnam and helping raise its profile on the international stage…
You were born and raised in the North of England, what values were instilled in you from childhood?
First, a disclaimer: English people don’t all live in an annex of Buckingham Palace. Far from it. My home town was quite a contradictory place; a tough, working class, industrial city surrounded by the sweeping, rural beauty of the Yorkshire moors, and historic towns like York. The culture is unforgiving too, its humour brutally self-deprecating where people struggle to express their feelings. This stubborn ambition emerges like you see in indie bands from the region like Arctic Monkeys and Oasis…
You have lots of experience in the field of training and development, what’s your formula for getting the best out of people?
After eight years and fourteen countries testing out best practice in conference halls full of hundreds of people, I came to a conclusion. Humans are learning animals. We learn naturally and constantly. And we like to do it in collaboration with others. Given the right conditions we always will. Good educators and employers create those conditions.
What will Wink Hotels do that other hotels don’t?
The project’s an exciting one – helping create an international-standard locally-born hotel brand. We’re rethinking the hotel experience stripping away lots of what guests don’t need and doubling down on what they do need. Out go dusty business centers replaced by Toong coworking spaces, bloated hotel breakfast buffets become à la carte street food classics delivered to your table, uncomfortable lobbies become a welcoming space to connect and collaborate. And the whole check-in and check-out process is automated meaning you can breeze straight up to your room and straight out at the end of your stay.
I’m also really excited that we’re launching in District 1’s Dakao Ward. I love that area. There are cocktail bars like Baron Bar and ATM Cocktail Bar and Kitchen which is accessed through an ATM, as you might guess from the name. There’s craft beer at Rehab Station and at the Tê Tê TapHouse. Epic breakfasts at brunches at the original Vintage Emporium. Great coffee in a courtyard at Cafe Yen. And for an art fix, there’s my favorite contemporary Vietnamese art gallery, Galerie Quynh. They’re all a short walk from the hotel. That’s another unique feature of Wink. We’ll encourage guests to go out and explore directing them to places we approve of. However, if they do want to hang out at the hotel, our bar on the corner of Nguyen Binh Khiem and Nguyen Van Thu is likely to become a cool hangout for guests and locals alike for our nitro cold brew, a craft cocktail or a glass of wine.
What drives your passion for discovering new bars and restaurants?
These days lots of my discovery is vicarious. The people I interview, especially chefs, provide suggestions for me to check out. Most recently Bún Thịt Nướng Kiều Bảo on De Tham recommended by Pedro at Kiba Saigon and bun mam, a kind of pungent gumbo that appeals to the real street food aficionados, by the lunch lady on Ton That Dam that was recommended by Peter Cuong Franklin at Anan and Nhau Nhau.
But I always loved the feeling of discovering a hidden place, like finding a dusty record in the back of a box in a store. In Hong Kong, a barber called Benky used to convert his boutique salon called Visage One hidden off Hollywood Road into a jazz bar some Saturdays. It was secret and only insiders and locals knew it — especially during the early days. And I loved it. He’d get a motley crew of musicians to jam and we would crowd into the small salon. As the night wore on the volume and intensity of the performances increased — I think he paid the musicians with wine — and his own lips would gradually turn red from the wine he’d consumed. He would begin swaying unsteadily behind the counter in a kind of rapture at this joyous event he’d created. I think then I committed, at least to myself, to unearth new places like that wherever I went. And at some point passion and profession merged.
Where did the idea for Wink Hotels’ The Dot Magazine come from?
The Wink Hotels project presented an unusual challenge. How could we talk about a hotel brand that didn’t physically exist yet? So the magazine became a virtual hotel. Our interviewees reflected the type of guests we felt would visit the hotel one day too, a broad cross-section of people. And the content had to have double value, to be interesting to readers now, pre-opening, and to have a second life for guests when the first hotel opens.
We did that by creating content like our guest concierge series. I hate receiving bad tips in a new city and being sent to a place, a bar or restaurant, that’s touristy. Conversely, having an insider guide from someone I trust changes my perception of a city or destination entirely. So, we interviewed everyone from food bloggers to chefs, to drag artists and models, to find out where they spend their time. As a hotel guest, or a Saigon resident, you can open an article and discover someone’s itinerary — someone like you.
The really innovative part comes with the magazine’s integration with the hotel directory. Room directories will have QR codes which guests can scan, leading them to curated running routes around Saigon, music mixes they can play in their rooms or out and about, or mapped tours of our favourite cocktails bars. It’s what I’ve always wanted in a hotel stay, a kindly local telling me exactly what to do when I arrive.
Of course, the magazine is a small part of our initiatives to launch what we hope will be a revolution in Vietnamese hospitality…
How do you decide what to write about?
The main challenge, when writing about new places, is the classic one faced by writers since the beginning of guides. Do you write about a secret place that you love and risk ruining it. Or do you keep it all to yourself. Usually, I plan to be selfish but pure excitement at the discovery gets the better of me and I can’t help writing about it or telling people about it…or both.
What was the first article you remember writing?
I became a writer by accident, through other people’s blind belief in me. The first believer was the creative director and founder of AnyArena, an era-defining Saigon nightlife magazine. They say dogs and owners look alike, and in the same way, I feel, magazines resemble their editors. Decadent, and design-conscious, or dull, and lifeless. AnyArena was definitely the former.
And she was part Absolutely Fabulous, part Anna Wintour — dazzling white teeth, shoulder pads, and acerbically sarcastic to everyone except her closest friends. Fortunately, I remained on that side even after we began working together.
I’d wanted to write for as long as I could remember. But whenever I attempted to write — opened my notebook, created a new Word document — everything that came out was strained and over-wrought. After a year of so of being asked to write something for AnyArena, I finally acquiesced, not really believed anything good would come of it.
After checking out the place, a theatrical sushi bar set up by the Aoki’s called Doraku, and speaking to the owners, I drove around for a while on my dilapidated Vespa. Words bounced around in my head until they formed a satisfactory sentence, and so I made another, and then another, all in my head. Then I quickly drove home, wrote them down, and built an article around them. It felt good. I submitted the article and it was published with barely an edit.
That day was life-changing — I’ve gone on to be the Editor-in-Chief of three magazines since and now Brand Director of Wink. And it showed me two important things: we all have the ability to achieve things we never thought possible, and how we do things is critical.
What were your favorite interviews from that period?
At the time, there wasn’t really any equivalent to the magazine in Vietnam, although Barcode was doing some cool stuff in Vietnamese. And so we had the exclusive chance to interview the trickle of international artists and creatives coming to Vietnam as well as lots of talented locals.
I interviewed Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts on the rooftop of Anan Restaurant, British indie bands The Cribs and The Vaccines, Kim Lee, the Hollywood model and DJ, and Kim Ly, the actor and producer who had just completed acting in his first film, Huong Ga. I interviewed Goldie, the drum and bass DJ and childhood hero of mine, locking ourselves in the backroom of a club. He was larger than life and launched into a series of outrageous anecdotes about his exes, who included Naomi Campbell and Björk. None of it was printable.
I interviewed Peking Duck, the Australian Dance duo in a castle in District 9. And I Skyped American indie darling Mac DeMarco feeling lonely holed up in a Tokyo hotel room waiting for his band to arrive.
For Vietcetera, it wasn’t only interviews. It was events. We had the idea to do a digital bar and restaurant awards in 2018 — an online poll and some articles — which quickly spiralled into a real event. We had envelopes containing the names of winners, statuettes that resembled banh mi, everything. And it was attended by around 250 industry people in the Refinery Courtyard. It’s great to see that idea being continued with the recent second edition.
The first one was quite controversial. In a country in love with its cuisine, opinions can be divisive. But I loved stirring up opinion, and the more the debate raged, the more traction our publication got. For reference, I think we gave the best bar to Firkin, Qui and 2 Lam Son, and Drinking & Healing and Rabbit Hole were the runners-up. Best restaurant was Anan and we gave the best chef award to Julien Perraudin from Quince, and there were other awards like best design which went to Renkon.
The other event was a rap panel hosted by Wowy. Gia Hao Tran had reached out and asked me if we could host the show at our office beside Ben Thanh Market on Le Thanh Ton. And so I welcomed Wowy, Wean, Datmaniac, Gia Hao Tran, Usagi, Ricky Star, NVM and SMO to a high-ceilinged room that was part of our office. The acoustics were terrible, no-one could pronounce the magazine’s name, but as I stood behind the camera listening to their impromptu rap cypher it felt like a special moment, personally and culturally.
Although the guests looked intimidating, tattoos, streetwear, swigging whiskey and smoking, at the end they all stayed behind and diligently tidied up the space apologizing endlessly for the mess and the smoke fumes. And of course, with the recent Rap Viet and King of Rap shows lots of them have now become household names.
What makes a good interview question?
I used to like to kick-off with something attention-grabbing. Lots of interviewees have been asked the same questions over and over…and it shows in their tired responses. Asking something edgier sets the tone for the interview. I asked the British indie band the Cribs if they’d ever been mistaken for the Crips gang. Surprisingly they told me they had. And I asked Vietnamese godfather of rap Wowy about his favourite kind of wrapper. He had no idea what I was talking about.
There’s also this idea of levels of thinking. Asking people to remember things gets boring quickly, but asking them to analyze and evaluate, compare, contrast, and to be creative is challenging and interesting.
It’s also easy to get overawed, especially if you’re a fan of the interviewee. But the publication and the story must come first — you have to dictate the terms of the encounter. If the answer isn’t interesting, ask a better question. Push, prod, and provoke until you have the story.
Because of all this, today, many of my closest friends are people who I’ve interviewed because we’ve dug deeply into their lives and experiences so far. Something like Tony and Doctor Melfi in the Sopranos. And they make up a diverse cast of characters — chefs, actors, bartenders, DJs, and club owners. I value their friendships, ideas and advice massively, and yours too.
And what’s your approach to developing a publication?
The internet is overpopulated with content, most of it generic and valueless. Good content should add something unique or experiential and authentic to what’s already out there. What music does a chef listen to? What would Saigon’s most famous chefs talk about if they hung out? How did the photographer get that shot of Saigon? What’s in your favourite influencer’s bag? If you created a walking tour of downtown bars, what would the route be?
Suddenly, the content is rich. People share about things they never thought about. I learn something. And everyone gets something more valuable than simply an article from the encounter.
Make content Google-proof — it can’t have been created from your seat. Unfortunately, for me that means I’ve woken up at 6am to go on a run through Saigon’s streets for an article with former Caravelle Saigon former GM, Michael Robinson, I’ve stayed up all night with DJs like Peking Duk. I’ve been on rap video shoots…and ended up in the video.
What three pieces of advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
I tell new writers that actual writing takes up the smallest amount of your time. Building a network, having creative ideas and communicating them to the team and interviewee, convincing busy people to let you into their world, doing research, planning and posting, and lots of other things, are all more time-consuming. Develop your capacity for all those things. As well as your writing.
Write for the magazine. Not for yourself. You can host a blog or post somewhere else for that. Do not tell the publisher you decided to do you by writing 5,000 words to a 1,000-word brief adopting a unique structure all of your own.
Be simple. I’m a subscriber to the belief that if you understand something deeply, you can explain it simply. Don’t try to be clever. Don’t snake Proustian prose though your article. Let the structure do the work. ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’ Leonardo da Vinci once said. Or it might have been Karl Lagerfeld…
Where is your perfect getaway in Vietnam?
I really like to hide out in Hue. There’s a hotel called Pilgrimage Village; a lush, tropical oasis with a swimming pool that feels endless. The whole city has this undiscovered air about it. Ninh Binh has the same off-the-radar vibe, for now at least. I like to stay at Tam Coc Garden Resort. The rustic terrace restaurant looks across to an awe-inspiring scene of karst cliffs and water.
I also just spent a few days at L’Alya in Nha Trang’s Ninh Van Bay. You take a private speedboat over to that side of the bay, which can’t be accessed by road, and once you arrive it’s pure relaxation. Six Senses next door is incredible too.
Nha Trang is also home to one of my favorite bars in Vietnam, Hybrid. Owner and mixologist Lam Duong has an Asia Top 50-worthy menu; the type of drinks list that entices you to disregard your usual flavor preferences and try everything. The last time I felt like that was at SG Club in Tokyo which is rightly viewed as one of the best bars in Asia, if not the world…
What does your favourite 24 hours in Saigon look like?
I tell people Saigon is a place to be more than a place to see. With that in mind my itinerary would take in lots of street food spots, and an eclectic mix of restaurants and bars.
Generally, I skip breakfast and go straight on to coffee. NOMAD Cold Brew is my current favourite, especially their punchy nitro cold brew. I like the location too in an alley off Vo Van Tan with a stack of Monacle and Kinfolk magazines to peruse between sips. However, the newly opened branch of Okkio Caffe at 41/1 Pham Ngoc Thach has become a chic alternative lately. If I have a cup at home before heading out, I use [A] Cafe Specialty Roasters beans.
If it’s Sunday, next I’d have dim sum at Ocean Palace. There may be better and cheaper options, but I love the grandeur of the venue, the bustling, indignant waiters, and the conspiratorial air. As the food arrives one dish at a time, you have lots of opportunities to catch up, gossip, and reminisce about the weekend as it comes to an end with your closest friends.
Inevitably, Saigon’s Japan Town would feature somewhere. I lived in Japan for four years, so it reminds me of great times. I once tried to write the definitive guide to the area but eventually stopped trying as new places kept popping up as quickly as I could write about them. Instead, I recruited Taka from Sushi Rei to share his guide to the area and learned a lot in the process.
You’ll often find me there. In the afternoon, working over a double espresso at the new Babros Coffee Roaster or at Vietnam Coffee Republic. Its understated but design-conscious founder, Phong, is usually around for catch-up about Saigon related events. He organized a small-scale party there recently which was really fun, decks by the roadside. In the evening you’d find me at one of the izakayas around there: the sleek new Mangestu on Thai Van Lung, or the rowdy Izakaya Ten, or in the alleys at Chikara for karaage and gyoza or the Nagoya restaurant, Hanakaruta. They serve raw liver; a dish I get out-town-guests to try. Once they’re over the initial reluctance, they usually love it. And the sake is cheap. Order hot sake in a tokkuri especially if it’s raining outside.
There’s decent omakase too, at Sushi Kobayashi and Sushi Hung. It all feels underground and off the map somehow like you’ve stepped into a portal to another world. I’ll take an early evening onsen there too on the roof of the Azumaya Hotel. The bath is outdoors, rotenburo-style. So you can reflect on the hectic day as light rain falls and the surrounding skyscrapers light up as the sky darkens.
I go over to Cabana Health Spa a lot. It’s the kind of massage place where patrons smoke and read the newspaper in the spa area. Even the changing room attendants sit around smoking. The massage itself is the right side of violent. Friends who’ve visited on my recommendation have described it as life changing. They renovated during the first wave of COVID, so it’s lost some of its run-down charm but it’s still the perfect place to recharge.
Then I’d hit the barbers, Brothers – Boutique Men’s Salon, and get a hair cut while sipping on a cocktail, probably a Martijn’s Aperitivo from Koheis Bar next door. I’ll probably have another with Kohei on the way out, listening to some of his hilarious stories about running bars during decadent times in Shanghai.
After that, I’d take the five-minute walk round to Ngoc Suong Seafood & Bar. There I’d order a dozen oysters with prosecco. This place is unique, nowhere else is serving seafood as fresh and as innovative. For something more traditional, I’ll go for oc another short walk away at Bến – Ốc & Hải Sản by the water bus terminal. That’s if there isn’t an event. There’s usually something, like the incredible six-hand dinners at Park Hyatt Saigon.
The ‘new’ Japanese area around Pham Viet Chanh is growing exponentially too. I go to Kakinoki most weeks for their on-point Japanese-Italian cuisine and great wines. But if we’re talking about completing a perfect 24-hours in Saigon, I would have to visit Kiyota Sushi Sake Restaurant on the same street for their omakase. I’m not sure anywhere else in Asia offers set menus of this quality at this price point. It’s that good.
I’d finish with cocktails somewhere hidden, like Lola, the impossibly chic bar-restaurant right beside a park, or somewhere like the newly opened Blanche Bar + Dessert. You have to go through a Ministop and a hotel to find it. Climb across the street is cool too. The anticipation of all those stairs up, and then when you arrive, a tiny bar. Or maybe I’d check out somewhere else new, like Madam Kew, especially if I’d enjoyed Saigon’s best casual fine dining experience downstairs at Quince or at the fun, flavorsome and refreshingly unfussy Kiba Saigon a few blocks over. Then, if it really gets late, to Candi Shop hoping to catch some live hip hop or over to The Observatory for a night of chaotic house and techno with old friends…
Finally, you’re hosting a dinner party. Which four guests from the past or the present would you invite and what would you serve them?
I had a few ideas for this. Mythical musicians: William Onyeabor, Robert Johnson, Niccolo Paganini and Aphex Twin. A night amongst famous drinkers? Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, George Best, and Amy Winehouse. It’s either a great idea…or a terrible one. We’d best open the wine during dessert. And my friend Peter Cuong Franklin from Anan would be the perfectly imperfect host and cook.
But most likely, I’d probably cancel the party at the last minute and go home and sleep. Weirdly, I’m happiest being by myself thinking and writing, planning and scheming…
Special thanks to guest photographer Koi Nguyen for the shots for this piece. Read his story here. And huge thanks to guest editor Chris Thompson, who was recently, and rightly, recognized as Influencer of the Year by The Drinks Business Asia.