14 Sep 2017
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
“You have arrived at your destination,” Google Maps confirmed, as I entered a dark basement-looking garage. The walls were a melted mix of concrete, chipped paint and dirt. It felt as though I had walked into the secret passage of someone’s forgotten motorbike storage room. I hesitated before taking a few steps further in and spotted a staircase alongside a pair of opening elevator doors. A stream of people sauntered out of the elevator in Instagrammable groups. Some dressed in black from head to toe, others with a bleached pixie-cut and thick-rimmed glasses. Their cool aesthetic told me that I was in the right place. 42 Nguyen Hue Street was an abandoned apartment block turned hipster hangout centre. Floors upon floors of alternative fashion stores and trendy cafes sat above this grungy basement entrance. I couldn’t wait to spend the day browsing its subculture corners.
42 Nguyen Hue Street
This repurposed abandoned building rests along Ho Chi Minh City’s famous walking street. It is an interesting contrast to the surrounding colonial architecture, grand hotels, and historical statue of Uncle Ho. The aged and unkempt nature of the building’s exterior added to its creative atmosphere. I walked up the dark layered staircase to the first floor. An inviting boutique store lay ahead of me, the only shop on this level. I spent a few minutes flipping through clothing racks and trying on quirky sunglasses, before heading out. Up the stairs again. On the second floor, a collection of doors to choose from. More boutiques accompanied by a beauty salon and cafes. Each with their own cool signage and themed interiors.
I continued wandering upward and inside, through puffs of roasted coffee beans, displays of artisan jewellery, racks of faded denim and industrial chic shop interiors. Mellow indie tunes wafted through dessert cafe windows. Vertical garden walls and wind chimes added an enchanted ambience to selected storefronts, enticing visitors to choose them over their neighbouring competition. I lost all track of time and no ounce of energy soaking up the dreamy design and nods to youth culture behind every wooden door.
After hours of casual window shopping, I sensed that it was time for a coffee break. It was my last week in Vietnam. 7 months of sipping arguably the best coffee on earth were coming to an end. Rather than lamenting what I could still enjoy, I made a pact with myself to step into the next cafe that I saw. The Letter Cafe on the sixth floor of the building emerged as the happy destination. It’s interior showcased an inviting fusion of Japanese ceramics, vintage touches and pastel pops of colour. I spent a while taking in the views from its large balcony. High above the decorative promenade and cityscape, it was a wonderful place to relax and appreciate the bustling city from an artful distance. I ordered an iced coffee to shake off the heat of the day and savoured the sips with diligent restraint.
42 Nguyen Hue Street embodies the face of Saigon’s youth with cosmopolitan confidence. The rustic building finds a way to pull together everything that millennials love and house it in one place. Creative, inspired, eclectic and vast, I encourage you to take a look if you find yourself longing for an alternative shopping enclave. Aside from this, it is possibly the best place in the city to grab a hipster sushi or poke bowl meal and Instagram it. Not to mention your picture-perfect coffee flat-lay and the killer views.