Retail is my life.
For those who don’t know me, my day job (and night job, early morning job, weekend job, holiday job and every other time of the day, week or year job) is researching, commentating, writing about and photographing retail stores – in all parts of the world.
The majority of the 5800 or so images in my FlickrPro account are of retail stores in Europe, Asia, North America and Australasia.
So living in Ho Chi Minh City – essentially the central point of Asia if you consider the continental stretches from India across to Japan and south to Australia – is a convenient place to pop off to glitzy retail capitals like Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. As I do.
It also gives me a fair qualification to comment on retailing in Saigon. And before you fear the worst, it’s not that bad!
Many people judge a city’s retail based on the size of its air conditioned, sterile malls and the number of international top-end brands inside them. That’s OK if you have the bank balance to allow you to splurge on Louis Vuitton or Gucci every second weekend, but for the vast majority of us, those retail stores – while admittedly stunningly designed and executed – are the gleaming fascias we walk past on the way to the stores we can afford to shop in.
I love walking through a new Louis Vuitton store (Shanghai’s Pudong for example), but I love far more the excitement of discovering something new, something unique, something fun or entertaining – something which breaks the mould. If you look carefully you can find such stores in almost every city in the world, no matter how mature the retail market.
Let’s be fair, organised retail in Saigon is still relatively new. By international standards, Vincom would score less than 50 per cent for design with all its dead end corridors and poor pedestrian flows. I have a friend from overseas who walked the entire mall twice and claims he still couldn’t find Phuong Nam book store!
And while I am on it: where else in the world would you find a supermarket with two full display racks of pet toys and a whole corridor of dog beds, but which does not sell pet food?!
Those points aside, Vincom still has an exceptionally good range of food for humans and it is home to one of my favourite stores (so far) in Saigon: Runway.
This is truly world class: it’s a sort of gallery of new trendy, funky fashion and accessories curated in a collection of adjacent spaces. A focal point is a large round ‘cocoon’ covered in highly polished steel mermaid-like scales which serves as a private dressing room for those who want to try on clothes away from the public gaze.
Sure, many of the clothes and homewares on display are beyond the average budget. Not too many Vietnamese people can afford a 40 million dong Alexander McQueen dress, for example.
But wandering through this store, with its winding path and ice cave effect, is like walking through a modern art gallery. It’s an experience, which is what great retailing is all about.
The store was designed by Italian architect CLS Architetti. Cleverly, they caught on to the concept that in a hot tropical area like southern Vietnam, “the real luxury is cold”. So the store is entirely cool grey in colour, from polished cement floors, up.
As Soosi Lee, director of Runway, explained (for a feature I wrote for the June-July edition of Inside Retail Magazine in Australia): “The space is like an ice cave where people can experience a path which is a metaphor of life and rebirth.”
CLS used 3D modelling to create the cave effect which was later constructed using 298 curved wooden panels, each with different shapes creating a ripple effect when you look towards the ceiling. Each panel was hand cut then hand screwed together. There is another store from the same Runway folk on the ground floor of Crescent Mall in District 7, called RRR Runway and specialising in what fashion labels describe as “diffusion lines”, subsidiary brands often aimed at a younger demographic.
RRR Runway might be smaller but it is equally compelling. It was also designed by CLS Architetti.
Another great retail experience is L’usine: a cafe-gallery upstairs above the artist’s arcade on Dong Khoi. Here you can step back into the era when Saigon was part of a French colony. L’usine is housed in a traditional old villa-style building, on the middle one of three floors, with towering ceilings, solid concrete walls and iron-framed windows.
The dining area – which really needs expanding at the expense of retail space, so popular has this venue become with the expat community – features giant tables crafted from sewing factory tables, with solid iron legs and heavy timber panels: you’d never build tables this solid today.
The cafe serves espresso-style coffee, cupcakes from Sweet & Sour, light meals, wine and beer. The walls feature photography or artwork on a rotational basis. Currently, there is a stunning display of historic black and white photos of city life.
The store side of the business offers an eclectic mix of unusual homewares and clothing you’re unlikely to see in the same place anywhere else in Saigon… Or perhaps anywhere for that matter…
From bespoke motorcycle helmets and cute plastic cupcake-shaped sugar bowls, through to hip laptop bags and designer label denim, it’s an ideal destination for the gift-shopper or for an occasional dose of retail therapy.
So, there are two picks of retail excellence from Saigon. I haven’t seen every store in Saigon yet – and I could never achieve such a feat. There are also many more worth a visit – for shopping or just for an experience.
As I opened, retail is my life, so you can be sure of reading a lot more about my Saigon retail experiences – good and bad – in coming months! Next installment, I’ll introduce you to two budget stores perfect for eclectic, distinctive Saigon gifts for guests from abroad…