Such is the relentless pace of growth and change in Vietnam, discovering something new in downtown Ho Chi Minh can be an almost daily experience.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a new store or business open up somewhere in the city and stopped to think “But what was there last week”? When I grew up in New Zealand we had an expression when driving through small towns “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it”. In Saigon it’s more like “Don’t blink or it might be gone.”
I write this blog in a new bookshop-cafe in the Vincom Centre – a store that did not exist a few weeks ago and judging by the balloons and giant floral tributes mounted on easels outside the door, it celebrated its official opening just yesterday.
I checked the book section out yesterday and discovered they stock my favourite regional current events magazine, SEA Global, a current events magazine published by expats in Cambodia, of all places, which I’d previously only found in Bangkok.
The bookstore, Phuong Nam Book, stocks a modest but eclectic collection of books in English and Vietnamese, features a dedicated eBook counter, including readers, a selection of hip electronic accessories and a range cases and gadgets to complement your Apple toys.
I’m back today trialling the coffee shop section, the imaginatively named Book Cafe, partly because at 10.40am on a Sunday morning, Highlands Coffee down below is completely full – not a single table available, or even space to use a laptop at a counter. A week ago, I’d have wandered further into town, but as of this week there’s at last another coffee option in Vincom (save for the ritzy Armani Cafe, for which I don’t have sufficiently polished shoes, Italian threads or glistening bling, so probably would not be seated).
The coffee is surprisingly good – and the price, a mug of hot latte 40,000 VND, not too bad compared to 59,000 at Highlands. And you get a free glass of green tea.
It serves a limited line-up of food, but all the coffees and teas, hot and cold, you’d expect to satisfy both expat and local palates. And a selection of Vietnamese cakes. The service is prompt and attentive, the whole experience actually more relaxing than a table down below at Highland to be honest…
There’s free wifi (of course), electrical sockets scattered about the floor for your laptop power (mind your step!) and piped elevator music – not quite library like, but relaxing nevertheless.
Speaking of coffee…
Next week’s new arrival in downtown is a new Sony store, built on Dong Khoi where Gloria Jeans once thrived (in a far from relaxing environment) before one day closing without notice and promising to return when Vincom 2 opens just up the road. In October.
Sony is the once aspirational Japanese brand that dominated electronics before it got lazy, lost its innovative streak and started to mass produce cheap lines with dumbed down specs – “our customers can’t tell the difference” a senior executive was famously quoted as saying last year. Now it makes junk for the mass market and these days mass market translates to developing BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies, and those smaller ones riding on their coat tails (like Vietnam). So while Sony globally will axe 10,000 jobs this year and lose US$2.6 billion (yes, that was meant to read billion, not million!) and its once loyal western customer base trade their old Sony products in for nice shiny new Samsungs, the company seems to be broadening its single-brand outlet strategy across Asia.
Why else would Sony open a dedicated store in such a high-rent location as Dong Khoi, within 100 metres of real luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton and Chanel and the amazing Christian Louboutin shoes?
For a while there were rumours circulating this would be the site of a city’s first Starbucks, a new Pho 24 (yeah, right) and a Brodards Bakery (which it turns out was an earlier tenant, hence the old signage displayed when the Gloria Jeans banners were torn down).
Perhaps a couple of weeks off yet is a new cupcake store, a hole in the wall shop being fitted out on the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Le Thanh Ton – if the signage, which appeared a few weeks back but has now vanished, is to be believed.
Another discovery this week was a gigantic new Trung Nguyen coffee house on the edge of the backpacker region. By Vietnamese standards, this cafe on the corner of Pham Ngu Lao and Nguyen Thai Hoc is enormous. The ground floor has a giant coffee roaster as a centrepiece and a large air conditioned seating area. Upstairs is a giant open air area, with two large air conditioned areas adjacent.
If you’re dining in, they’ll take your order at the table, but downstairs you can buy from Trung Nguyen’s extensive range of coffee products for home use, including beans by grade in bulk by weight.
This location was a building site just a few weeks back – and it officially opens its doors on Monday April 23. So the comfortable lounge chairs upstairs have yet to be scratched. So, too, the smell of fresh varnish and paint has yet to be overwhelmed by that of fresh coffee beans.
It’s pricey – especially for a backpacker area, with a cup (not mug) of Latte around 59,000 VND, pretty much on par with Highlands. But that’s still cheaper than the same cup in a city like Sydney… If only it was hotter and the dreadful piped music (think Richard Clayderman for those old enough to remember him!) played at lower volume!
So many new bars, cafes, stores, nightclubs and other businesses open every week in Saigon it’s impossible to keep up.
And that’s just now. Wait until the new malls open later this year… Times Square and Vincom 2 for starters are sure to bring new retail experiences to the city from off-shore – and hopefully give some local operators a lift up as well!