Author Cain Nunns Photography Christian Berg
DAY TWO | I make my way out of the Reverie and into a deluge—marble-sized raindrops fill the air with the musky scent of ozone. Out on Dong Khoi, the Golden Mile, a woman appears selling cheap umbrellas. I hem and haw over the selection. Snoopy? The “Channel” knockoff? I decide on a vivid yellow Pikachu number with a pink handle.
With as much dignity as I can muster, I take the short walk to the Au Parc café, where the Apple-user set flutters about, munching on sheep cheese. I sit at a table outside and order a goat cheese and arugula salad—a nod to the French influence here—and a banana shake. In the park across the street, barbers have hung mirrors on trees, and they’re being put to use by a small crowd of girls clad in ao dai, Vietnam’s silky national dress. “We love beauty pageants,” my waitress says, watching as the girls line up to have their picture taken.
My next stop is the Catina Café, a coffee shop set above art galleries and silk shops on Dong Khoi. Dustin Nguyen, Johnny Depp’s co-star on the ’80s TV show “21 Jump Street,” meets me on the balcony. “This is Saigon. Look out here,” he says, gesturing at the street below. “The orange sellers and the rich—a mix of everything. There’s no separation.” To truly appreciate the city, he adds, you need to be in the thick of it. “It’s a town that needs to be walked. You won’t get anything in the back of a car.”
Nguyen, whose family fled to America at the end of the war, in 1975, first returned about eight years ago, following a Hollywood career that included roles in Little Fish, with Cate Blanchett, and Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth. “There is no glass ceiling in Vietnam,” he says. “Here I write, produce, direct and act.” Coming home also offered Nguyen the opportunity to rekindle an old flame. “You either love or hate Saigon, and I love it,” he says. “There is an energy here that’s hard to replicate.”
We chat over coconut juice from the nut until Nguyen has to leave for a location scout on the coast. I grab a cab and head west to District 3, where leafy boulevards accommodate excellent eateries, restored colonials, hip new boutiques and an increasing number of tech startups looking for rents that are less crushing than in neighboring District 1.
My first destination is the War Remnants Museum, a blocky, gunmetal gray building surrounded by jet fighters, Chinook helicopters and U.S. tanks. The exhibits inside include war photographs, weapons and a fine selection of reconstructed torture chambers. This, by the way, is the most visited museum in Vietnam.
From here, I walk a block northeast to Ly Club, a cream colonial mansion transformed into a fusion eatery that marries French techniques with local produce. On the redbrick patio there are water features, large linen parasols and diners in expensive aviators. Inside, sweeping arches, contemporary Vietnamese art and oversize armchairs create an air of opulence.
I’m here to meet an old friend, Ed Hollands, a software executive and on-and-off resident of the city. “I’ve never met people who live for the day more,” he says of the Saigonese. “There is a toughness to these people, but there’s also a celebration of life. This city is an open canvas. You can paint your own painting.”
We dine on a Vietnamese tasting menu: sea bass salad with onion and basil; grilled spring chicken with honey sauce and deep-fried sticky rice; fried chive flowers and steamed banana cake; all washed down with a couple of perfectly chilled Argentine chardonnays.
Bloated and buzzed, we head northeast, down Dien Bien Phu, a considerably more sedate setting than its namesake battle, which drove the French out of Vietnam once and for all. Many of the city’s streets are named after battles, or the people who fought them.
We walk through Le Van Tam Park, where we “borrow” badminton rackets from some kids playing without a net. Ed misses four shots in a row before raising his arms in triumph: “YES!” The kids ditch the game and bombard us with questions, which becomes a kind of game—one that requires Ed and me to concoct ever more absurd answers. “I’m from the moon.” “I’m here to build a water park.” “I’m a professional badminton player.”
Finally the kids peel off, and Ed and I walk in silence to one of Saigon’s most stunning and important locations: the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a century-old temple built to honor the Heavenly Grandfather, a benevolent immortal who holds dominion over gods and man.
We enter by the coral-pink gate, beneath rampant dragons and blue-green tiles. Inside, coils of incense hang in the air, lit by streams of sunshine. Buddha statues stand over offerings of beer, soda, mandarins and guavas. Cinnamon-robed monks glide around. Ed lights three incense sticks, touches them to his forehead and bows three times before depositing them in an urn. “Got a big deal coming up,” he explains.
Back outside, we hop on a xe om and head toward Bach Dang Pier, where senior citizens practice tai chi at dawn and families fly kites during the day. We board the Lady Hau, a restored three-deck timber junk that once carried rice on the waterways from Saigon to Cambodia. Sipping cocktails, we snake up the Saigon River, past thatch-roofed houses shaded by mango, jackfruit and grapefruit trees. We skirt District 2, a wealthy neighborhood that houses international schools and expats on hefty expense accounts. It’s also the planned site for a flashy new financial and entertainment district.
While devouring plates of fried chili fish with passion fruit sauce, rice pancakes and skewers of barbecued pork and pineapple, we watch the sun set and the city ready itself for another hectic round of nightlife. “Yep,” says Ed through a mouthful of lotus salad. “Tough life.”