Monday, October 18, 2010
Yesterday's post was all about the inconspicuous entrance and passageway leading to L'Usine. L’Usine means factory in French, and L’Usine here is an old factory loft space in downtown Saigon that could be in NY’s Soho or the Marais in Paris. It is an ultra hip restaurant, gallery, fashion outlet and gathering place.
As I said yesterday you'd never find the place if you didn’t have insider information. You enter a covered alley off the main shopping street and pass through a dark passageway lined with stalls selling traditional Vietnamese paintings of women in conical hats. At the end of the stalls you turn right into a motorbike parking passage that leads to a stairway where the only clue to something more is a sign with a finger pointing up the stairs. The entrance to L'Usine itself is off a tile hallway on the second floor and is open to the outside with a view of the galvanized tin roofs that cover the inner courtyard. There are many secret spaces like this in Saigon. You often catch a glimpse of some wonderful French colonial villa or garden court through an open gate or door on a dingy street.
L’Usine’s space is huge, with the restaurant at the front and the interior space divided by a couple of walls but no separate rooms. The ceilings are high and floor is a distressed dark wood that is probably the original factory floor. L’Usine’s offerings are eclectic – art, fashion, food, design, furniture, and antiques but all in the very good taste of its owner.
Tib Hoang is a Vietnamese-Canadian born in Vietnam but raised in Montreal. She started returning here 15 years ago but didn’t make the permanent move back until two years ago when she married a Vietnamese who works for IDG, the venture capital firm. She is lovely and good taste obviously runs in the family. Her parents own one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in town, where President Clinton and his successor, who shall not be named, both dined. That restaurant, named after her, I presume, is called TIB.
The lunch crowd at L'Usine is as eclectic as the gallery – artists, ex-pats, US consular officers, venture capitalists, Africans, Europeans, Americans and a lot of upwardly mobile Viet Kieu. There are a few small tables, but the majority of the seating is around a large communal table where food competes with laptops for space. Another thing that sets L’Usine apart is the unfailingly good service, always with a smile and whether it’s male or female a good looking face to go with it. And, I forgot, the food is the best lunch fare we've tasted since we got here. Individual Quiche Lorraine, baguette sandwiches, fresh fruit smoothies, and cupcakes that are all to die for.
Tonight there is an art opening at L'Usine. I previewed it today. It's wide ranging, mixed medium, in both style and content, but very contemporary. The artist is a Vietnamese American woman, Tammy Nguyen, who trained at Cooper Union and came to Vietnam two years ago on a Fulbright. It's the first cutting edge, high quality art I've seen since we came to Vietnam 14 months ago - and we've been looking.
Try L'Usine if you come to Saigon. The inconspicuous entrance, with no sign, is at 151 Dong Khoi Street.
This is the interior passageway and motorbike parking garage inside a once grand French colonial building. Like most of the old buildings in Saigon the facade hides a vast and mysterious interior. The entrance to this one is an inconspicuous opening off of Dong Khoi, a street where luxury brands like Gucci and Versace share the spotlight with beggars, shoe shine boys, souvenir shops and street vendors selling fresh coconuts.
This picture was taken from the top of the stairs leading to a special place. You would never find it on your own. It's like a 1920's speakeasy. There is no street signage and only a discolored wall painting in the stairwell with the name, L'Usine, and a painted finger in 1920's lithographic style pointing up the stairs. This is the ultimate in secret, hip, exclusive, insider stuff. Tomorrow I'll show you more.
Saturday, October 2, 2010
I'm the picture of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder these days. I can't get out of a taxi without going through the ritual of looking back at the seat and then jamming my hand in my left trouser pocket to make sure my "replacement" iPhone is not in the cab but securely in my pocket. Since I ride in 4 - 6 taxis a day this panic avoidance mechanism is consuming a lot of nervous energy. Still, having been without this lifeline to the larger world for almost 3 weeks I am determined not to let it happen that little device slip away again if I can help it.
The picture above was taken with my new phone. Proof positive that I have it and it works, but the story that goes with it is what this new life in Saigon is all about.
Last week I got a call from a colleague asking if I could deliver some flowers for a couple of birthdays. Flower deliveries are not a normal part of my job description, but these were special deliveries.
East Meets West has a program to support people with disabilities and the two people receiving birthday flowers are two Vietnamese pop stars who are acting as Goodwill Ambassadors for the disabled network support program. I imagined grabbing some flowers at the market and hustling them over to the birthday boys' homes and handing the over. Nooooooooooooo! Birthdays are a big deal in Vietnam, and pop star birthdays are HUGE.
So, here's the deal on birthday #1 - on Tuesday afternoon the office got a message telling us to be at an address near the city center. Kasim, the rock star, had bought his mother a "tearoom" as a birthday present and there was going to be a party there to celebrate. When we arrived the street in front of the tearoom was awash with huge flower sprays saying Happy Birthday. Inside, the crowd of trendy 30 somethings was murmuring in anticipation. That was 7:30pm. At 11:30 we discreetly made our way out to the taxi and a well deserved beddy-bye. In those 4 hours we heard singer after singer pour their hearts out in turgid ballads of unrequited love in a language I don't understand - but there was no mistaking the message. Kasim, himself, was gracious and let everyone know we were there and doing good things for the Vietnamese people.
Then, on Friday, we packed up again to attend Dam Vinh Hung's birthday bash. DVH is a mellow, pop icon, who is enormously personable with an easy manner - kind of short haired Michael Bolton. For DVH's party, in a much larger hall, we stopped on the way to pick up 6 blind kids from an orphanage. These kids had met him earlier and they are part of the disabled group that he is helping us raise money for. We arrived with the kids and were seated front and center. Here, the stage was like the street at Kasim's party - totally covered in flower sprays wishing him a happy birthday. There were probably 1000 mostly middle aged women in the auditorium and he welcomed and then put on a show for them. In the middle of the show he asked one of the blind kids to come up on stage to sing a song with him. It was a magical moment. The kid grabbed the mike and belted out the opening bars and then DVH with a huge smile joined in. It was truly fun. After the song was finished he introduced all of us and told the crowd about the great work East Meets West does with the disabled. Now that is a Goodwill Ambassador.
Neither of these birthdays was on my calendar when the week began, but they were highlights of it. In the process I learned that Kasim, on a recent tour of the Ukraine, raised $200,000 for the program. It's good to have friends like Kasim and DVH.