Saigon’s Trendiest Place

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.


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