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Saigonese find retro getaways in old apartment buildings

By Minh Tam   November 14, 2022 | 05:36 am PT
Thuy Phuong cannot recall when she began going to the café in the old apartment after work daily, buying a cocktail and sitting and gazing at the street below.

"After a busy day, I just want to come here to relax and enjoy the quiet atmosphere," she says.

"Here" is a vintage cafe and cocktail bar in Ton That Dam apartment building in HCMC’s District 1.

The 27-year-old salesperson at an educational company is usually stressed and exhausted after a day of dealing with children and their parents.

The 136-year-old building has for long been a favorite spot to hang out for young Saigonese who with a vintage aesthetic. Many go there to take photos of themselves in the rustic ambiance and post them on social media.

Two youngsters enjoys the quite space in a retro-styled coffee shop in Ton That Dam apartment building in HCMCs District 1 on October 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Hong Hanh

Two youngsters enjoy the quite of a retro-style coffee shop in the Ton That Dam apartment building in HCMC's District 1 in October 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Hong Hanh

The four-story structure, built in 1886 during the French colonial period, is next to the State Bank of Vietnam and has a lovely view of the Tau Hu canal.

A quick study by VnExpress found that around 50% of old apartments in districts like 1, 3 and 10 are rented out to businesses, mostly cafes, shops selling items like clothing stores, cosmetics, souvenirs, restaurants, and spas.

They attract all kinds of people from locals to expats and foreign tourists.

Hong Hanh, owner of a coffee shop in the Ton That Dam apartment complex, says she first visited the place in 2019 and instantly fell in love with the vibe and the vintage look of the building.

Three years later she decided to rent an apartment and open a cafe.

She says though the place is old and has no elevator, its entrance and staircase are large and it is located right in the city center, making it an ideal place for a coffee shop.

For the 40-square-meter apartment, she only has to pay VND14-16 million (US$563-643) a month for both rent and utilities, and so invested hundreds of millions of dong to repair and redesign it.

"It is unusual to find an apartment that is more than 130 years old and still in good condition like this."

Despite not being on the street, cafes like Hanh's and retro-style fashion and other shops in the complex attract a large number of young people.

Bui Tran Vinh Khanh, 20, is one of them.

He says he visits the cafe at least once a day because "when I come here, I suddenly feel carefree and calm, and I can still breathe in the urban vitality without getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of the city.

"Young people compare this spot to a peaceful retreat in the middle of the metropolis. The wooden door, dust-covered cement steps and twisting corridors are evocative."

Bui Tran Vinh Khanh enjoys his coffee at the vintage coffee shop in Ton That Dam apartment building. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Bui Tran Vinh Khanh at the vintage cafe in Ton That Dam apartment building. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Nguyen Thi Thu Ha, who has been the head of the apartment complex for over 20 years, says the building has only 54 units, the majority of whose owners have relocated to other places and rent them out.

Her friends tell her to move out too because the building has deteriorated, but she does not want to budge.

"People come and go, but I stay because I feel I belong here. Many young people arrived here three years ago to rent and refurbish the apartments. It has brightened up the place, which is a nice thing."

At another old apartment building, this one on 42 Nguyen Hue Street in District 1, its deputy administrator, Ngo Thi Thanh Tan, says: "Many people compare this apartment building to a leisurely person who refuses to change his lifestyle."

The street outside is lively, but life in the apartment complex is leisurely.

The 62-year-old woman says: "The lime-colored walls and stairs are old and have worn out over time, which gives this place its look.

"Neighbors treat one another as family."

The Thanh Hoa Province native moved into the place in the 1980s. She says it was built in the early 1960s.

Lot A faces Nguyen Hue Street, lot B faces Mac Thi Buoi Street and lot C faces Dong Khoi Street. In the past they respectively used to serve as office space during the French and American colonial eras, a dwelling for officials until 1975 and a cooking area.

The complex was later handed over to government agencies to be remodeled into independent apartments.

It used to have 100 families, but more than 60 of them have moved out and rented out their properties.

Tan says until 2015 the apartment was merely a boring gray edifice occupied by owners.

Later, when the Nguyen Hue pedestrian square was created, a number of people opened shops in the complex, giving it new colors, she says.

"The dilapidated old structure in the heart of the city center was transformed into a vibrant rubik's cube of color.

"More and more young people are coming here, and ever so often one will approach me and ask me about the history of this building.

"A number of retired and old folks visit this building to reminisce about the old Saigon."

An old apartment building in HCMC features yellow wall and mossy staircases. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

An old apartment building in HCMC with yellow walls and a moss-covered staircase. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

The city has 474 apartment buildings and 573 lots built before 1975, according to its Department of Construction.

Despite their deterioration, they continue to draw flocks of young people and tourists due to their historical significance.

Mai Huyen, 26, of District 7 enjoys stopping for coffee and shopping in old apartments. She says while the prices are higher they are less crowded and tranquil.

"This my own secret place where I can unwind and escape the hustle and bustle of the city."

Nhat Linh of District 3 says she frequently visits cafes in remodeled old apartments in search of something unique.

The 25-year-old is willing to climb up the mossy staircase to reach a balcony on 42 Nguyen Hue to see the yellow lime walls and green plants swaying in the breeze, and listen to music from a vintage tape recorder.

"People like me are drawn to this type of coffee in old apartment complexes. There is a little bit of nostalgia and a little bit of comfort and welcome in the heart of a bustling street."

 
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