There are vintage elements from 1960s Saigon in the design,” says Peter Cuong Franklin, as we walk through his intimate, glossy, beautiful little bar with a balcony overlooking a Vietnamese wet market. “We’re trying to build a bit of the old and the new combined together, but everything is custom-made in Vietnam.” Cuong Franklin is a chef, and former investment banker and Hong Kong resident, who made his name at Viet Kitchen and Chom Chom. Today he owns the five-storey Anan restaurant, bar and rooftop in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City (the official name of Vietnam’s former capital).
“I’m doing something called ‘New Vietnamese’,” the chef explains. “We want it to be real, coming from this place, from Saigon — real ingredients and real people.”
Cuong Franklin is constantly delving into the beautiful ingredients and recipes of Vietnamese food, but as a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in France, his cuisine at Anan is definitely inventive — at every point there are new twists and ideas on traditional dishes. But he tries to avoid overused terms like “fusion” or “authentic”.
“I think most people don’t know what [authentic] means,” he scoffs. “It’s easy to use this word to hold back a lot of what’s called minority or subculture food in the US or the West.”
Cuong Franklin points out that people don’t often complain that “it’s not authentic” when chefs innovate with French, Italian or Swiss cooking (or much of Western cuisine) — but it often gets thrown around with Asian food.
“When they use it on Vietnamese food, it can tie it down. When they say, ‘That’s not authentic Vietnamese food,’ it has a negative connotation; it has a cultural negativity assigned to it. That’s why I prefer to avoid that word. The reality is that food is changing, even the people in the markets and streets — their food is changing too. Some people wouldn’t even know what the fuck authenticity is, even if it hit them in the face.”
Clearly, the proprietor is not one to hold back. But the approach has worked a treat for his restaurant and bar. Anan has turned into something of a chic hotspot for the city, a must-go, -see and -taste for local movers and shakers, as well as for out-of-towners who care about gastronomy. A busy open kitchen operates below the glowing gold of the Anan neon signs on the ground floor and guests satiate themselves, starting with phở rolls or crunching Vietnamese tacos while sipping on something delicious, such as a Cotton Candy Old Fashioned or a Dragontini.
Anan is just one sign of how much the leisure lifestyle scene has moved forward in the city. Standout Saigon restaurants to visit range from Vietnamese (Anan and the Temple Club), to Japanese (Hajime for Kansai-style okonomiyaki, Torisho for yakitori and Kiyota for omakase sushi) and even incredible pizza (4P’s).
The last time I visited was about eight years ago, when the truly trendy hotspots of Ho Chi Minh City were few and far between. The city today, armed with a confident economy and a population with an average age of around 32, is taking a more international lifestyle in its stride. Hip designer-led restaurants and speakeasy-type bars with inventive cocktails have popped up all over the city, luring savvy visitors looking for more than just museums and motorbike tours.
To stay, there are, of course, the classic hotels such as the Majestic, the Caravelle and the Continental, all close to the waterfront in District One and possessing their own heritage and charm. But for those who prefer modern luxury spaces with truly international levels of service, we suggest heading towards the grandeur of the Park Hyatt Saigon; otherwise it’s the boutique Bach Suites Saigon or the Hôtel des Arts Saigon MGallery, a block away from one another in District 3.
It’s difficult not to be impressed when entering the Park Hyatt. Sunlight streams through the enormous lobby-lounge windows, setting a scene with a grand piano, immaculate staff and a well-dressed clientele gathered at tables. The hotel is built on the site of a former US officers’ quarters, but today is a gathering spot for the city’s newly moneyed. Rooms combine elegant French-style décor with a touch of Indochina, all very genteel with cool muted palettes. The pool is a lovely place to relax and get away from the hectic traffic and streams of motorbikes.
Old-world charm meets modern Saigon neatly here at the 245-room property. Do some people watching while dining outside on Italian food at Opera restaurant, designed by the famous Japanese interior-design firm Super Potato. You’re right next to Saigon Opera House (a major landmark) and Dong Khoi — the charming old boulevard that’s now home to Saigon’s Chanel and Louis Vuitton stores.
For a hotel that’s a lot smaller and more intimate, there’s Bach Suites — just a stone’s throw from the old Notre Dame Basilica. This gorgeous little boutique gem also recalls Vietnam’s colonial past — tall French windows, elegant architecture, marbled floors and white panelled walls accented by striking black. I’ve spent many a breakfast and lunch with local friends in the pristine ground-floor restaurant eating its modern take on healthy, flavoursome Vietnamese cuisine.
This 30-plus-room hotel is a bit of an aristo-chic haven in District 3, a great luxury spot in which to escape the noise and bustle of the main city, and small enough for some truly personal service from the staff. Our suite came furnished with kitchenette, dining and living area, and a sumptuous king bed in the bedroom. Lush velvets, marble tabletops and heavy drapes all come with the European art deco-inspired interiors and colonial aesthetic — it’s no surprise that the property is part of the Design Hotels collection.
A three-minute walk around the corner is the Hotel des Arts Saigon MGallery. A bit of a mouthful, this boutique has nonetheless become an impressive addition to the city’s hospitality scene. Elegantly designed and buzzing with the local well-heeled, MGallery’s rooftop Social Club is a must-visit, even if you aren’t staying at the hotel. With fabulous cocktails served by groomed, hipster barmen, the venue seems to be aiming for an upscale Bali-esque vibe, albeit one that’s high in the sky in the middle of a city of almost nine million people. If it’s laid-back luxury with a fashionable edge you’re looking for, this is the right spot for sundowners going well into the evening.
The Social Club rooftop bar is a poignant place from which to consider how this Southeast Asian country has emerged from the more rough-and-tumble times. Vietnam is now the fastest-growing economy in the region. A former capital of French Indochina, Saigon has emerged the easy winner of most cosmopolitan city in the country, with an incoming tide of young, international, well-travelled immigrants and savvy Vietnamese returnees.
It’s all propelled the luxury, lifestyle, leisure and dining scenes into new territories, with more luxe and sophisticated spots being allowed to flourish. While spending time with some recent international émigrés to the city, who’ve been part of this movement, it’s clear that the boom is still strong. Cuong Franklin, who’s Vietnamese but grew up in the US, has seen “Saigon change a lot in the last few years … Hong Kong is a very commercial place, but here it’s a little less commercial — you can take a bit more of a risk and that’s why I can rent a whole building here.”
It’s a time when a place like Anan can do a special, off-menu take on the humble phở that costs US$100.
“We’re trying to create a new experience,” explains Cuong Franklin. “We’re giving something that I think is worth it, and using wagyu and seven different cuts of beef, things like that … and people are very interested and buying!”