One of my favourite pasttimes in Saigon was wondering through the cavernous old French colonial apartment buildings in District One which have been converted into collections of hipster coffee shops or clothing boutiques, or alternatively left to rot, or sometimes an appealing combination of the two.
The buildings are full of atmosphere, and surprises: feral tribes of cats playing on the balconies, surprisingly chic little clothing stores tucked into dingy passageways, an open door into somebody’s cramped apartment, a sudden vista across the neighbouring rooftops. You walk up and down great curving stairways of chipped stone, often dim with little natural lighting, and along corridors of exposed wiring and rising damp.
And sometimes, you will stumble into one of the city’s superlative new generation of cafes. Here, digital nomads tap away on gleaming Macbooks and sip on coffee in first-rate establishments better than their equivalents in Hong Kong or Bangkok.
My favourite of these was L’Ursine, which I first found up a back staircase down an arcade, or alternatively when it was raining I could access it by going through an alleyway, a gallery and the kitchen of a restaurant. Inside there is an immaculately beautiful space, with retro French posters on the walls, gleaming white tiles, soaring ceilings and little green succulent plants on wooden tables. I would go every day for breakfast (or I’ll be honest, sometimes more than once per day) and read magazines and sit on the balcony to watch rain falling over the Opera House. I later found that there was another version on the nearby street of Le Loi, which is above a Monocle-esque homewares and clothing store.
I can also recommend Workshop for its coffee and grilled vegetable salad. Its found up above a motorcycle parking bay.