One of Saigon’s charms are the abrupt transitions, the journey from digital age office building to sidewalk cafe culture. But it’s not often you see these differences reconciled. The gritty, unpolished industrialism of the city — reflected in Saigon Outcast’s shipping container components — balanced by a modern approach to design and space has to be seen to be believed.
Though the venue hasn’t officially opened yet, Linh Nguyen and Doan Phuong Ha are too excited with its possibilities to keep it under strict wraps. They held a BBQ there and then another and a conversation on DIY culture they hosted the week after. There’s a balance in there, one as carefully struck as the bolts placed in the containers’ supports.
The two are friends, just friends — but all the same, life-and-death friends. They share the same ideas, a creative marriage made in geek heaven. “I met Ha at Gameloft. Ha was really funny. We become friends and recently we decided, let’s do something... crazy.”
Old & New
As I wait to speak with Linh and Ha at the DIY event, I take in a presentation on bio-tuning — a diesel engine’s conversion to biodiesel. The presenter, Hai Nguyen, is an ethnographer who has studied SoCal (Southern California) youth and their cars. He talks about how customisation creates a personal meaning, how the unusual needs of DIY engender a social network, in this case of restaurant owners with used vegetable oil to burn. Somehow it all seems relevant.
Linh steps up next.
“Originally we wanted to build a place for bikers,” she says, “for people who customise motorcycles, classic motorcycles. Instead of diesel we like gasoline, greasy gasoline.”
That visceral connection with process is definitely part of the aesthetic, and Linh and Ha are active in pursuing it. Instead of buying new furniture, they go to scrap yards and use their imagination on old pieces. The half-pipe is made of old wooden house panels from before the war, contoured and grafted together. The trees are from properties around Thao Dien that had no use for them. The rocks under our feet are from Vung Tau, scraps of tiles sent from Korea.
“We want to give things a second life,” Ha explains, “a second chance to be something better.”
They even did that with the land, marsh land like much of the Thao Dien area, having laid down seven layers of foundation since they started work in April. The containers — the iconic part of Outcast, stacked two-high like Lego pieces — have been around the globe, and still have tracking marks on them which they plan to someday trace. If they need to, they can stack them on a truck and move them to a beach somewhere.
When they put the containers up, people just thought, “Oh these are containers for someone to live in while they’re building something bigger — but this is it,” Linh tells us. “The local people just said, ‘Ah young people, they have all these ideas.’”
In All Directions
Outcast is continuing to grow in unexpected directions. Work is ongoing on a bar-kitchen, where Ha will soon practice her subtle northern techniques on paying customers. There are plans for a bike workshop and more graffiti on the walls. Even small things are open to these relaxed directions — like the spontaneous BBQ I stumble into a few days later.
We find a quiet corner to talk in, next to some split-log swings, one of the more reflective climates on a property with energy niches coursing through it. I ask Ha what gives Outcast such a different feel, the energy that people respond so well to.
“I find it quite amazing,” she tells me, “because the last few weeks we met so many like-minded people.” We’re surrounded by them tonight — in mid-conversation, someone asks the sound a frog makes in Vietnamese. “Ekko!” Ha yells before turning back to me.
“Before we would go to nightclubs and get wasted, we didn’t know about each other at all... But [people] come here and can have real conversation, they come here and they feel good, like they want to create something.”
Right now this is the most important thing in both their lives, this sharp detour into the fantastic, this immersion in uncharted potential. Right now, neither wants the adventure to go static.
“There are some values that don’t change,” Ha tells me when I try to pin down the uncertain future. “Right now I deal with life, like, I see what life can give me, don’t think about the future. How I live my life is tomorrow. I open up my fridge, see what there is, and then try to make the best dish out of it.”
Saigon Outcast is located at 188 Nguyen Van Huong, Thao Dien, Q2, Ho Chi Minh City