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Design Cities: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Tuan Le is one of many young creatives returning to the city and infusing its design scene with new dynamism.

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Built on centuries-old craft traditions such as lacquerware, silk weaving, and ceramics, with remnants of a colonial and war-ridden past, Ho Chi Minh City could easily be defined by its complicated history. But a community of young creatives is carving out a new identity for the city.

"Everyone in Ho Chi Minh City’s design community helps each other. There isn’t a lot of money going around for the younger creatives, so they band together," says Tuan Le. 

Illustration by Thanh Nhán

One is Tuan Le, founder of The Lab, a multidisciplinary design studio. Born in Vietnam and raised in Los Angeles, Le has lived everywhere from San Francisco to Dubai and Tokyo—but in 2013, he repatriated to set down some roots. "There are a lot of people in Saigon who, like me, came back from abroad," Le says. "Previously, Vietnamese culture had been put on the back burner because the country was trying to globalize. Now, everybody wants to rediscover their roots—I think that’s why the city has a great design scene right now."

Ho Chi Minh City’s young creatives at the Binh Thanh home-turned-studio for a pop-up series hosted by fashion designer Kaarem. The events are tied to a residency program that hosts Vietnamese craft-oriented designers, artists, and makers in the brick-and-mortar space.

Illustration by Thanh Nhàn

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Le cites the Pham Viêt Chánh neighborhood in the Binh Thanh district as one of the city’s most dynamic areas. Neighboring Districts 2 and 3 are also quickly developing creative enclaves. "Tons of bars, cafes, and studios are opening up," Le says, "and young designers are organizing into little cliques, or ‘houses.’ There’s a crew called 42 the Hood with local fashion designers and models. They just opened their own concept store and cafe called OBJoff, where they brought in their ceramicist, sculptor, and painter friends."

On a typical night out (before the pandemic), you could find the city’s young designers and artists at Que by Kaarem, a pop-up hosted by its namesake New York– and Ho Chi Minh–based fashion designer in a small bar above his studio. "When he does a pop-up, everybody will come through," Le says. "It’s a very narrow building in an alley, and the upstairs area looks out over a bridge with highway traffic. While people hang out, you can see the trucks passing by. That whole scene is like a microcosm of Saigon."

"Everyone in Ho Chi Minh City’s design community helps each other. There isn’t a lot of money going around for the younger creatives, so they band together."

—Tuan Le, The Lab 

Tay mó Amateurs

"This coffee company was founded by two young designers who decided to pick up and settle down in the Dà Lat forests [in Vietnam’s central highlands]," Le says. "They built wooden cabins with their own hands from which they run a bean-to-cup farm and cafe." The duo also make T-shirts dyed with persimmons that grow in their garden and furniture from wood sourced nearby.

 Photo courtesy of Tay mó Amateurs

Hey Camel Ceramics

This studio (and teaching facility) in District 3 produces objects animated by Southeast Asian traditions, myths, and ceremonies. "Leandro Marcelino makes striking vases and planters that are both rough in texture and organic in shape," Le says. "He and his team draw inspiration from daily life in Vietnam."

Photo courtesy of Hey Camel Ceramics

Stilt Armachair by District Eight

District Eight is a Ho Chi Minh City brand known for its well-made contemporary furnishings. The Stilt Collection was developed with Milan-based Vietnamese designer Toan Nguyen. "District Eight is one of the largest furniture makers in Vietnam and has a global reach," Le says.

Photo by Jamie Chung, courtesy of District Eight

Rong Daybed by Tomas Tran

"Tomas Tran is a former Kengo Kuma architect and California College of the Arts alum," Le says. "His Rong Daybed has a low stance with an armrest that evokes traditional Vietnamese rooftops." Tran and Le often collaborate under the umbrella of the latter’s practice, The Lab.

Photo courtesy of Tomas Tran

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Credit: Photo captions written by Adrian Madlener

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