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Year in Review: Saigoneer's Picks for Favorite Hẻm Gems, Art (and More) of 2020

In 2019, when the world was not going through a global public health disaster, dining out seemed like the most natural activity in our daily routine. We drank, we relished, we munched, and we bantered.

Then came 2020. For a moment, it might have seemed like our time together in restaurants and sidewalk cafes would never be the same. Thanks to Vietnam’s public health strategy and collective vigilance, we’re privileged and grateful to be able to continue to hang out, go to the cinema, enjoy art exhibitions and, most important of all, have meaningful contact with our friends and family. Here are some favorite highlights of Saigoneer’s body of work this year across several topics, according to our editors.

1. Favorite Hẻm Gem/Ngõ Nook

Cơm Gà 142's gà mắm tỏi. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Khôi Phạm: My favorite meal from 2020 is no doubt this fried chicken in District 8, an affordable and addictive spectacle of rice and fried chicken coated in a sheen of sticky fish sauce glaze and golden fried garlic bits. Its monumental rise from small-town favorite to city-wide delivery sensation is emblematic of this year, when online commerce and delivery services thrived as we shied away from close contact. This fried chicken has more than a dozen of times provided comfort for my family on days when we are just too lazy to cook and too wary to eat out.

Cơm Gà 142 is the quintessential Vietnamese street food: quickly prepared, delicious, cheap, and best consumed right on the pavement. It’s a favorite of mine because it defies many expectations — that good food doesn’t just come from high-end restaurants, that good food can be incredibly cheap, and that good food isn’t just concentrated in the city center.

Michael Tatarski: Ooh yeah that chicken in District 8 is great, though I haven’t had it at the place yet. We ordered delivery to our house in District 2, which is admittedly a hike for the driver, but it looked like he made multiple stops along the way so hopefully it was a good trip income-wise.

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

In going back through Hẻm Gems for this year, I realized I missed a lot of them, I guess either due to laziness or scheduling conflicts. But my pick is the cơm tấm spot near our office. I will readily admit that it’s not among the best cơm tấm in Saigon, but it’s become a dependable part of each week for me, something everyone needed in this year from hell. I’ve gone there so many times now that sometimes they’ll spot me coming down the sidewalk and have a take-away container ready to go by the time I arrive. That’s what I call service! Extra points for being so close to central District 1 and remaining so affordable.

Paul Christiansen: Mike, you eat a lot of cơm tấm. I would venture you surpassed 100 kilograms’ worth of it this year alone, so I will take your word for the recommendation. 

Mike: 100 kilos sounds high — way more than my body weight.

Elise Luong: I’m gonna vote for this feature of a dim sum place in Hanoi, which was temporarily named “Last Night a Dim Sum Saved My Life.” This one gets my gold star because I think every single one of us went there multiple times and ordered about five times the whole menu. Labor-intensive and DELICIOUS!

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Paul: I have yet to go but I do love dim sum, though I am interested in what you mean by “labor intensive.” Does one have to assemble the tiny morsels by oneself? Is it related to the complicated spinning-system of the table?

Elise: Haha! Digestion labor! I think there were eight of us at the first meal, launching morsels to each other as our photographer tried to capture the images, as one dish emptied it was soon replaced by two more orders. A great ping-pong of dim sum! By the time Mike came to visit Hanoi and asked for menu recommendations we just told him to do like us, order everything.

Khôi: I love myself an action-packed dim sum feast. One more stop to make the next time I’m out and about in the capital.

2. Favorite Old Photo

The Majestic Hotel at night.

Paul: My favorite old photo this year is this shot of the Majestic Hotel from this stunning collection of nighttime photos. We publish a lot of great snapshots from times past, but this selection of images made me realize that they are almost all taken during the daytime. Limits in past technology made it difficult to take photos with limited light, leaving our collective memory devoid of diurnal visions. It’s fun to play anthropologist and theorize what exactly the city’s past inhabitants were up to at midnight; these photos are helpful guides.

Khôi: I’ve never seen anything like it. One thing that piqued my interest when I peruse the photo set is the presence of public lighting in Saigon during the time. Walking along Ton Duc Thang at night today, one is greeted by neon signs, that golden tint of restaurants, and hundreds of headlights, but in the late 1930s, few corners were outfitted with lighting, creating a striking juxtaposition between brightness and darkness.

A cinema with a glowing marquee.

Mike: That is definitely an incredible photo, Paul. That whole set was great for the reasons you mentioned. My pick is the “Christmas outside the Tax Center” photo from this set. It shows a classic — and since-demolished — building of the city, gives a hint of what Christmas looked like at the time, and just has so many images of life then: motorbikes, bicycles, street vendors, and more. It’s a picture full of excitement and energy.

A bustling corner of the Tax Center during Christmas season.

Khôi: I have to admit I have a soft spot for these nostalgic glimpses into the now-defunct Saigon Water Park taken by Marcel Lennartz, a Dutch engineer who worked on the project in 1997. The photos are rough around the edges and not that impressive aesthetically, but they remind me of my formative years spent frolicking in the water with my friends. Ask any Saigoneer born in the 1990s and they could tell you a memory at the water park, as it was one of the few family-friendly places in town. The park was dismantled in the 2000s, so the only way we can access that phase of our collective memory is through photos like Lennartz’s.

The Saigon Water Park on its opening day in December 1997.

3. Favorite Art/Illustration Project

An installation of the Phuc Tan Public Art Project. Photo by Bac Ha.

Elise: Gawd it's been such a particular year everywhere obviously, but for the arts sector even more so. I’m going to go for two projects I wrote about for Urbanist and I rate them very selfishly because they were big ones in my eyes! The Phuc Tan public art project was my first contribution ever to Urbanist Hanoi so it was a milestone for me as I jumped into the Saigoneer/Urbanist family. (HI WORLD!) Previously I had spent many years and neurons focused on art in public space, and this was a challenging project for me to change writing styles and reflect on what street art can/should/could be for Hanoi. Big ups to The Son, the curator of the project, for fighting the good fight.

My second high-five goes to a very important human in my life, Mộng Bích, who this year had her first solo show at L’Espace. Bích is 90 years old, a painter and the cherished member of an incredible family of artists that are profoundly generous and insatiably caring towards the promotion of artistic cultural heritage in northern Vietnam. Nibbling fruit, sipping tea and watching leaves fall in the family’s country house has allowed me rare moments of making sense of the world and I am truly thankful to have known them during my time in Hanoi.

Mộng Bích by her family pond. Photo by Bùi Hoài Nam Sơn.

Khôi: I’m very jealous that you got to spend time with her at her homestead and I also appreciate how you dissected and ruminated on her life’s work with such respect and thoughtfulness. It’s truly humbling to read about her life, hardships, and her pure passion for the pursuit of creativity despite everything life has thrown at her.

Paul: Those were both great articles, Elise. And your arrival this year really has ushered in a lot of insight about art in Hanoi. It’s more than just shapes and colors after all! Your discussion with us about street art on the podcast was especially illuminating. I was really inspired in particular by your piece on Mộng Bích. Artists that toil away for decades, especially amidst such arduous and difficult conditions, are so incredible and motivating.

Illustrations by Tung Nam.

As far as art projects we covered down here in Saigon, my favorite was the Red Stamps List. The project by Tung Nam combines two of my favorite things: animals, and the postal system. Each of the stylish stamps features one of Vietnam’s endangered species. As with many of these concept projects, my only disappointment is that the stamps are only theoretical, and I can’t place one on a letter that is destined to get lost in the mail.

Khôi: A fellow philatelist! Join the club, O weary wanderer!

Mike: I totally agree that Elise’s arrival was much-needed for our coverage of colors and shapes…I mean art. As podcast listeners will know, I’m a nincompoop when it comes to art, though I’m going to give a selfish shout-out to S.E.A. Focus, which I attended in Singapore in early January, right before the entire world exploded. I’m still kind of amazed that I managed to make it out of Vietnam within this calendar year, and it was fascinating to see creations by artists from all over Southeast Asia, though I’ll never understand that one exhibit that was largely just a stick propped up against a wall.

Illustration by Đỗ Minh Hải.

Khôi: As an animation enthusiast, my favorite artworks of the year are these anime-inspired landscapes of Cao Lanh City in Dong Thap, created by a local student. When we published the illustrations, thousands of people enjoyed them too, showing that such an exciting mix of style and subject matter can surprise anyone. Đỗ Minh Hải, the illustrator, drew daily scenes of his hometown in the vibrant palette of Japanese auteur Makoto Shinkai and made us fall in love with the Mekong Delta all over again.

4. Favorite Article

Mike: We’ve published a lot of great writing this year, but I think I have to go with Paul’s meditation on the Saigon Zoo as my favorite, for a few reasons. The design is fantastic — with shout-outs to Hannah and Alberto, our designer and photographer — and something that would be cool to see more of on the site. The writing was great, as expected, and made me think more than just about anything else I read from us in 2021.

Readers may not know this, but I’m a bit of an animal person, and I’ve avoided the zoo here for the entire decade I’ve been in Saigon since I’ve seen so many depressing photos of it, and also heard from people that it’s just not a pleasant place. Full disclosure, Paul’s article didn’t move me enough to actually visit the zoo, but it certainly made me think about its merits — after all, what would happen to the animals if it were closed?

Elise: I’m so glad you picked this article Mike! I had not been to the zoo either and, after reading it, begged Paul to take me on a tour. I’m a total sucker for people who are passionate about seemingly obscure things, and boy does Paul have a thing for the zoo! The afternoon was delightful; some questionable pens aside, it’s a recommendation for me if you're looking for an afternoon stroll in Saigon. Look out for the American racoon, having a ball with his Da Nang buddy.

Paul: Aww, I’m so touched you both enjoyed it! I admit two major highlights of this year have been the trips we took to the zoo — both the one with Alberto and Hannah to get inspiration for the article images, and the time when myself, Khôi and Elise had a delightful afternoon strolling around, discussing the differences between Greater and Lesser Adjunct birds. But I must note that the article was not successful in terms of it convincing the zoo to sell me an annual pass. We’ll see if the tattoo that I got last week of my favorite zoo sculpture occupying my entire lower leg changes that.

As for my favorite, I’m going to break the rules a bit here and select an article we published this week: Saigoneer’s Picks for Best Music of 2020. I have been bumping the playlist for the last few weeks as Khôi writes it. Last year’s list was fantastic, and this year’s is even better! It’s impossible to determine what makes something one’s “favorite” but these music lists always prove the most lasting, providing hours upon hours of audio bliss.

Inside the Geological Museum. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

Khôi: I also share Elise’s love for people who find passion in obscure things. In this case, we’re delighted to have Paul among us to share his deep thoughts on whales and the Saigon Zoo, among other things. My favorite piece of writing of this year is also a work by Paul that chronicles our exploration of the mysterious Geological Museum. It’s hard to believe that such a fascinating piece of city history is so little-known. The way you weave in personal thoughts and keen observations of the derelict place is inspiring. Lucky for those who are interested in visiting, both the museum and the zoo lie within walking distance of each other.

5. Favorite Interview

Mike: My pick is my interview from the Saigoneer Podcast with Trang Nguyễn, one of the founders of the conservation organization WildAct. In keeping with the animal theme above, a lot of my freelance writing is on biodiversity conservation in Vietnam, and Trang has become an invaluable resource on that subject. What really stands out to me about Trang’s work is her focus on educating younger Vietnamese on the importance of preserving what’s left of the natural world, and also providing opportunities to women, which is key for a sector that is dominated by men globally. It was just great to come away from a discussion on a topic that can often be depressing with some hope.

Paul: That was a great interview and a fantastic reminder of how passionate, dedicated people can have an infectious impact on their cause. It’s depressing one is needed for conservation, but certainly some solace can be taken in the fact that people like Trang are fighting the good fight.

I am going to look back to nearly a year ago, when we interviewed author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai on the podcast. We chatted just as her debut novel, The Mountains Sing — a Saigoneer favorite, I think it's safe to say — was coming out, and the 11 months that followed have been a wild ride for her. The book has been racking up accolades, awards and glowing reviews and outperforming her wildest dreams. As the interview shows, she is an extremely caring, generous person, so it’s especially good to see the novel get the attention it deserves. This is also my official moment of saying “Saigoneer was first” when it comes to covering what will be a long and illustrious career, because we first wrote about her in early 2018.

Mike: Go read The Mountains Sing!

Dzũng's EP "Tình Tính Tang."

Khôi: This should be apparent to everyone, but talking to people who are passionate about their work is one of the best things that this job has to offer. Trang and Quế Mai are both incredible figures in their respective fields, and whether one is fond of conservation or literature, they will without a doubt provide many insights about Vietnam that are worthy of note. My most memorable interview of 2020 was with Dzũng, a progressive metal guitarist, to learn about his music, a contemporary, fiery take on traditional materials. Even with whatever amount of prior reading I was able to do before, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the knowledge and hard work that he undertook to produce such impassioned music.

We hope you enjoyed our work from 2020, and we look forward to exploring Vietnamese cuisine, history and culture even futher in 2021. Happy New Year!

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