Crazy Rich Saigonese

Saigon spots to splurge Crazy Rich Asian style

Text and images by James Pham

Crazy Rich Asians opened last month to rave reviews, telling a universally-familiar story of family expectations, backstabbing intrigue, and against-all-odds love set amongst a rarefied and glamorous world of extreme, head-spinning wealth. For many in the West, the first studio movie in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast revealed a largely unseen side of Asia, now home to more billionaires than North America.

The rom com (and best-selling novel) follows Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor at NYU, and her boyfriend Nick Young, also a down-to-earth academic. The two head back to Nick’s home in Singapore to attend a wedding and for Rachel to meet Nick’s family. What she doesn’t know is that Nick’s entire family is not just rich, but crazy rich. What ensues is a hilarious, Cinderella-like, fish-out-of-water tale set against a backdrop of the uber-elite.

While it’s fun to see how the 1% live, it’s even better to taste the good life for yourself, preferably without the exorbitant price tag. Here are some of our recommendations for living the Crazy Rich Asian lifestyle right here in Saigon without breaking the bank. Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Gossip Central

All the dragon mothers regularly gather for Bible study in a lovely home surrounded by priceless treasures. More often than not, though, “Jesus time” ends up being a huge gossip sesh where the ladies dish on everyone and everything in between cups of tea and organizing Tahitian pearls by color grade. Hidden up a creaky set of stairs just a stone’s throw from Bitexco, Villa Royale Downtown Antiques & Tea Room (25 Ho Tung Mau, D1) is a great place to sit and gab amongst an eclectic collection of treasures from around the world including vintage kimonos, Buddhist monk scrolls from Laos and traditional tattoo needles from Myanmar.

Choose from more than 40 varieties of teas (including the “Dragon Warrior”, a black and blue tea with floral aromas) served in gorgeously patterned cups to go along with the delicious homemade pastries.

Street Food with a Twist

One of Rachel’s first experiences in Singapore is gorging on street food at a hawker center where second- and third-generation cooks have spent a lifetime perfecting a single dish. Set right in the middle of the Cho Cu wet market, Anan (89 Ton That Dam, D1) celebrates Vietnamese street food with a modern twist. Founded by award-winning chef Peter Cuong Franklin, the compact eatery has received well-earned buzz for reinterpreting Vietnamese flavors with the help of premium ingredients and French culinary techniques, as in the Banh Cam, a fried rice ball filled with rich Marou chocolate instead of traditional mung beans.

The Lemongrass Pork Chop is equally amazing, slow-cooked sous vide for 6 hours before being brushed with a caramelized fish sauce glaze and finished on the grill. The result is a spectacular marriage of com tam meets North Carolina barbeque. We’ll let you discover the mind-blowing Escargot Dalat Pizza, the Banh Xeo Tacos and the Phojito cocktail for yourself, but needless to say, with just a few cozy tables, this place is always packed, so reserve early.

Penthouse Views

Nick’s mother, Eleanor, is all about social positioning. In the atrium-like living room of her penthouse apartment with expansive views over the Singapore River, she ponders how Rachel will fit in to her elaborately constructed social universe based on relatives, net worth, and what family scandals might have occurred within the past fifty years. Comprised of two penthouse apartments occupying the entire 27th floor of a District 2 building, Sanctum is one of Saigon’s most unique residences with a gorgeous elevated living room, a screening room, and a music and dance studio to go along with three spacious bedrooms and a stunning see-through rooftop swimming pool. It even has its own website although the owners are quietly enigmatic on whether it’s for sale, rent, both or neither.

Members Only

Anyone who’s anyone in Singapore high society belongs to an ultra-exclusive club (or two) where restrictive memberships are open only to the most established families and even then, usually come with a multi-year waiting list. Hidden behind a genuine sliding bookcase at Shri Restaurant & Lounge (23rd floor, Centec Tower, 72 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, D3) is a secret Whiskey Bar known mainly through word of mouth.

Evoking the ambiance of a gentlemen’s club, the space is all about tufted leather seats, a mounted water buffalo head and one of Saigon’s finest whiskey selections. While a bottle of Macallan Reflexion will set you back VND 46 million and some change, try a smoked cocktail instead where you can watch as the bartender infuses genuine Scottish peat (or cloves, cinnamon, applewood or a myriad of other aromas) into your drink using equipment worthy of a science lab.

By Design

The ultra-rich fashionista doesn’t even talk about last season’s looks. Even designer couture fresh off the runway doesn’t cut it. Why be caught in something that someone else might have when you can go straight to the source and have something designed just for you? For the best pair of shoes you’ll ever own, head to Dominique Saint Paul (29 Dong Du, D1). Walk through the ready-to-wear collection featuring 36 styles for men and women including Oxfords, derbies, loafers and slip ons, and straight into the back room where 260 fitting pairs await.

Once you’ve determined your perfect fit and style, the fun part begins by selecting your very own signature color from more than 1,000 possible shades to be hand painted onto premium crust leather. Polka dots and ombre are wildly in at the moment. Further accentuate your look with meaningful details like pearl tassels inspired by Hoi An lanterns, a distinctive brogue or a Vietnam star inlaid with mother of pearl. You’re an original. Why shouldn’t your shoes be?

Tea Time

Once a British Crown colony, Singapore has proudly retained elements of its colonial heritage, from its legal system to the language to beautiful heritage buildings, and of course, a tradition of high tea. One of the most civilized high teas in Saigon can be found at the Park Hyatt (2 Cong Truong Lam Son, D1) where leisurely afternoons can be spent nibbling on delicate sweets, freshly baked scones with jam and clotted cream, and petit bite-sized savory items served in gorgeous Hanoia lacquerware. Pinky up or pinky down, sip on a cup of Dammann Frères fine French tea as afternoon sunlight filters through two-story high plantation shutters with light piano music tinkling in the background.

Gorgeous Getaways

As Rachel and Nick are in Singapore for a wedding, they attend a pair of bachelor and bachelorette parties. Rachel jets off with the girls to a luxury island retreat complete with wooden bungalows by the sea while Nick finds himself on a megayacht with the boys. Once the party starts getting out of hand, though, Nick and his friends retreat to the sumptuous library for some quiet time away from the chaos.

Just 20 minutes from downtown Saigon by speedboat, An Lam Retreats Saigon River is truly a world away. With just 19 suites and villas, many with their own plunge pool set amidst lush gardens, an idyllic escape is never far away. We could happily spend days here getting pampered at the spa, lazing around the pool or just watching the boats go by. The dedicated butler service is simply a bonus.

Old School

Nick’s mother, Eleanor, rejects Rachel as too common, saying she’d “never be enough” for her son. Hurt but determined, Rachel decides to face off with Eleanor by inviting her to an old school mahjong parlor where she shows what she’s made of. Sitting in Zuzu Concept Store (48A Tran Ngoc Dien, D2), we can practically hear the clacking of the mahjong tiles in this authentic wooden house painstakingly reassembled from a traditional home in Hue. Set down a hidden alley, the café cum retail shop features ornately carved wood walls and a pleasant vintage vibe. Come for a pot of organic tea from Dalat or a cup of Dak Lak coffee accompanied by delectable homemade French pastries while browsing the shop’s carefully curated selection of jewelry, home décor and food items. The 1960’s ceramics are an exceptional find as is the minimalistic furniture designed by one of the owners.

Sky High

In the movie’s final scene, Nick and Rachel celebrate their engagement high above Singapore’s glittering skyline. True love conquers all as Nick risks his family and inheritance to propose to Rachel, while a silent nod between Rachel and Eleanor seems to signal a truce between the two, delivering a feel-good ending to this heartwarming story. While Saigon’s skyline might not yet be quite as impressive, one of our favorite places to enjoy nighttime views is the Social Club at the Hotel des Arts (76 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, D3). Set 24 stories above the city, Social Club has a good mix of well-heeled local and international patrons eager to dance the night away to live DJ music. Look for innovative cocktails and some fancy bar bites like French fries with truffle dip and Yellow fin tuna tartare.

This article first appeared in Oi Vietnam magazine.
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