I am the proud owner of a Monopoly Deal, 1880 Saigon Edition. Don’t ask me where I got it. From the font to the lithograph illustrations, its cards host an art nouveau style. The names of the streets are bilingual: The colonial Rue d’ Espagne is also called Lê Thánh Tôn, a beloved road among locals. Rue Vannier is also named Ngô Đức Kê. When I play Monopoly Deal 1880 Saigon, my main strategy is to quickly gather the Electricity Company and Water Works cards. They don’t earn much money from rentals, but will help me succeed faster in the main game objective which is to produce three complete card sets. For this reason, as soon as the game begins, I go after Usine électrique and Usine des eaux.
Usine in French stands for many things: a factory, an artisan’s workshop, a mill. It may also mean “labor”. There were all kinds of these usines in Saigon back in 1880. They produced wealth for the French and provided labor (not under the best conditions) to the Vietnamese. There are only two left today. They are both named L’ Usine. The first is located at 151, Đông Khởi St., next to the heart of the city, one block away from the lively Nguyễn Huệ which was the old Saigon equivalent to the Champs-Élysées. You will find the second at Lê Lợi, the road that leads from the central district to the southwest, where colonial glamour begins to fade and the backpacking culture begins to rise. The French names of the two streets where the usines are located are Rue Catinat and Boulevard Bonard. They are represented by the two dark blue cards: the most valuable ones. I go after them as well, as soon as the game starts, along with the Electric Company and the Water Works. They’re a great investment. Another great investment is spending some of your time in modern day Ho Chi Minh City to visit L’ Usine. Whichever you like. Or maybe both of them.
So, what are L’ Usines? They are two Cafés Bistros and Boutiques, adding a long forgotten old Saigon and French luxury aura to Ho Chi Minh City, which nowadays seems more connected to Shanghai (a modern, financial metropolis) than to its own past. It goes without saying that both cafés are set inside antique workshops and look like small, 19th century factories. The brands featured at the two boutiques (L’ Usine Space is the name for the shops) are exceptional, and even more exceptional are the choice of the products sold. One can find garments by Tinwell & Bismark or Trois Filles, designed exclusively for L’ Usine. There are also Herschel bags that are not sold online. A choice of Maison Kitsuné goodies, Marou chocolates, Produce candles, and also honey, toys, origami and tons of other beautiful things. They are expensive in comparison to other things you can buy in Vietnam. However, their target group is obviously the most affluent among the numerous tourists and, of course, the nouveau riche of Vietnam’s largest city (where nouveau riche means that wealth comes with some taste, unlike in other places…)
Food is more affordable. Having said that, let’s make clear that it’s much more expensive than the street food, but let’s not compare uncomparable things. When you enter L’ Usine the conversation is not about how cheap everything is in Vietnam, but about how beautiful this city was when it still belonged to Indochine. At Lê Lợi you will find the best coffee in town, whether your choice is the local calorie “bomb”, full of milk and sugar, or just a simple espresso. They also offer breakfast until evening. At Đông Khởi you will find a bistro with an endless list of good wines to go with your meal. If you prefer beer, Pasteur Street, the best beer in Vietnam is also served here.
When the first L’ Usine opened in 2010 at Đông Khởi, at a colonial style warehouse just across the street from the iconic Caravelle and Continental hotels, it made such an impact and was so successful business wise, that many L’ Usine look-a-likes with a western menu started to appear in almost every empty warehouse in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s something that the Vietnamese are masters of: Copying. L’ Usine had an answer to that. The second spot, at Lê Lợi, offers a more relaxed atmosphere, and the veranda with the black and white tiles seems like it belongs to a another, much slower world, at least when you compare it with the frantic road that lies below it. You can enjoy your coffee at the small, marble tables and feel like you transcend into another dimension, where the sounds from the motorcycle horns that rally next to you are just melodies from Belle Époque songs.
If you are nostalgic for that era, or, to be more precise, someone who seeks that era like I do, and travelled to Vietman to visit the charming Saigon I had seen at the movies, L’ Usine is the temple where you will return from time to time to renew your faith. However, modern day Vietnam has many other beauties too, and a totally crazy pace. So, very soon, you will find yourself chasing the modern era pleasures of this amazing country, and you will keep L’ Usine simply as a connection to the cololnial past that brought you here. If you still wish a souvenir from Belle Époque Saigon, you can buy a Monopoly set. You didn’t ask where I found mine. Probably, because you assumed correctly that I bought it at L’ Usine…