“I defy anybody to say this has been a good year,” says Dragon Capital’s Dominic Scriven, and looking back at the economic mayhem of the last 12 months, it’s easy to agree. Good? No. Memorable? Yes. Schizophrenic? Certainly.
The year started off on a wave of enthusiasm for Vietnam. Consumer confidence was high, foreign investment was pouring in, seemingly unabated, and everyone, it seemed, had a project or two on the go.
The Viet Kieu were starting to pull their weight. With overseas remittances already hitting US$2billion a year, Vietnam’s Diaspora had now invested a further US$125million into locally-owned projects – a 250 percent increase on the year before.
But even before March was out, the writing was on the wall. House prices exploded in the first quarter, setting the tone for the rest of the year. Speculation on property reached an all time high and rents started to go crazy, forcing Saigon’s shops, restaurants and bars into an about-town shuffle. Everyone, it seemed, was on the move. Inflation was now in double digits and it was only a matter of time before the bubble burst. It did.
It started with a global deficit of rice, the staple for two thirds of the world’s population. In April the price of rice tripled almost overnight and as the world’s fourth-largest rice producer and second biggest exporter, Vietnam found itself at the forefront of the crisis. As always, the poorest members of society were hardest hit. By May, inflation was at 25 percent, food prices were continuing to rocket, fuel prices were on the rise and suddenly Vietnam was no longer the bed of roses of a few short months before.
Panic followed and investors began wanting out. Traders began clamouring to sell their dong for more favourable currencies and black market exchange rates fell to VND20,000 to the dollar with the warriors of doom and gloom predicting an even greater slump to follow. To stop people sending their funds by bank transfer overseas, the government slapped a ban on transactions in dollars, only adding to the frustration. This was to be the height of the crisis.
In the last few months, the financial ruckus has died down. While the rest of the world is holding its head in disbelief, Vietnam’s economy is stable again. The new subsidy-free fuel prices are now down to VND13,000 a litre and spiralling inflation is back under control and in single digits.
Local do-gooders were busy bees in 2008, with everybody benefitting from the programme of parties, shows and gigs organised to raise funds for local causes. Irish-Indian band, The Unseen Guest, headlined a benefit concert organised by the Vietnam Red Cross at the Opera House in March, helping to raise US$625,000 for victims of Agent Orange.
Spamcham, Auscham, BBGV and in fact every Cham in town continued their events for charity and new networking group Viet Moi started the more glittery philanthropic disco ball turning in April. Fronted by Anhtoan Anhtuan and FLAUNT’s My Yen and Na Dai Kang, the group organised several charity fashion parties during the course of the year, with tickets for the inaugural ‘Glamour Party’ (which raised US$12,000 for nominated charity Maison Chance) selling out in the first 24 hours.
On the wild side, the Wildlife At Risk (WAR) centre in Cu Chi, which takes in animals seized by the Forestry Protection Department, was revamped and expansion started Jun.1. The centre currently runs at a cost of US$500,000, but 2008 saw WAR targeting corporate sponsorship to help transform make-shift enclosures into more permanent quarters.
More recently, the Bangkok to Saigon bicycle race pushed off on its 1,000km trip through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand to raise money for the countries’ most deprived children on Nov. 8; and on Nov. 22, the Saigon to Can Gio scooter run was held in aid of The Hospitality School for Disadvantaged Children and Trung Tieu Hoc Hoa Hiep.
Probably the biggest fundraising event of the year, though, was Loretofest. Saigon’s only open air, international-style music festival, all proceeds went to Loreto Vietnam to aid disadvantaged children around the city. As anyone who went will tell you, it was a blast.
Euro 2008 saw expats setting the alarm and heading to sports bars for 4am kickoffs, demonstrating true continental camaraderie to lend support to other nations as the tournament progressed. One by one, each nation was knocked out leaving Spain to beat Germany 1-0 to scoop the silverware. Aussie Rules was one sport that saw a sharp rise in popularity for 2008, with Saigon Saints throwing a bash at the Sheraton and Vietnam Swans, the AFL team for Vietnam, putting on a party at Number 5 Bar during the televised final. The Saigon Cricket League also went from strength to strength, with DHL sponsoring a sixes tournament in November. And two of the newest sports to get a look in were field hockey and softball.
But arguably the most significant date of this year’s sporting calendar was the friendly between Vietnam and Brazil at the end of the July. Although it wasn’t the Brazilians’ strongest line up – most of the team was under 23 - the side did include Ronaldinho and Diego, who guided their team to a 2-0 win. The Vietnamese held up their end, and for the ecstatic crowd, the number of near misses were almost as good as a goal.
The last 12 months saw Vietnam raise the bar (somewhat) in the fashion stakes. Spanish brand Mango went strong, opening another outlet in the city. French Connection expanded its fleet of stores, and other international brands like Nine West and La Senza have started popping up all over the place. Versace was the latest arrival in November, following hot on the spiked stilettos of Marc Jacobs, Chloe, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
Fashion TV also made the leap from TV screens to paparazzi-hounded parties, with FTV yacht the F-diamond docking on the banks of the Saigon River for an all-white New Year’s Eve Party in 2007 and FTV Café opening its door on Ton That Thiep with a big if not slightly unorganised bash in September.
Eating and Drinking
Probably the most popular pasttimes for expats, over the last 12 months we were offered countless opportunities to indulge. Weekly wine dinners heralded the arrival of more international winemakers to the Vietnamese market, with new wine shops popping up along many district thoroughfares. The city’s five-star hotels hosted a wealth of guest chefs and special F&B-oriented events, with local restaurants also getting in on the action to organise events of their own.
The Spanish Wine Festival introduced a range of Iberian wines to the local market while the Australian Food & Wine festival brought a fanfare of Antipodean delights to hotels in May. The Hyatt flew in top chefs from Australia, Europe and Asia for the Masters of Food and Wine event in September and this year was also the year of new openings – swanky On The 6 started trade on Dong Khoi, ZanZBar, formerly known as Shadow Bar, opened with a 4am licence in July, and The Deck and the Boat House opened in An Phu, while the people behind Au Parc and Refinery added Vietnamese restaurant Hoa Tuc to their portfolio.
Music and Nightlife
My Chemical Romance kicked off their tour in Saigon in January as part of Tiger beer’s United 08 – One World, One Party gig.
Vasco’s and La Camargue shut up shop on Cao Ba Quat, with a huge ‘end of an era’ party on Feb 29 that saw the expat population packing the listed building to the rafters to drink the cellar dry. Camargue opened up for business on Hai Ba Trung the following day, and Vasco’s joined The Refinery in Square 74D down the road a few weeks after.
June saw the opening of new live music and DJ club, Cage, which soon grew to be one the hottest nightspots in Saigon. Chic lounge-bar Velvet was another new addition to the scene, and in October old-hand Q Bar reopened with a slightly fresher look following structural renovations to the Opera House.
And don’t forget the two Broadway musicals that graced stages this year – Beauty and the Beast and Annie Get Your Gun. The latter played to sold-out theatres and ended up putting on an extra performance on the final Sunday night. It was also the first time that the city's ballet, symphony orchestra, choir and the Saigon Players, an amateur dramatics group, had got together to put on a show.
Early in the year local hospitals reported a 50 percent decrease in head trauma injuries following the helmet law passed on Dec 15, attributing all remaining injuries to riders failing to strap up.
FV opened a new clinic on Vo Thi Sau in March, meaning that patients would no longer have to travel to District 7 to see their preferred specialist; and in May Vice Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Ngan was joined by a banner of other bigwigs to watch the Olympic Torch make its way through Saigon.
This summer saw over 40 of the world’s most beautiful women appearing in events around the country during the Miss Universe 2008 beauty pageant, culminating with Miss Venezuela being crowned in the final, hosted by Jerry Springer and Mel B, at the Diamond Bay resort in Nha Trang on Jul. 14.
It was also a big year for transport. In February, ground was broken on the new metro, with the Urban Railway Department expecting the first line linking Ben Thanh with Suoi Tien in District 9 to be finished in 2014.
Cebu Pacific added routes linking Manila and Saigon in April and Air Asia started to fly from Saigon as well as Hanoi. In May, Jetstar partnered with Pacific Airlines to become Jetstar Pacific and take over its no-frills domestic routes, following up with international flights between Saigon, Bangkok and Siem Reap on Oct. 31.
Fleets of brand new taxis were added to the city’s already traffic-throttled roads. Cyclos were supposed to get the chop in the city centre following a ban on three-wheeled transportation. It has yet to be enforced.
We Say Goodbye To
Allez Boo (although it soon reopened across the street)
Cyclos (so we thought)
Little Red Dot
Luong Son Quan
Mogambo (now at 50 Pasteur)
Vo Van Kiet
We Say Hello To
Versace, Faconnable, Marc Jacobs
The FV Clinic on Vo Thi Sau
Two new Black Cats in Districts 2 and 7
On The 6, ZanZBar, Ganesh, River Café, The Boat House, The Deck
The new Vasco’s and Camargue
A bigger and better Sheridan’s
A new Jasmine on Ton That Thiep
Gaya’s new shop on Le Lai
Wine In Saigon
Diamond Bay Resort
Allez Boo Resort
Miss Sixty & Energie
The Amber Room