Where Saigon's cool kids work

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the April 4th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)

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WORK residents Sam Feith and Yen Nguyen operate an online printing service called Project Artshack out of a rented upstairs desk. Photo courtesy of WORK Saigon
Vitaliya Letniskaya sat curled up on a couch District 3 staring into her Macbook. It was nearly 9 o'clock on a Tuesday and the bright, white villa in alley 267 Dien Bien Phu Street felt nearly empty.
I'd wanted to meet someone at Barcode – a sleek Vietnamese-language magazine edited by urbane Russians – ever since it opened in 2012. But they seemed too cool to run into.
Like polar bears. Or snow leopards.
Luckily, I'd wandered deep into Saigon's tundra of new cool.
After an awkward interruption, the tattooed Muscovite politely put down her computer to explain her graduate thesis on the role of mediums and fortune tellers in Vietnam.
On the floor above her, a class in advanced concept marketing was underway just a wall away from an intense two-person yoga session.
Hours earlier, the place was abuzz with scores of Saigon's next generation of expats (smart, fluent in Vietnamese, well-dressed, sober) who toiled away on new designs, photos, websites and businesses here at WORK, Saigon's latest "coworking" space.
"Coworking," I recently learned, refers to a global trend begun by people who spent their twenties teaching themselves design and web development instead of drinking beer and making bad decisions.
In 2005, a group of said people living in San Francisco decided to spend their days surrounded by like minded people (e.g. those too smart to get stuck in an office). The ensuing global movement only recently cropped up in Vietnam.
WORK isn't the first coworking space in Ho Chi Minh City (there are two others) but it is far and away the coolest – more of a spacious, two-story café than a shared office.
A Los Angeleno named Tuan Le, 28, and a Parisian named Laure Chevallier, 23, hatched the idea while working for an ad firms in Dubai. There, they found coworking spaces too boring and cafes too noisy to generate ideas.
So they wrote a business model designed around cool comfort and began searching for a space in Saigon – where Le once spent a year working as a copywriter.
They held a soft opening in December and now reside in an upstairs office.
"We wanted to do something a little more meaningful," Chevallier said in the building's airy cafe, before popping into a small organic garden supplied by the Green Youth Collective – a nonprofit promoting urban gardening.
Roughly three months after opening, WORK boasts perhaps the best cafe in town.
Talented young baristas staff the long coffee bar, brewing La Viet coffee into cups of unrivaled caffeinated goodness.
I actually came for the coffee (Da Lat's finest Arabica) and stayed for everything else.
For the price of a cappuccino (VND50,000), you can hang out all day, use free WIFI and (I swear I am not making this up) swim in the pool.
A former chef from Ciao Bella – the tasty downtown trattoria – cooks from a fresh, healthy menu that changes weekly.

A delicious lunch of a spinach, strawberry and mozzarella salad and a cappuccino brewed with La Viet –Vietnam's best coffee by far. Photo courtesy of WORK Saigon

Last week, WORK's set lunch (VND90,000) included pumpkin soup, an organic salad, homemade bread and a hunk of tuna baked in a ramekin filled with mozzarella and tomato sauce. Dessert consisted of a skewer of fresh fruit and a rich cut of brownie.
For a mere VND2 million a month, ten lucky people enjoy the status of "residents." They have their own lockers and seats in the upstairs work space: a series of bright, airy high-ceilinged rooms with spartan tables, wood floors and walls of either exposed brick or flat black paint. They also enjoy discounts on food and classes and access to a photo studio shared by two residents.
"The residencies are not a big moneymaker for us," Le explained. "We liked the idea of having them around for their expertise."
On a recent afternoon a slender 28-year-old Burmese entrepreneur named Samuel Feith ran Project Artshack, his new online printmaking startup from his laptop.
Feith said he left Saigon HUB - a bustling tech-centric coworking space also in District 3 – because he felt his start-up fit WORK’s laidback environment.
Yen Nguyen, 23, Feith’s newly hired assistant across a desk containing nothing but a lamp and a pair of action-figure sized wooden mannequins holding Polaroids of both of their faces.
“I don’t want an office,” he said in WORK's "library" – a room containing five bean bag chairs, a few low tables and a modest stack of books.
When either of them aren’t working, their chairs are free for the building's host of non-residents to use.
"We have a bunch of regulars and invited guests who do everything from programming to photography to illustration to designing motorcycles," Le said. "We also have quite a few students."
The last of WORK's ten residency spots closed this week.
Le and Chevallier say they may add more spaces upstairs and a few extra perks for their residents. Or not.
While they work that out, I'll continue sipping cappuccinos and hoping another chair opens up soon.
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