Secret Saigon: Mean Girls Edition

With the finale of Parks and Recreation last week, TV has entered a sad, sad era. It’ll be the first time in nearly 10 years that neither Tina Fey nor Amy Poehler will be on the small screen.

In honor of their comedic genius, I’ve decided to give this edition of Secret Saigon a Mean Girls theme, my all-time favorite Tina Fey – Amy Poehler movie. Even though it’s now more than 10 years old, Mean Girls simply transcends the ages. Those were gentler times. Tina Fey was just starting to prove she was too big for SNL and pre-incarcerated LiLo was actually wholesome.

So here are some of the best-kept secrets of lesser-known things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, Mean Girls-style. Because if you don’t know secrets, really, what good are you?


Murder Most Fun – The Escape Hunt Experience

In this take on the “Escape the Room” online games so popular in Japan where players have to find clues hidden in their surroundings (some as tiny as a few pixels), The Escape Hunt Experience brings the concept into the offline world. Not only must your group of 2-5 players use clues to open up locks and hidden rooms leading to more clues to escape the room, there’s a story line to follow in order to identify the guilty suspect.

The first Escape Hunt Experience was founded in Bangkok in July 2013 by businessman Paul Bart, utilizing his background in psychology, IQ testing and statistics / data analysis. Since then, The Escape Hunt Experience has opened 18 other branches in places like Singapore, Sydney, London and Jakarta, with ambitions to have deals signed for a staggering 500 locations by the end of 2015.

Oi Vietnam - Jan 2015_escape hunt_DSC6549_Ngoc Tran

I’ve always been a bit of a mystery nerd as a kid, often curled up in a corner reading the latest adventures of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. I was in awe every time Sherlock Holmes pulled off one of his cheeky disguises, making Mission Impossible seem like child’s play. My high school French came in handy trying to keep up with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. So I jumped at the chance to gather a group of friends together to tackle this real life whodunit.

We had three scenarios to choose from: Murder in the Palace Room (inspired by Saigon’s Independence Palace), Kidnapping at the Opera Room (a nod to the city’s Opera House) and Blackmail in the Bar Room (modeled after the old journalists’ haunt in the Caravelle Hotel). Making our way to the second floor (Level 2, 60-62 Cach Mang Thang 8, D3, above The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf), we passed by old world maps and hieroglyphics, a harbinger of the mental gymnastics ahead. The hallway opened up to a plush lounge that had elements of 221B Baker Street with its heavy damask curtains, vintage clocks and period pieces.

Escape Hunt - Location

After a quick introduction by the games master (each room has its own), we were locked into the Palace Room and left to our own devices which included frantically searching for clues and trying to make sense of the various locks and objects scattered around the small space. A big LED clock counts down the 60 minutes you’re allowed to complete the game.

Online reviews said that groups would need to ask the games master for help along the way (each time incurring a one-minute penalty), but we were determined not to press the little button that summoned her in. However, when the angry red clock signaled that nearly 20 of our 60 minutes had gone by with us no closer to opening the first lock, we reluctantly called the games master who nudged us in the right direction, helping us find the missing objects we needed. We sadly realized we were nowhere as smart as we thought we were.

Why are you white

As the minutes counted down, our pre-conceived strategies dissolved into an all-out, frantic attempt to propel ourselves closer to the solution. We simply assigned one team member to permanently be the button-pusher to call for help.

Oi Vietnam - Jan 2015_escape hunt_DSC6540_Ngoc Tran

The game doubles as an intriguing psychological experiment. You quickly find out who’s a leader / follower, who’s observant, who’s calm under pressure. By the end, I’ll admit that I may have gotten a wee bit screechy.

REgina George

The experience done, we sipped tea in the lounge and gleefully rehashed the last hour while posing for pictures with the clothing and props while trying to ignore the Wall of Fame featuring photos of all the groups who successfully finished the game in less than 60 minutes.

Seeing the popularity of The Escape Hunt Experience around the world and now experiencing it for ourselves, there’s something to be said for reality games that don’t require screens, technology or special effects ― just good, old fashioned smarts, bringing friends, co-workers and families together for a fast-paced hour of great fun. In fact, I loved it so much, I went again last weekend. We blew through the first few locks, found the secret room, but fumbled badly at the last clue.
Escape Hunt - PlayersTips: I don’t want to give anything away because it’s all part of the experience, but these are some pointers that may help:

  • Our downfall came from trying to solve puzzles with either not enough clues found or by having too much information and not seeing the pattern needed to weed the valid clues from the misdirections. While it’s tempting to try to solve the puzzles immediately, take a few minutes to carefully search the entire room for clues (even tiny ones stuck behind bookcases or under drawers).
  • Depending on your teammates, you may want to double up and have two people search the same area, just in case one person misses something.
  • That weird looking flashlight? It’s actually a black light.
  • Brush up on your math. You may need it.

If you’re in Saigon and are in the mood for something different, I’d highly recommend The Escape Hunt Experience.


Something fun

Facial Recognition – The Portraits of Rehahn

This next secret is of a different kind. It’s in the secret of a smile.

I recently had the chance to interview portrait photographer Réhahn. This time last year, the Hoi An-based portrait photographer had about 6,000 Facebook fans. Thanks to a slew of press from the LA Times to National Geographic Online to dozens of Vietnamese TV appearances, he now has almost 180,000 Facebook fans the world over, and recently sold one of his prints for a cool USD 10,000.

Rehahn 2Success has come quickly for Rehahn, having only been serious about photography since he moved to Vietnam a little over three years ago.

When I look at photos from even four years ago, none of them could be in a gallery now. I really started to take photos when I moved to Vietnam three years ago. And to be honest, when my book [Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts] was published last January [2014], everything changed. A few days ago, I looked at older photos in my hard drive and thought: “My God! How could I have taken that?” [laughs]

I asked Rehahn the secret to his portrait photography which resonate with so many people.

Always try to make them smile. It’s not always possible, but the smile, the smile in the eyes is important, even if they’re covering their mouth. I like very old people with wrinkles and a beard that takes 30 years to grow. When you see a [photo of a] smile, you can’t explain the story behind it but you know something happened between the photographer and the model. You know that it’s not just a snapshot. I like that, when there’s emotion in the photo. It’s more important than technical settings. For that, I’m not a “real” photographer, maybe. I’m self-taught, never had any training. What is a professional photographer? I don’t really know. Sometimes I don’t want to call myself a professional photographer because if it means talking all day about technical things, I don’t want to be one. I just want to make people happy and feel something when they look at my photo. There are much better photographers than me, but if there are good settings but no emotion, no story, it’s not a good photo. Emotion is the first thing. If people feel something when they look at your photo, that’s what’s important.


Of the many thousands of portraits he’s taken, this one has stayed with him the longest.

This is Xong, the 76 year old woman on the cover of my book. She rows boats for tourists. In fact, from the window in the restaurant where I’m talking to you, I can see her boat from here. She’s still very happy to do that and doesn’t want to stop. That’s such a good lesson to learn about life. She’s 76 years old, still working, very poor, very old, but happy. The photo I took of her three years ago was one of my first sellable photos, so very special to me. Last June, I bought her a boat. She deserves more than that. I sold many books thanks to her. I still see her every day. She always hugs me, touches me, touches my hair. She’s like a grandmother for me. She’s my very good friend now.

He also has an interesting take on sharing his photographs, none of which are watermarked, all available on his website and Facebook page.

I had a marketing background in France so that’s a big difference between me and other photographers. They are very good artists but don’t want to post too much online because of copyright. But we’re in the 21st century now. It’s hard to keep copyrights, so for me, I post on Facebook every day. Some photos get 26,000 likes. If each of those people had 50 friends, it’s a million people seeing that photo in 24 hours. A Saigon travel agency used my photo without asking me. I contacted them and told them it was all right as long as they credited me, and they were very happy. In the end, no one wants to share online. They’re very good but no one knows them.

A selection of Rehahn’s beautiful portraits will be exhibited at Vin Gallery from March 6-21, 2015.


Secret Garden

This next secret is actually a restaurant. It’s secret in the sense that it’s found on the rooftop of a 5-story apartment building. Down an alley in Saigon’s District 1 (Rooftop, 158 Pasteur,  serves lunch and dinner), you’ll need to walk up the five flights of stairs, past people’s homes, before reaching this unassuming eatery with indoor / outdoor (fan-cooled only) seating and views of some of Saigon’s tallest buildings.

Secret Garden - Location

I actually went as a food reviewer’s guest so we were able to try out a lot of the menu items. The selection was surprisingly wide for such a small restaurant, with the appetizers a bit more adventurous than the actual mains. They were surprisingly large, too, and that was reflected in the pricing. (Appetizers averaged USD 3-4 while mains were between USD 2-3.)

The dishes were homey but nicely presented. I enjoyed the pork-stuffed lemongrass and thinly sliced beef soaked in fish sauce with a tart accompaniment of pickled scallion bulbs. The lemongrass-steeped lemonade was also delicious, at just over USD 1 a glass.

Secret Garden 2The fried spring rolls were tasty, as was the simply sauteed morning glory with garlic. I’d probably give the two shrimp dishes we had a pass next time. The sesame coating on the shrimp was too pasty and the shrimp crackers (actually a wafer made of sticky rice and topped with pork floss, shrimp, tree ear mushrooms, minced pork and garnished with scallion oil and a dab of chilli sauce) were interesting but had too many disparate flavors for my taste.

Secret Garden 1All in all, though, a solid choice at reasonable prices with great ambiance.


Champagne Brunch on the Lawn

When I got invited to Champagne Brunch on the Lawn at the InterContinental Asiana Hotel, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Where in the world would there be a lawn in the middle of downtown Saigon? Sure, Vietnamese parks have nice grass, but no one’s allowed to actually step on it.

My interest was piqued as I walked past the see-through pool on the third floor…

01 - InterContinental - Champagne Brunch - James Pham-62

And up the stairs to reveal an actual lawn with real grass, right in the heart of Saigon.


I picked up a picnic hamper filled with fruits, nuts, brownies, sandwiches and other goodies and staked out a spot on the lawn with some of the other media.

05 - InterContinental - Champagne Brunch - James Pham - Basket

At USD 100 a pop, the crowd it drew was definitely affluent families, young professionals and friends out to enjoy a leisurely Saturday afternoon…


… feeling the grass between your toes and the sun in your face.

03 - InterContinental - Champagne Brunch - James Pham-13

USD 100 price tag aside, there was copious amounts of alcohol to be had, starting with a free flow of Veuve Clicquot champagne and cocktails made to order.

07 - InterContinental - Champagne Brunch - James Pham - DrinksI’m usually not much of a drinker, but I did manage to work my way through the cocktails list…


and pretty much had a spoiled afternoon, getting my face spritzed with Evian…

08 - InterContinental - Champagne Brunch - James Pham - Evian Misttaking a nap in the sun…

InterContinental - Champagne Brunch - James Pham-18

and reading a book.

InterContinental - Champagne Brunch - James Pham-48

And in the interest of disclosure, the book I was reading was Atlantia by Allie Condie. It’s about an underwater city (because of course, the post-apocalyptic Earth’s surface is too polluted to live in) and features sirens, mechanical fish and some other weird stuff. Actually, I’ve been reading a lot of “young adult” fiction lately, including The Maze Runner series and The Hunger Games. And yes, I realize that makes me a 16-year-old girl.

burn book

But then I drowned my shame in a blue margarita…

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and some salmon skewers and everything became right with the world.

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It’s a vicious cycle, this…


Pretty soon, I couldn’t eat another scoop of mango / chocolate ice cream with macaroons and sprinkles so I knew it was time to go home.

InterContinental - Champagne Brunch - James Pham-53

The sun was beginning to set and the last cries of “For England!” sounded in what was very likely an champagne-induced game of late-afternoon Tug of War.

19 - InterContinental - Champagne Brunch - James Pham - Tug-of-warChampagne on the Lawn – Picnic Brunch will happen again on Saturday 7th March, 4th April and 2nd May 2015.

There you have it, folks – some of the lesser-known but supremely fun things to do this month. And since I can’t do this…


the least I could do was share them with you. Because…


Photo credits: Escape Hunt by Ngoc Tran; additional images provided by Secret Garden and Rehahn Photography.

Share! Do any of these four activities sound interesting? What “secret” attraction is your favorite where you live?

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5 thoughts on “Secret Saigon: Mean Girls Edition

  1. Mary Moss

    I’m trying that rooftop restaurant next time I’m in Vietnam! The brunch looked divine, but more shekels than this schoolteacher can afford:-)

  2. Pingback: Secret Saigon – What to Do in Ho Chi Minh City | Fly, Icarus, Fly

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