The Trans-Contemporary Approach to Heritage at The Myst Dong Khoi

There is a new hotel in the heart of Saigon that is unique. It is called “The Myst Dong Khoi,” and what makes it unique is that it demonstrates that I would call a “trans-contemporary approach to heritage.”

Let me explain what I mean by that.

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There are different ways to “maintain” heritage sites. Some are maintained in their original conditions through what we can call the “preservation” or “conservation” of heritage.

At other times, an old building, like an old factory, might be turned into a restaurant or store while still maintaining some aspects of the original building. This is called “repurposing” heritage.

At other times, someone might try to create a restaurant or store in the style of the past. This can be called “recreating” heritage.

What The Myst Dong Khoi has done is something else. It has taken “pieces” of heritage, and has “reused” them in novel ways in order to create something new which nonetheless also “reminds” us of the past.

What are the “pieces” of heritage that we can find at The Myst? They are materials from a former heritage site, the Ba Son Shipyard.

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The Ba Son Shipyard was a shipyard in Saigon. First established in the late eighteenth century, it was expanded during the colonial period.

In 1993, the Ministry of Culture recognized the shipyard as a national historic moment. Then in 2016 it was announced that the shipyard would be demolished to make way for an urban residential and commercial complex.

There were members of the public who voiced opposition to this plan and wished to “preserve” or “repurpose” the site, but they were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, an architect by the name of Nguyễn Hòa Hiệp took personal action and purchased materials from the shipyard before it was destroyed. This included everything from massive metal doors to small stained-glass windows.

Architect Hiệp was then introduced to the owners of the Silverland Hotel Group, Vũ Hồng Nam and Nguyễn Thị Phúc, who at that time were just beginning construction on a new hotel off of Đồng Khởi street not far from the site of the Ba Son Shipyard.

The result of that meeting was an exciting collaboration that produced an extremely unique hotel, The Myst Dong Khoi.

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The Myst does not attempt to “recreate” the Ba Son Shipyard, but “pieces” from the shipyard have been “reused” and are present throughout the hotel. From a giant anchor at the entryway, to metal grills that form the ceiling of the lobby, to old bricks on some of the walls of the Ba Son Café.

The overall feel of the hotel, meanwhile, is contemporary (in fact, a kind of chic modernity). However, in being surrounded by “pieces” of heritage, one cannot but also feel a sense of a time now past.

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When I first visited The Myst in the summer of 2017, I was not sure what to think. My initial thought was that the use of materials from Ba Son Shipyard might merely be a commercial ploy to exploit heritage for profit.

Then, however, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with the owners, Mr. Nam and Ms. Phúc, and I quickly realized that this was not at all what The Myst was about. Instead, Mr. Nam and Ms. Phúc stated that as successful business people, they wanted to honor Saigon, a city that had been so kind to them, and they saw The Myst, with its use of materials from the Ba Son Shipyard, as a way of doing this.

I then gained an even deeper understanding of The Myst when I had the opportunity to meet and talk with its architect, Nguyễn Hòa Hiệp.

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Nguyễn Hòa Hiệp is an extremely creative and talented architect. He is also has an independent mind and does not feel the need to follow norms when those norms are not necessary to follow. All of this is reflected in The Myst and its use of materials from the Ba Son Shipyard.

Architect Hiệp clearly loves the materials that he obtained from the shipyard: the iron, steel, wood, glass and brick. And he clearly has a high appreciation for the buildings and machines that people in the past created at Ba Son.

However, this love and appreciation does not mean that architect Hiệp felt the need to “preserve” or “recreate” Ba Son or to “repurpose” the materials from the shipyard in ways that one can clearly make an association with their past use.

Instead, he “reused” materials from the shipyard in unexpected ways to create a living space that is entirely contemporary. And yet, by virtue of the fact that this living space contains so many “pieces” from the past, it also manifests something that is more than merely contemporary.

 

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I would call The Myst “trans-contemporary” in that it is contemporary at the same time that it “transcends” the contemporary through the presence of “pieces” from the past.

It is an entirely contemporary five-star hotel, however the creative reuse of materials from the Ba Son Shipyard makes the hotel simultaneously feel both contemporary and linked to the past.

What is more, that link to the past does not come from the usual techniques for “preserving,” “repurposing” or “recreating” heritage. Instead, it comes from “reusing” “pieces” of heritage in creative and unexpected ways.

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In some ways it seems a bit paradoxical that in not attempting to “preserve” or “repurpose” or “recreate” heritage, architect Nguyễn Hòa Hiệp has designed a building where one can’t help but sense the past in the present.

Or maybe it is just that he has shown us that a more effective way to maintain a connection to the past is to creatively transform it and make that transformed past part of our lives, rather than to try to preserve something that will always remain separate from who we are today.

Whatever the case may be, owners Vũ Hồng Nam and Nguyễn Thị Phúc have definitely succeeded in honoring Saigon by building The Myst Dong Khoi.

2 thoughts on “The Trans-Contemporary Approach to Heritage at The Myst Dong Khoi

  1. This process has a robust history in contemporary Saigon. One original model / form for the process described here for the Myst Hotel is Cuc Gach Quan (Brick cafe). The original ideas of the architect/designer for Cuc Gach have been endlessly imitated and replicated over the last 10 years in Saigon. One well-known example is the successful L’Usine cafe and design shop, owned by overseas Vietnamese. (Recently, one witnesses a similar process in Hanoi as well.) But really, from an anthropological perspective, this is quite basic, and sheds interesting light as well on contemporary processes of cultural formation, appropriation and exchange (and subversive/situationist use of everyday objects and furniture). These incidentally undermine the usual ways of framing essentialized, static versions of “Vietnamese culture.” What to me is interesting about a place like Cuc Gach is an affirmation of a southern, distinctly ‘old regime’ (1955-1975) Saigon cultural identity through markers such as popular culture (‘yellow music’, maps, poems, etc.) and period furniture, including re-purposed US armed forces items. The Myst tries to imitate some of this but in a commercial and less thoughtful way. Unlike Cuc Gach it doesn’t manage to make a slyly transgressive statement about local identity — and thus fits very comfortably (and not even nostalgically) with the ongoing willful amnesia that feeds the demolition of heritage in Saigon. One notes similar patterns across SE Asia, esp. in Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, etc. This would require a much longer conversation! Thanks for these notes.

    1. Thanks for these thoughtful comments!!!

      “The Myst tries to imitate some of this but in a commercial and less thoughtful way” – That was my initial reaction until I had the pleasure of visiting the current house of the architect for The Myst, Nguyen Hoa Hiep. Apparently he builds a house about every 5 years (following his creative and professional evolution).

      Hiep’s house also makes extensive use of materials from the Ba Son Shipyard. Also, like one can find in The Myst, his house also has an aversion to straight lines and logical/geometric use of space (Try to make sense of the geometric shape of the dining room in The Myst and the placement of the pillars there.). While in The Myst there is a jacuzzi outside each room with an open window to the outside, Hiep’s house has an open ceiling over part of one bedroom where rain can fall directly into the room, and he has a shower out in the open in a middle “courtyard” which is actually filled with trees and a sand pile for children to play in.

      So what I came to realize is that The Myst is what happens when you take Nguyen Hoa Hiep’s house and transform it into a 5 star hotel. In a 5 star hotel, guests are not going to accept rain falling into their room, but they will (or hopefully will) accept an open jacuzzi outside their room) and they are not going to accept a sandbox in the middle of their room with a shower next to it, but they will (or hopefully will) accept that the toilet is on one side of the bedroom and that to take a shower you have to walk (perhaps naked) through the room to the other side where the shower is located, etc.

      Nguyen Hoa Hiep says that he doesn’t like hotels, so he created a hotel that was like a place where he would want to live. Having seen his house, The Myst doesn’t quite reach that level, but as a 5 star hotel, it can’t be at that level.

      So I understand what you’re saying, and that was my initial reaction, but I see things differently now. Yes, obviously the owners of the hotel want to make a profit, but I see the agreement between the owners and the architect as being more than economic. I think that with this hotel the owners were interested in making a cultural statement as well (which of course is a good business plan too. . . but Nguyen Hoa Hiep is not superficial. He is the real deal, and I think the owners agreed to work with him precisely because they knew that he was something deeper than commercial.).

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