It’s a blustery day (we later discover it was a T3 blowing through) as I catch up with fragrance house Cochine Saigon‘s elegant founder, Kate Crofton, over an al fresco lunch in SoHo.
Her home is now very much in Hong Kong, but she spent her initial expat-ing years in the tropical sunshine of Ho Chi Minh in southern Vietnam, a city which also inspired the creation of her company. Such is her depth of knowledge and love for the place, she has become an amateur ‘go to’ travel adviser for family and friends.
I am here to plumb the depths of her knowledge on behalf of the Expat Parent readership – I know, it’s a tough gig, but someone’s got to do it.
“It was a glorious time,” she recalls. “My husband’s job had been transferred to Vietnam and I had managed to transfer with my company, L’Oreal Paris. We initially landed in Hanoi for a couple of months to acclimatise. We were expecting to live in Ho Chi Minh for a few years, and I didn’t want to drop into the city completely green, knowing nothing about the country. So we spent a number of weeks learning Vietnamese at Hanoi University and discovering Vietnamese culture.
“Hanoi is in the north and although I really enjoyed it, I would say that there is a big difference between the north and the south of Vietnam, both in terms of weather and culture.
“As soon as I landed in Ho Chi Minh, I fell in love with the place. It has this amazing, laid-back vibe. It’s a beautiful city, with lots of French architecture – I was particularly struck by the pale green shutters (hence the pale green tassel on all Cochine presentation boxes), the faded elegance and the chic ‘Indochine’ style.”
As you would expect, the weather in the south is much warmer than the north, and with no winter. “The south is more tropical, but not as humid as nearby Singapore,” says Crofton. “I adored the beautiful, soft light. The Vietnamese say that both the food and life in the south are sweeter. People are more easy-going, which might be down to the warm weather enabling them to enjoy up to four harvests a year. Everyone that we met during our time there was certainly very welcoming and friendly.”
Looking back, Crofton describes her life there as “pretty dreamy”. “I realised straight away that rather than introduce a product into the country (she had been tasked with launching Garnier skincare on behalf of L’Oreal), I wanted to create a product that encapsulated the place.”
And so from the terrace of her riverside villa, she founded Cochine Saigon, which today incorporates a range of candles, diffusers and body products in a variety of fragrances using Vietnamese flora and fauna as their base.
“I teamed up with the local university and also with a fragrance house in New York to blend the best Vietnam has to offer. I was influenced by morning bike rides to the boulangerie past flowering jasmine, by the scent of tuberose floating over our villa at dusk. There were just so many beautiful scents to inspire me. I would then spend happy hours on my terrace with a panel of friends testing the results. They were heady days.”
Now in Hong Kong, Crofton heads back to Ho Chi Minh several times a year, mainly on business, but also tries to enjoy the odd weekend relaxing with family, particularly now that her cousin lives there.
“I would say it is the perfect long weekend from Hong Kong. The flight is just two hours and the airport a mere 20 minutes from the centre of town.”
She highly recommends it for families too, although warns that the old tiled pavements in the city are not stroller friendly and the motorbike-clogged roads can be challenging to cross. “I’d say it’s a better destination for slightly older children, say five and up.”
The best time of year to visit is outside of rainy season (August to October). There is no typhoon season and from November through to July it is pleasantly warm and sunny.
In terms of accommodation, Crofton says you can’t go past the Park Hyatt. “This is the best hotel in Ho Chi Minh and is right in the centre. You can reach everywhere by foot from here and it has a lovely pool.”
However, if you’re looking for somewhere a little more boutique, she highly recommends Villa Song, an old home that has been converted into a hotel by French expat Valerie Gregori McKenzie. “It’s been gorgeously restored, with a riverside restaurant. It’s in District 2 which is away from the hubbub of the city and I think it’s the nicest boutique hotel in the city.”
Eating out, Crofton says she loves Ben Thanh market. “It’s a covered market that sells amazing linen, silks, rattan, ceramics, flowers, coffee, fresh spices (think cinnamon and chamomile) and has a great food market.”
She also recommends Quan An Ngon, a traditional Vietnamese restaurant styled as a food market, also in District 1, which is particularly good for lunch. “I’d also advise having dinner at rustic Cuc Gach Quan (also known as ‘The Brick’) for a quirky experience. You climb up a ladder and then into a bed frame to eat. It sounds slightly odd, but it’s fantastic and has garnered a bit of a following since Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie turned up for dinner there, so definitely book ahead. And if it’s in season, definitely try the Taen Ly flower dish.”
Another hot spot for dinner is The Deck. It’s in District 2, so if you’re staying in District 1, book the restaurant boat which will speed you downriver before disembarking for cocktails and an Asian-fusion meal by the water hyacinth-festooned river. “Just be aware that in Vietnam dinner is taken fairly early. Even as early as nightfall at 6pm is quite normal.”
For day trips, the Cu Chi tunnels are not to be missed. “They’re around a three hour drive from Ho Chi Minh, but Ex Tours have started offering a boat trip there, which speeds everything up considerably and is also a very pleasant way of travelling. The same company offers tours to the Mekong Delta – seeing the little river boats piled high with fruit and other market goods is definitely worth the trip.”
Back in the city, a meander through Ben Thanh market is a must, as is a trip to Antique Street (Le Cong Kieu) – brilliant for vases, Marelli fans and hidden treasures.
“If you’re looking for art, an English art historian called Sophie is a local expert and will take you around the galleries with an introduction to Vietnam’s art history. It’s also worth finding out if artist Pham Luan has an exhibition on – his work is divine.
“And check out L’Usine on Le Loi Street near the Park Hyatt, it’s a concept store full of high-end Vietnamese craft. It has a very good French-inspired cafe for lunch.”
Unfortunately the T3 is whipping itself into a possible T8 and the waitstaff are beginning to drag tables inside, and so I reluctantly take my leave. I do think that if you’re looking for a new long weekend travel destination, there’s nothing more inspiring than being recommended somewhere by someone so passionate about and fond of a place as Crofton. I have already been online to book a flight.