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5 Great Ways to Watch Independent Films in Saigon

I spent my childhood in a family that worshiped cinema, all sorts of films, from Disney cartoons, unsuitable films such as All that Jazz (way too early, I was 8 at the time), art films – Cinema Paradiso – to westerns, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. My father used to say that watching films “is the most intelligent way to spend two relaxing hours”, and I agree with him. Cinema is art, entertainment; it is informative, educational, uplifting and magical.

When I arrived in Saigon and I had a look at the local cinemas’ limited and blockbuster-driven programs, I literally felt like crying. The Artist survived only one week in the theaters while 3D films (which had no reason whatsoever to be in this format), Rush Hour 6 and co. seemed to be the favorite picks by Vietnamese filmgoers. Now I was seriously worried. Luckily for me, I was not alone.

There are many reasons why this is happening: strict rules and censorship limit local films as well those that are imported; cinemas have to compete with karaoke parlors (a battle lost before it even began), and ultimately, it comes down to education. Cinema and its history are not studied at school like they are in other countries; allow me this simple literature parallel: if you have only read books by Nicholas Sparks, you will not know what to do when you have Dostoyevsky in your hands.

Every now and then an article surfaces in newspapers claiming that the problem of Vietnamese cinema lays mainly on the lack of technology and resources, resulting in the production of low quality films that people won’t pay to watch.

Another issue is strictly linked to the mechanics of the Vietnamese film industry, as director Dang Di Phan (‘Bi, Don’t Be Afraid) clearly stated in a 2013 interview, where established studios focus only on comedy-light films and the government does not support newcomers and alternative filmmakers.

There is definitely some truth in this. However, as cinematic history teaches us, you do not need big budgets to make interesting and gripping films (Duel by Spielberg, The Blair Witch Project, Evil Dead by Raimi, the entire French cinema verite’ wave and I could go on, proved that). What you need is a wide exposure to different forms of cinema to inspire new filmmakers, combined with alternative platforms to present their work as well as giving audiences the chance to be exposed to different films and learn to appreciate them.

The venues and organizations listed below may not be the answer to all these ‘problems’ but they are making a difference in broadening the access and appreciation for cinema; they represent the ‘art house cinemas’ that are missing in Saigon. The people behind them are all film lovers, and, in their own different ways, believe in the value lying behind offering a diversified cinema experience.

More importantly they are all eager and interested in being contacted if new filmmakers want to show their films at their venues!

Note: the venues are listed alphabetically and their info will be updated regularly.

1. deciBel Lounge 

Probably the most indie driven, deciBel’s selection is a balance between classic cult and alternative films with a predilection for world cinema. Moreover, it is one of the few venues that regularly show quality and edgy Asian films. The owners, Aymeric and Ludovic, choose the films themselves from either their collection or based on what they think might be missing in Saigon’s cinemas. In line with deciBel’s spirit of being a community space for sharing ideas, they also welcome requests from customers, and they have accommodated for the most part.

Special screenings: They have recently launched an independent short film festival, Impressions, which aims to showcase Vietnamese and South-East Asian films accompanied by talks and related art events. They have worked with The Onion Cellar in projecting documentaries (The Pirate Bay documentary, Efterklang Double Bill) and have screened various local productions’ short films (South-East Asian Portraits, You Make My Trip). In addition, they have hosted Future Shorts and held charity fundraising screenings in collaboration with organizations such as Team Up.


WHERE: deciBel Lounge – 79/2 Phan Ke Binh, Da Kao, Dist.1

WHEN: Wednesday @ 8 p.m.

SUBTITLES: English and Vietnamese

TYPES OF SEATING: sofas and chairs

CAPACITY: max 65

SOME OF THE FILMS SHOWN RECENTLY: A Separation, La Haine, Old Boy, Amour, Life is a Miracle, War Witch, The Beasts of Southern Wild, Ao lua Ha Dong – The white silk dress, Chungking Express, Before Midnight


2. Future Shorts Vietnam

Future shorts is one of the largest and most innovative short film festival in the world. It was first introduced in Vietnam in 2009 by the organizers that today run Me Phim (see below). Now it is run by a group of volunteers and film lovers. Anh-Thu does a brilliant job in selecting and incorporating local Vietnamese short films with international ones. Future Shorts is one of the few platforms to showcase young local filmmakers’ works.

ENTRANCE FEE: around 50,000 VND (part of the money is usually given to local charities)

WHEN & WHERE: Every three or four months in various venues around town (Snap Cafe, Saigon Outcast, The Observatory and DeciBel)

SUBTITLES: English and Vietnamese


3. Me Phim – Passionate About Film 

In 2009, Sophie, Duc and Lam decided that something needed to be done to compensate for the lack of art cinemas in Saigon. Through a friend in London they launched Future Shorts Vietnam which did not yet have a platform in South East Asia. However, that was not enough; they wanted to create a more progressive film scene which would promote a debate among foreigners and Vietnamese, that’s when Me Phim – Passionate about Film was born. Under its umbrella, they run the ‘Art House Cinema’ on a monthly basis. Their choices are based on picking films that they think might have an impact on people as well as films that are hard to find.

Special screenings: They have done multi-media events with local graffiti artists, DJs, music, art and traditional Vietnamese music with the aim to experiment with how cinema can be hooked into local culture. They often screen local short films.

ENTRANCE FEE: free (donations for a chosen charity are welcome)

WHERE: ‘Art house’ @ Snap Café 

Special screenings @ various venues (De Javu cafe’, Snap Cafe)

WHEN: 1st Tuesday of every month @ 7.30 p.m.


TYPES OF SEATING: sofas, armchairs, benches and chairs

CAPACITY: around 120

SOME OF THE FILMS SHOWN RECENTLY: Blancaneve, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Muscle Shoals


4. The Observatory 

Since its opening less than one year ago, The Observatory has worked with Future Shorts to host two of its annual screenings. It has recently started collaboration with Doc Lab – Hanoi in organizing film screening followed by talks. More information about the Doc Lab screenings can be found on Everyone’s a DJ Website

ENTRANCE FEE: 50.0000 VND/20.0000 VND for students

WHERE: The Observatory, Le Lai & Ton That Tung, Dist. 1


TYPES OF SEATING: chairs, Sofas and stools

SOME OF THE FILMS SHOWN RECENTLY: The House I Live in, We Live in Public


5. Saigon Outcast

Due to the venue’s layout, this is essentially an outdoor cinema which usually shows films on Thursday. Vivi has been in charge of SGOC’s films selection for the past year. How does she choose them? “I simply pick films that I like and that I find interesting,” which is more than OK with me considering the broad, varied and quality range of titles that she has drawn from so far.

Last November, SGOC has launched their Saturday Swimming Pool cinema. Yes, you read correctly, around 19 inflatable pools (which hold around 4 people each) are placed in the venue’s garden for a double-bill screening.

Special screenings: SGOC has worked with various organizations such as The Onion cellar (‘Sigur Ross’), they have hosted the Future Shorts, they have done themed screenings (Gibli Studio), multi-media events – Flaming lips and collaborated with AVIFF (Art Video International Film Festival).

ENTRANCE FEE: Free (except for special screenings where an entrance fee may apply)

WHERE: Saigon Outcast 188/1 Nguyen

WHEN: Thursday @ 8 p.m.

SUBTITLES: English for foreign films

TYPES OF SEATING: armchairs, beanbags, benches, chairs, stools, mats and...swimming pools (weather permitting)

CAPACITY: max 100 people

SOME OF THE FILMS SHOWN ARE: The Big Lebowski, The Social Network, Breathless, Delicatessen, The Warriors, Stoker, The Last Circus, Ed Wood, Suspiria, Point Break, Man on wire


[Top image via aerialmarine]

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