Last year, a specific segment of the happy hour crowd was devastated by the loss of what had quickly become an institution — the expat-nicknamed ‘Pallet Palace’, the third sprawling incarnation of the pop-up BBQ joint 5ku. The rendition on the corner of Pasteur and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai attracted a healthy mix of expats and locals, and had just expanded their operations by 20 shipping pallet tables before disappearing into thin air. To the puzzled expats I frequented the place alongside, this vanishing act was symbolic of the ephemeral nature of business in this city and, to a vaguer extent, a reminder of the unknowability of this strange land we found ourselves in.
That was before a sharp rebranding and 5ku’s triumphant return to District 1 — in a vacant lot at 29 Thai Van Lung, a location which has recently expanded via a back alley to include another lot at the adjacent 27 Le Thanh Ton and serves an estimated 300 people per night, according to its owner, 32-year-old Dinh Thien Thien. Although a location occasionally comes and goes, Thien’s plywood empire seems set for the long run.
It was the dream Thien glimpsed back in July of 2011, on his way back home from a football game. He saw a beautiful vacant space being wasted as a parking lot. He was broke again, something that happened often in the six years he’d been chefing and managing restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. Just then something clicked, some words he’d heard back in business school — “Low investment, high income.”
He borrowed some money and set about building the first 5ku on Nguyen Thong in District 3. The setup cost was VND140 million. VND14 million was spent on the first month’s rent and the same in the security deposit, with the rest spent on pallets, people and infrastructure.
“I did everything,” Thien says. “I made the tables, I made the bar, the kitchen. I was the chef.” He also made plenty of mistakes, but still came out with a solid, clean concept. When asked how he set about creating this world from scratch, Thien answers, “I learnt from the internet, it was easy.”
He also learnt from the western movies he saw as a child, movies in which the only escape from dusty streets with a lot of killing was the nearly-as-raw saloon. “I thought, I need to make an open saloon,” he says. Thien, as a lot of the best entrepreneurs in the world have done, was making his ideal world out of what was missing from his current one. And it turned out to be missing from a lot of other people’s as well.
This is one of those places where you can sit for hours over a budget-priced beer, as many people do — the waiters aren’t too rushed either. As a matter of fact, that’s the idea. As Thien says, “Here is the station for everybody. People come and go.”
Thien’s whimsical empire — named after a spooneristic take on FC Barcelona’s stadium, Camp Nou — expanded quickly from there. Currently they’re at three locations, with the connected District 1 spots and one at 79 Pho Quang in Tan Binh. But they’ve gone through four other tries.
“When I got the first one,” Thien says, “I thought, ‘Could I make a system for the 5kus?’ And I decided I needed to.”
The rent goes up exponentially as owners catch wind of 5ku’s popularity. While the first location in District 3 cost VND14 million per month, a location like the ones in District 1 costs VND300 million in setup costs and VND100 million per month in rent. The next-door café, contained between four walls, probably pays something like VND200 million a month. But still, the temporary bike parking that would have occupied this space would only have netted VND20 to 40 million per month.
One location lasts one month, another lasts a year. It’s the model. “We’re always moving!” Thien says. “Maybe after a night, we have to move.”
Thien’s devil-may-care attitude seems made for this continual uncertainty. The tables at Thai Van Lung have already been burned through by the grill-your-own setups, and Thien plans to invite some friends over to cover the walls at Le Thanh Ton in graffiti — even in the toilets and the kitchen. The classic white tile, which climbs 15m up the wall in places, will hold up the black-and-yellow vinyl 5ku banners.
But this comfort in collapse doesn’t mean Thien’s not planning for the future. He’s already starting work on the “second step” in the wilds of District 2 — a “5ku village”. He’s loath to disclose details at this early point, but says, “[It will] look like a farm… Someone comes here and tries the countryside.”
I press him again on this later in the conversation, and he looses another sly hint. “In the Mekong Delta, you can stay in a homestay,” he says. “But we are in Ho Chi Minh City, not the Mekong Delta.”
As far as where his road will lead, especially with the addition of another brother, a recently-graduated architect, Thien isn’t saying much but reveals this tidbit, “I go alone… I always work a lot. It is my way.”
Expanding this tack to the advice level, Thien offers this thought to those who’d like to get out of the rat race themselves: “There is one leader on the way. We can do everything together with someone, but there is only one leader on the way.”