In Vietnam, people still love to go to the movies. While cinema chains in the U.S. struggled even before the pandemic, Vietnamese theaters have thrived—in part because they offer a social experience. “Millennials and Gen Z don’t go to watch the movie,” explains Jade Nguyen, CEO of Module K Vietnam, the design firm she co-founded with Nguyen Anh Huy. “They want to go together, talk, and hang out.” And, of course, take photos for posting on social media. So, when Beta Group, a chain with cinemas in northern Vietnam, expanded southward to open Beta Cinema Saigon, in Ho Chi Minh City, the company aimed to produce an Instagrammable destination that would generate buzz. Module K obliged, orchestrating a 1,000-seat cineplex that honors local landmarks, casting candy colors as the lead characters.
Nguyen has a knack for attracting snap-happy crowds. After studying interior design at Van Lang University, she opened a small coffee shop and gallery filled with bright ceramics and mismatched furniture. The eclectic vibe made it popular for photo shoots, bringing in a new source of revenue. When the café closed in 2015, Nguyen turned her attention to Module K—the K refers to her middle name, Kim—and designing other eye-catching interiors. One of the firm’s early projects was Serene House, a mixed-use café, furniture showroom, and workplace in HCMC where Module K had its first office. A modern take on French colonial architecture, the industrial, plant-filled setting reflects Nguyen’s love of her hometown’s historic buildings—and gave her a reputation as a stylish interpreter of Indochinese design.
This background made Nguyen, a millennial herself, a good fit for the Beta project. “Since this was its flagship in the south, Beta wanted to give a gift to the Saigonese and make them proud of their iconic buildings,” she says. “It was easy for me to fall in love with that idea.” Given the target demographic, this would not be a dutiful homage to the 19th-century city of Marie-Alfred Foulhoux, the beaux arts–trained chief architect of French-occupied Saigon. Instead, Nguyen pitched pared-down references to attractions like Paris Commune Square and the Central Post Office. Though there’s an old city map above the entry, the theme is otherwise oblique, with landmarks rendered in simplified lines and solid colors. “Gen Z doesn’t know much about these sites,” Nguyen admits. But she hopes young visitors lingering in the mezzanine lounge will take the time to identify them—and engage with their city’s heritage.
For locals, the most recognizable element is the color: The theater is almost entirely painted the same pale rose as Tan Dinh Church, known as the “pink church.” Other locations are harder to spot, like the asymmetrical arches in a side waiting area that nod to the church’s neo-Gothic arcades. The columned ticket and refreshment counter, in deep teal, curves slightly overhead to recall the post office’s magnificent vaulted ceiling. Opposite, a circular steel platform with navy stadium seating echoes the arched entrance of the Municipal Opera House, while white bird-shape pendant fixtures allude to the pigeons in public squares nearby. A rainbow-painted hallway leading to the seven theaters gestures to the colorful street life in HCMC’s alleyways.
From these disparate inspirations, Module K formed a cohesive look using graphic design principles. Taking cues from Beta’s simple, geometric logo, Nguyen and her team reduced 40 potential landmarks to their basic shapes, like the circle of the opera and the rectangles of the church. Then the designers moved them around like Legos in digital and physical models, experimenting with different layouts and rearranging buildings until they settled on five iconic locations that sat well together. “Next, we applied a solid color treatment, because we wanted it to look 2D—more like graphic design than interior design,” Nguyen explains. “It was new for us not to think in terms of wood or brick, but just the colors in Photoshop.”
Plaster-gypsum walls, ceilings, and columns are painted in saturated hues, incorporating little texture into the envelope, except for shiny porcelain or encaustic-cement floor tiles. Spare, modern lounge furnishings include bright-red café tables and round or square ottomans upholstered in pink, green, or yellow vinyl. The effect is that most areas appear almost flat, looking more like a perky photo-booth backdrop than a 21,500-square-foot cineplex. Only the individual theaters are multidimensional, with arched LED-lit recesses, turquoise seating, and custom canvas wall covering. “We printed a photo onto the canvas to give it a vintage-looking texture,” Nguyen notes of the latter. In earthy tones of orange and green, the theaters are a moodier take on old Saigon.
When Beta Cinema Saigon opened in January, tweens and teens didn’t hesitate to get tickets. Nguyen reports that they arrive well before showtime to pose on the jagged mezzanine staircase, pink balcony, or even in the graphic checkered restrooms. She guesses that most of them don’t care what film is playing. At Beta, there’s plenty to look at offscreen. As for Nguyen and her cast, they’re already onto the sequel: Beta Cinema Phú Quôc.
Nguyen Anh Huy; Ngan Giang; Diep Binh Quyen; Phuong Dung; Phu Binh; Thuy Vi; Nguyen Hiep: Module K Vietnam. RPB: Custom Furniture Workshop. Vinh Tuong: Plasterwork.