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10.01.24 | People

Behind the scenes: designer Nikolai Sorensen shares his family’s Vietnam adventure

Over the past year, Città product designer Nikolai Sorensen has been based in Ho Chi Minh. He was joined by his young family as they navigated living, working, and homeschooling in the vibrant Vietnam city. Upon his return to New Zealand, we chatted to Nikolai about the experience.

Hi Nikolai! We’d love to hear more about your family’s time in Vietnam. How did the opportunity arise?

The opportunity was initiated by Margot [Città founder & CEO]. She had known for a while that I wanted to spend some time overseas with my family while our kids were still young. She had a conversation with one of our suppliers and it turned out he was looking for a part-time studio manager based in Vietnam. She put my name forward without me knowing. When I came into the office the next day, she asked “Have you ever thought about Vietnam?” I hadn’t, but we were up for it!

You were joined by your wife Jo, seven-year-old son, Arie and five-year-old daughter, Pia. How did they find the experience?

We were a bit nervous when heading over there, as it was a bit of an unknown. However, they all took it in their stride. There were certainly some adjustments—the heat being one of them. When we first arrived, the temperature was in the high 30s. Jo schooled the kids while we were over there, which was a bit of an adjustment, but it didn’t take us long to get into the rhythm of living in the bustling city.

During your time, you worked alongside local craftspeople and manufacturers. What were the benefits of this collaborative process?

Being close to suppliers and visiting factories was a huge advantage from a design perspective. The conversations you can have in person about materials, processes, and production are the equivalent of a thousand emails. Innovation comes from asking questions—questioning the norm and pushing manufacturers to try something different. It’s nearly impossible to do this from afar. Being based in Vietnam allowed me to have those conversations, go away, and then come back a week later to view the results. It was such an amazing opportunity when developing new concepts.

Back home in New Zealand, you live in the laid-back coastal community of Muriwai. How did this differ from the bustling culture of Ho Chi Minh?

We love what we have back home but experiencing a different culture and way of life was a big drawcard of us moving there. In Muriwai, we live on a farm close to the beach. In Vietnam, we were on the 25th floor of an apartment block in a city of 10 million people. It was the polar opposite of our New Zealand life. The area we lived in was expat-heavy and there was always something going on. We made some great friends who helped us adapt to the different ways of living.

What did a typical day look like for your family?

If we weren’t at school or work, then you’d most likely find us exploring the city on my ’72 Honda scooter. There was so much to see and do, and having a scooter to get around was a must. Usually, we’d head out to a market to grab some fresh fruit and veges, or head to a cafe for a Cafe Sua (iced coffee). Because it was so hot, there was a lot of pool time and luckily our building had three pools to choose from. At night, we’d head out with friends for dinner. Usually, we’d end up sitting on the side of the street on the iconic plastic yellow stools—this is where you find the best, most authentic food.

Vietnam is praised for its diverse and distinctive cuisine. What were some memorable dishes or experiences?

Food is such a huge part of Vietnamese culture. In the area we lived in, there must have been about a thousand different food options within a 5km radius—and it was all so good, fresh, and affordable. For lunch most days, I would grab a Báhn Mi (baguette) with roast pork, fresh veges, and herbs for $1.30. The other dishes we loved were Pho (soup), Báhn Xèo (Pancake), and Báhn Hoi (noodles). We’d head out each night and walk the streets until we found a new dish to try.

Finally, what has been your favourite part of living abroad?

There is a real energy to living in Ho Chi Minh and this helped my design work. The new experiences—new smells, sounds, and lifestyle—translated into new perspectives that were reflected in my designs. From a personal perspective, although we were in a fast-paced city, our life seemed to slow down. This meant we were able to spend a lot more time together as a family. Being able to balance work with travel was such an amazing opportunity.