Jon over at the blog The final Word...in Saigon posted the other day about places to "chill out" in Ho Chi Minh City, meaning cafés, otherwise known as coffeehouses in the western world. Jon subtitled his posting "Part I", indicating there are other posts to come about this subject since he is writing a feature article about such places in Saigon. In the spirit of friendship and blog collaboration we expat bloggers are famous for in Vietnam, I offer this selection of cafés to add to Jon's list.
Speaking of blogger friendship, my friend Kevin over at the SaigonNezumi.com blog beat me to the punch yesterday on my first café selection -- the Café Hi-END at 217 Nguyễn Văn Thủ in District 1 of HCMC. Although I have never seen another westerner in the Café Hi-END, I am not surprised that Kevin has been there since he has many Vietnamese friends that probably introduced him to the café. I was introduced to the café by a Vietnamese businessman. This café is close enough to other venues frequented by expats so there could be an increase in expats hitting the Hi-END and other Vietnamese cafés if Jon, Kevin and I keep plugging them.
Jon's selection so far has featured cafés downtown in Districts 1 or 3 where tourists and expats hang out. The Le Petit Café draws a good mixed-crowd of Vietnamese and westerners. I like to hit the Café Park Bach Dang once in a while to gaze across the river at Thu Thiem as Jon recommended. I keep thinking about potential real estate over there in the swamps. The prices at Bach Dang are certainly my style at less than US$.50 per cup. I avoid places like Highland's coffee because they don't specialize in Vietnamese cà phê -- they do Starbucks-style espresso coffee drinks at western prices.
Most of the cafés I will feature here will be full of Vietnamese people rather than tourists or expats, and they will usually be located deep within thoroughly Vietnamese neighborhoods. And they almost always have Vietnamese names rather than English-language names. That doesn't mean tourists and expats should be afraid to venture into these cafés -- I have always felt welcome in these cafés. You just have to work to find some of these locations. The Vietnamese have developed a true café society -- they throng to the cafés in the mid-morning for business, and crowd the cafés at night for socializing.
Café Như Ngày Nào
My favorite cafe's are out in the Phú Nhuận District neighborhood where I live. I try to hit the Café Như Ngày Nào once a day in the late afternoon to reflect on the day's events and plan for the next day. This café is located at 26 Doàn Thị Điểm, a narrow street accessed off Đường Phan Dăng Lưu just north of the intersection with Đường Phan Đình Phùng.
Click on the photos to see larger image sizes
This café is a real garden, so most of the café is open-air. There are two terraces that are covered, and other areas have a gravel surface.
For the heat-challenged among us, there is a small air-conditioned room. Given a choice at a café between an air-conditioned setting and an outside setting, I always sit outside. There are usually enough breezes wafting around HCMC to be comfortable.
The garden features several long pools with large tropical fish and many small fountains as well as one large waterfall. There are a couple of rabbits scampering around the terraces and gardens eating the plants. The owner is continually adding to the collection of very diverse plant material and artifacts.
The result is a club-like setting that I enjoy. Since there are usually two or three tables of chess-playing men along with spectators, the atmosphere is truly like a men's club. Note the men in the photo above in white shirts -- one has his cell phone to his ear -- this café like many in HCMC caters to businessmen who seem to use the café as their office. Nevertheless, there are many women who come to this café for its sinh tố fruit drinks and kem (ice cream). Although most Vietnamese cafés do not offer food, this café seems to be in the vanguard of a new movement of cafés that offer small rice dishes at lunchtime. The cà phê đá (very strong Vietnamese iced coffee -- my standard drink of choice and bellwether for pricing) runs 10,000 VND (US$0.62). This price range is typical for Vietnamese neighborhood cafés taking up substantial real estate -- small curbside stands run about 4,000 VND (US$0.25) to 7,000 VND (US$0.44).
The audio system here has the usual tinny sound from small speakers, but the music here is played at a reasonable level, unlike at many Vietnamese cafés. This café plays a well-selected mix of Vietnamese traditional and pop music along with western oldies and world music. Therefore this is a good place to carry out a conversation.
Khúc Giao Mùa Café
I try to take long walks through different neighborhoods a couple of times a week, and I usually look for interesting cafés to stop at for a break. The Khúc Giao Mùa Café at 110A Nguyễn Đình Chính in Q. Phú Nhuận is a good example. Many nice café's are often down side lanes like this one, so you have to be willing to explore a bit and take a chance.
This café is also a garden setting with an option for indoor tables in a villa on the property.
There are private table settings like this one
in addition to larger areas of tables.
This seating area features a lush waterfall (the water is difficult to see in the sunlight in this photo).
I suspect this is a very romantic place in the evening.
The music here is pop and traditional Vietnamese music (which I love), and it is played at a reasonable sound level. Prices are a step up at 17,000 VND (US$1.06) for cà phê đá (iced coffee).
Back to the Hi-End café, this café is in an air-conditioned building, but it does not look particularly appealing on the outside, and looks dark inside, which it is. Normally I prefer open airy bright cafés, so I have bypassed this café previously.
It is not as dark as it looks inside, although the walls are painted a rich dark brown. The interior reminds me of a vintage NYC Greenwich Village or Berkeley folk-music coffeehouse. The chairs here are not the usual hard café chairs -- they are very comfortable sofa-like chairs.
Kevin at SaigonNetzumi.com mentioned the home-made sound system -- it is also very beautiful with illuminated vacuum tubes.
The sound quality is incredible with a soft lush quality unlike any other café or venue I have heard in Việt Nam (or in the USA). Sound-absorbing materials and textured surfaces have been used on walls and ceilings (unusual in Việt Nam) to provide excellent acoustics without the reverberation typical of most hard masonry spaces typical in HCMC. (Maybe all the Marilyn Monroe photographs on the walls help). The music is a very intelligent mix of acoustical and folk music that is played at a reasonable level that allows good conversations.
Cà phê đá here runs 17,000 VND (US$1.06) in the daytime, and 30,000 VND (US$1.87) in the evening, which is a peak time for most HCMC cafés.