In my posting about American coffeehouses a month ago, I mentioned that the stores are much smaller than Vietnamese cafés. The design of these stores are almost always retail in nature and rarely explore themes or provide environments more comfortable than the retail setting.
There are a wide variety of levels of Vietnamese cafés, presented previously here. The biggest surprise is the number of very large themed cafés in Ho Chi Minh City. A great deal of design skill and care goes into making these environments, and people flock to them, especially on Sunday mornings. Unlike American coffeehouses which are mostly take-out oriented, Vietnamese cafés are all about relaxing and socializing. On weekdays, these gatherings are often business-related while on Saturday and Sunday mornings, they become family oriented. In the evening, these cafés are filled with young couples.
It is hard to understand why there are very few if any of these large themed cafés in America. Is it because Americans won't take the time to relax and socialize? I don't think it is necessarily the economics -- land is just as expensive in Saigon as in San Francisco. An American café like the large themed cafés in HCMC could probably charge a premium for the value of the setting provided. There may be one or two such cafés in southern California where many overseas Vietnamese live, such as in Westminster, otherwise known as Little Saigon. But my friends from there know of none. And I have never seen such cafés in the Vietnamese areas of Sacramento and San Jose. I would be happy to hear of such a café in the U.S. because I believe there could be a good market for this fresh concept in the U.S.
Here are a couple of new examples introduced to me by my friend Toàn. They are both similarly large, but have very different settings. Both of these cafés are in the heart of the Phú Nhuạn District of HCMC, and are easily accessible from downtown.
The first is called Trầm, and it features an ancient garden theme. Trầm is at 100 Trần Huy Liệu Street between Nguyễn Đình Chính and Nguyễn Trọng Tuyển Streets. The frontage on the street is very narrow and nondescript -- you have to trust that there is a large café behind the narrow gate.
Beyond the inner gate, the garden opens up with a "canyon" between two buildings with air-conditioned seating within.
I prefer the outdoor garden terrace on the second level.
I would love to see a beautiful garden terrace like this at a U.S. coffeehouse. A great deal of care and landscape design has gone into this environment.
Du Mien Café
The second café is much more modern and energetic, and also twice as expensive as most of the cafés I visit (a cà phê đá runs about 35,000 VN đồng [US$2.15]). The Du Mien Café seems to be frequented by the nouveau rich and their families, a fast-growing segment of society in Ho Chi Minh City. Kevin Miller, Jr. of the blog SaigonNezumi.com recommended this café to me in a posting three months ago.
The Du Mien Café is hidden away on hẻm (lane) 48 at lot 9a off a small narrow street named Hồ Biểu Chánh, close to Huỳnh Văn Bánh Street. Motorbikes are parked with an attendant at the lane, and you walk to the entry on a side lane.
The primary structure is a three-story modernist villa with a variety of indoor air-conditioned spaces as well as terrace decks.
The villa is set within a garden with a selection of patio terraces for seating.
Light food is available at this café, but the primary focus is on coffee drinks and an extensive choice of fruit juices and sinh tố (fruit shakes or smoothees).