Finding the perfect place to work, meet or simply unwind can be tough. Dana Filek-Gibson seeks out the best downtown cafes and gets a heavy caffeine buzz in the process. Photos by Vinh Dao.
A good cafe is hard to find. Sure, there are plenty to choose from – you can’t turn around in this town without someone handing you a ca phe sua da – but a quiet place that knows its way around a cup of coffee remains a rare find in Saigon. More elusive still is a local spot yet to be influenced by the likes of Taylor Swift or, worse, those kids from Glee. And yet, in spite of every run-of-the-mill coffeeshop from here to Binh Duong, there is reason to remain optimistic. Just when you think the city’s coffee culture has lost its spark, step into one of these spaces and witness the new age of the Saigon cafe.
The Bean Store
399 Vo Van Tan, D3
08 39 295 678 // 9am – 10pm
When The Bean Store’s owners returned from a trip to Singapore a few years back and couldn’t find a place in Saigon that sold their favourite snacks, they did what any respectable self-starters would do: opened a cafe themselves. Now with locations in both District 1 and District 3, the modest shop boasts an eclectic but enticing menu which includes fish-shaped Japanese taiyaki, Singaporean-style char kway teow and a host of soya products, from soft serve ice cream and silky pudding to dozens of soy-based drinks. While The Bean Store’s second shop, hidden downstairs in the food court of the Union Square building at 171 Dong Khoi, is closer to the downtown action, its original location offers a bit more charm.
Cakes & Ale
23 Ly Tu Trong, Room 9, 1st floor, D1
09 06 840 500 // 9am – 10pm
If coffee-roasters and high-ceilinged spaces are the stuff of innovation, Cakes & Ale does its best to keep the local cafe scene in balance, celebrating what owner Nguyen Hoang calls ‘Old Saigon’. A passion project, the cafe – which is housed in a first-floor apartment on Ly Tu Trong – serves as a reminder of decades past, outfitted in vintage furniture and nostalgia items from the pre-1975 era, including old-school black-and-white photographs, handpainted advertisements and an impressive collection of first-edition Doraemon comics. Born and raised in Saigon, Hoang and his wife not only run this modest space but are also the duo behind the Cakes & Ale bakery, which produces a range of Western- and Asian-style desserts, some of which are even prepared in the open kitchen area of the cafe, allowing visitors to watch the process start to finish. A series of other little touches – the vintage music, the chess board in the garden, the complete lack of street noise and a precocious, mustachioed black-and-white cat make the place feel like home.
27 Ngo Duc Ke, D1
08 38 246 801 // 7am – 8pm
Between its sky-high ceilings, enormous windows and massive wooden tables, The Workshop is the antithesis of a Saigon cafe. And yet, in a city known for its tiny, cloistered coffeeshops, this minimalist space has managed to amass a devout following of coffee-drinkers thanks to its premium beans, roasted in-house, and the clean, industrial feel of the place. To the uninitiated, brewing a cup of coffee at The Workshop can look more like a science project than a drink order, with enough bells and whistles behind its large, rectangular bar to rival your high school chemistry lab. But the results are undeniable: one sip of The Workshop’s freshly-brewed coffee and you’ll see what all the fuss is about. Beyond beverages, a decent selection of salads, sandwiches, pasta and burgers also make it onto the menu, and the cafe’s mellow atmosphere makes it a good spot for meeting, working or simply hanging out.
Vanilla & Butter
8A/C2 Thai Van Lung, D1
09 37 722 518 // 10am – 10pm
Make a right-hand turn off Thai Van Lung and you’ll find yourself in another world: welcome to Saigon’s very own land of the rising sun, a web of alleyways packed with Japanese noodle shops, sake bars and, of course, cafes. Vanilla & Butter stands out for its decadent cakes, which include red velvet, matcha chiffon, rum raisin and a particularly tasty soya cheesecake. The bright upstairs sitting area would not be out of place in a Pottery Barn display, complete with wooden tables and a collection of colourful ceramics for sale, not to mention Japanese touches like the woven baskets underneath each table – for your bag – or the stack of kanji-covered magazines in the corner. A handful of drinks, from Vietnamese coffee and matcha lattes to pots of English Breakfast tea, round out Vanilla & Butter’s menu.
14 Ton That Dam, 1st floor, D1
08 66 786 205 // 9am – 10pm
Before you even reach Things’ bright yellow front door, the crumbling building at 14 Ton That Dam gives off a distinctly bohemian vibe, its staircase surrounded by low-stooled open-air cafes and secondhand bookshops. Nestled among vintage clothing boutiques and tattoo parlours, Things is a quintessential Saigon cafe, hidden from street view and decorated in mix-and-match fashion with everything from flowers and board games to birdcages and black-and-white photographs. Kick back on one of the brightly-patterned sofas and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to while away the hours here.