Ruben Luong befriends snakes and lizards at Saigon’s first reptile cafe. Photos by Jonny Edbrooke and Sarah Joanne Smith.
While Godzilla wreaks havoc in theatres across the world, some friendlier lizards are making peace in Phu Nhuan’s Café Babo, the first reptile café in Saigon.
Pet cafés are a popular Asian concept, and Saigon already has a few. There’s Ailucat Café on Nguyen Trong Tuyen Street, where fans of felines can chill with 20 cats reclining on tables and bookshelves. In Phu My Hung, Stardog Café offers dog lovers playtime with a pack of beautiful huskies.
Café Babo’s casual den of more than 10 scaly, cold-blooded residents is a far cry from existing establishments filled with furry friends. A young reptile enthusiast, Tuan, opened the café last month and word of it spread online at Zing MP3 News and VietNamNet.
The café’s reptiles are small and docile creatures that are tamed usually within six to eight months. Most have their own UVA- or UVB-lit cage placed in a raised and open-air living area. Patrons remove their shoes and sit on the ground to drink fruit smoothies or coffee (VND 15,000-30,000) while handling each reptile.
“It is interesting to look at and play with the reptiles that I could only see on TV or the internet right here,” one customer told VietNamNet last month.
Some reptiles from the café are pets from members of Saigon’s local animal and reptile lovers club, so they are accustomed to strangers. Stars of the café are a roughly one-metre long milk snake, a baby salamander and a green iguana from South America. It’s a veritable dinosaur when it’s on its large branch perch installed in the café.
But the Savannah Monitor, or South African dragon, holds the crown. It weighs about three kilograms and at one point donned a Western vest with studded spikes. It can cost around VND 3-10 million, as opposed to VND 500,000 for other reptilian species in the café.
Reptiles like the dragon are natural models with intricate, photogenic scales and long, lanky poses, so customers are more than inclined to take snaps while sipping their coffee or smoothies. Stunning pythons can also be arranged to wrap around coffee glasses on the low wooden tables for cool photos.
Picture opportunities are fun, but interacting with the reptiles gives locals a chance to study their characteristics and behaviour. Another reptile enthusiast, Huy, showed a unique lizard trick while hanging out at the café on a Friday afternoon.
“Pressing here puts the lizard to sleep,” he says in Vietnamese, gently touching an area around the lizard’s neck and torso. He presses the same spots again and the lizard jolts awake.
Huy demonstrates that a lizard has muscles in its throat and belly that contract and expand its lungs to keep the flow of oxygen steady. By poking at its throat and belly, the muscles don’t function properly and temporarily shut off without hurting the lizard to conserve oxygen.
It’s easy to spend a whole afternoon at the café playing with and observing the reptiles, but there are plenty of patrons who come a little scared. One boy kept trying to scare his friend by poking him in the back when he wasn’t looking. A couple of girls immediately squirmed when a green lizard strutted towards them.
Yet Café Babo is slowly changing the general perception of reptiles here, introducing them to a young and curious crowd in the safe context of a coffee shop, where they would ordinarily hang out with their friends.
It’s a trending concept, reptiles as coffee companions. They also reside at the Pet Café in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh district, which opened in April and was featured in VietNamNet, Tuoi Tre and New York Daily News. Pet Café’s owner, Nguyen Minh Nghia, has a collection of more than 40 snakes, rats, lizards, tarantulas and hedgehogs from his travels throughout Singapore, China and Thailand.
Visiting these pet cafés, however, patrons should regard sanitation as a top priority. On its website, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that reptile pets can carry salmonella germs on their skin. “It’s crucial that customers wash their hands immediately after touching animals, or anything in the area where they live and roam,” the CDC states.
Rest assured, the reptiles at the cafés are generally harmless, and the owners take care to breed, feed (crickets, lettuce, mice, reptile feed) and bathe them properly. Like humans, reptiles are also just as sensitive to certain light, temperature and humidity. But for whatever lifestyle differences there are, for now they’ll continue to get a taste of the common coffee culture.