There is a kind of youth that exists in Vietnam that no longer exists in the west. Enough removed from too many generations scarred by war, colonialism and famine, it’s as if this generation has been chosen to experience youth for the first time in decades. Or maybe it just feels that way. There is a buzz in the air and the caffeine and vitality is palpable. Anything is possible.
The café is a second home for the youth of Ho Chi Minh City. The dimly-lit rooms with endless sweet drinks and soft music are ideal to steal away alone time with that special someone. However, cafés are not just a perfect getaway for couples; the free Wifi, lack of time limit and plentiful seating create a welcoming environment for studying or spending hours catching up with friends. And it is this perfect storm of privacy, cheap drinks, free Wifi, ample seating, relative exclusivity and limited rules that seems to attract the young and hip of Ho Chi Minh City. It appears that Tu Xuong in District 3 is their chosen ground zero.
The Café Crawl
First on the journey is ID Café (61B Tu Xuong), the brainchild of actress/model Trinh Minh Anh. The second ID Café in the city, this location has been open since September 2012. The décor is styled in pastels, blacks and greys, and everything appears like it could have been purchased from Etsy or a nice consignment shop, purposefully giving off a shabby-chic vibe. Norah Jones-like pop plays softly in the background and an artificial fruit scent, much like body spray, overwhelms the senses. If it weren’t for the menus on cute wooden clipboards and the sporadic patrons with smoothies and specialty coffees, one might confuse ID Café with an Anthropologie shop. Most appealingly ID Café is non-smoking and quiet, an ideal place to catch up with your reading or to chat quietly with friends.
Just up the block, Den & Trang (47 Tu Xuong) has the feel of an abandoned house. First you walk down a long hallway with vines overhead and potted plants lining the sides. Seating is on lawn furniture outside and brown booth-like couches inside, but as the “house” is open it doesn’t make much difference where you sit unless you sit in the air-conditioned, closed-off non-smoking room. If you go any time past 4pm it’s dark inside and rather foreboding, much like you are intruding in a medieval house with 1970s furniture while the owners are out collecting berries. Den & Trang is curiously decorated with ladybugs, wind chimes, Buddhas, Chinese art, music notes, a disco ball and paintings of pigs — which all come together to create a very nonsensical theme, making it an ideal place to hide out.
Last on our caffeinated exploration of Tu Xuong is Fly Cupcake Garden (25A Tu Xuong), which is basically a little girl’s daydream about an Alice in Wonderland-style cupcake shop come to life. There are birdcages outside as decoration as well as oil lamps and trimmed hedges; inside it is styled like an eclectic Pottery Barn but with a Victorian spin. The clientele is admittedly more female but the cupcakes would appeal to either gender. Fly Cupcake Garden is an ideal place to take pictures or to enjoy cupcakes and drinks with friends.
This assignment began with the question, “Where do the cool Vietnamese kids go?” and ends with a better question — “Where will the cool Vietnamese kids go next?” The next big thing in the café world is shaping up to be Banksy Studio (1st Floor, 14 Ton That Dam, Q1), a fusing together of street art and café culture just opened this past month. Sam Nguyen has created her café around a classy graffiti theme mixed in with graphic design, with reading copies of art books and an upper loft where customers can buy art supplies and even work on their own art. The design is eclectic but welcoming with beautiful chairs that are mismatched but in the same style, and vintage tiles that Sam scoured the city’s old houses and factories looking for. Banksy Studio serves Italian coffee, espresso drinks, Italian soda, juice and late-night drinks too, staying open 24 hours for the inevitable rush.
Things Café (14 Ton That Dam, Q1) is located in an old house connected to Banksy Studio’s building. Things Café evokes the charm of a 1950s house complete with memorabilia like an old typewriter, an old sink and a four-poster bed converted into a seating area — as well as some odd baby art. Thuy Linh Ta, the owner, intended for Things Café to be to be a café that felt like home, and she succeeds in spades, as long as your home is a little strange.
Cooku’s Nest (13 Tu Xuong, Q3) is modeled after a Swiss chalet, with everything inside made of wood, with little in the way of colour except the lantern lights and fake roses on the tables. It is quite dim in the evening, and upstairs it is even darker. But the seating on the balcony is best for privacy and serves as a great location for watching the musicians that play after 9pm.