|Maids-in-waiting: Waiters and waitresses at the Other Person coffee take photo in break hours. — Photo courtesy
by Yen Trinh
With a blend of tradition and modernity, Sai Gon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, has recently offered a wide range of coffee shops for trendy Asian youth.
At the Maid Cafe in Ton That Dam Street, a petite girl in a frilly costume of a French maid and a bunny ear headband, greets me at the door with her head bowed.
"Can I help you?" asks the maid, handing me a menu as soon as she sees me at the cartoon-inspired Asian maid cafe.
Having taken my order, the maid comes back some time later with a tray on which sits a mint-flavoured drink. She puts the drink down in front of me with both hands, promptly takes a seat next to mine and starts talking to me like a maid would.
No wonder, Maid Cafes have spread in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in the last decade. In Viet Nam, the cafes have been seen in the last two years, where customers are served like kings and queens.
Launched in March last year, the Other Person Cafe is located on the second floor of an apartment building in the middle of the city centre.
Its owner, Phan Tien Vy, 25, is fond of reading Japanese comics, so he and a friend came up with the idea of modelling his cafe after Maid Cafes in Japan to meet the growing market for cafes in the country.
"I want my customers to become something different when they come into the cafe," Vy says.
"The maids will call them master or mistress right at the door. If they are not busy working tables and running drinks, they can even have a short conversation with the customers," he adds.
At the end of each month, the cafe usually gifts movie tickets or presents based on the accumulated credits of regular customers whose Zodiac signs are compatible with that month.
Unlike Maid Cafes in other countries, where customers have to pay to enter and also pay a cover charge, the Other Person Cafe charges customers for what they order on the menu only.
No less special, the 12 Star Signs Cafe in Go Vap District, attracts clients with its mystery, peace and solitude. It offers different kinds of drinks to those born under the 12 star signs and zodiac- printed souvenirs like dolls, T-shirts and handbooks.
Owner Nguyen Khanh Hoa, 24, says that between 400 and 500 people come to the cafe daily. Many patiently wait their turn to be served while sitting under their star signs.
"Many customers come here because they are keen on understanding their horoscopes. The more this modern life exposes them to suspicion the higher they want to believe in something," Hoa says.
From books to dramatics
For people who enjoy reading they may find a Book Coffee in Nhieu Loc Canal suitable.
Though it is early morning the cafe already has customers. Many are sitting on algae, wooden or iron chairs to read books and newspapers while others are immersed in thought.
A customer, Tan Hieu, says the cafe is his favourite place so he drops in here frequently.
"There are many coffee shops on this route, but I still prefer this place. I am at peace and able to concentrate on my thoughts, though my daily life is very busy," he says.
Starting with the first Book Coffee in a quiet place in Tan Binh District, Chieu Anh Nguyen, 37, opened the second one in Nhieu Loc Canal two years later.
Taking the family name, Chieu Cafe attracts customers by its unique style. There are more than 1,000 books in the cafe attracting not only white-collar workers but also many artists who come here to seek inspiration for their works.
An office worker, Nguyen Trong Viet usually has lunch at the cafe while making use of the free time to read books.
"Sometimes, it is difficult to find a quiet place in Sai Gon. It is harder still to uncover a unique cafe like this one," Viet says.
"Life is noisy and full of hardship. I myself longed for peace so I designed this cafe after my inner feelings with the hope that customers will have peace of mind when they come here," Chieu says.
In addition to the idea of reading and chatting at a cafe, many local residents are also attracted to theatre coffee, though it is not new for them to see a rudimentary stage with amateur actors and actresses performing tragedies and comedies here.
Pioneers in the theatre cafe movement are Bet, Lit and Nhen cafes, which usually invite students from cinematic arts schools, whose performance is not too deep, but is true to life, to perform at their coffee shops every other day or during weekends.
The cafes normally charge each customer VND80,000 (US$3.8) for a drink and to watch plays.
It is hard to list original coffee shops in the city, so it is common to see one shutting its doors after a loud opening ceremony.
While theatre coffee shops were around 70 in better times three years ago, the number has gradually dwindled.
In order to survive, the remaining coffee shops have to please their customers with good, diversified plays and hospitality.
The owner of Ovi Cafe in District 10, Tran Ngoc Nguyen Khoa, has run his coffee shop for two years. His cafe has performances twice a month to serve customers, who were mostly middle-aged.
Khoa says although competition and customers' needs have become harsh nowadays, these types of cafes will last longer if owners know how to popularise it.
Head of a theatre group, Ba Hung, who has witnessed the ups and downs of many theatre cafes in the past two years, says losses are the main reason that deters many people from investing in this type of business.
"If an owner accepts losses in the beginning, his cafe will survive. Those shops, with not too much capital, usually shut their doors not long after their opening," Hung says.
Owner of a theatre coffee shop in Tan Binh District, Nguyen Thi Tuyet Nhung, had to end her business six months ago because her shop had very few customers and offered late night performances.
So, it is a matter of survival for both performers and shop owners to diversify into the types of plays to please customers.
Besides theatre coffee shops there are cafes where customers can enjoy coffee while playing with dogs and cats or bringing their pets along. They are Dogi and Ailu Cat house in Phu Nhuan District.
Customers can also massage their feet in water tanks while they have coffee in districts 1 and 12. Good cafes are an asset to any neighbourhood. When a new one opens it invites curiosity and the hope of everyone's welcoming embrace. — VNS