Viet Nam News
by Hoàng Linh
At first glance, Lê Nổ Tổ Chè at Hà Nội’s 35 Nguyễn Công Hoan Street looks much like any other coffee shop in the capital. The establishment, however, boasts a unique draw: its décor focuses on the Trường Sa (Spratly) archipelago, confirming Vietnamese sovereignty over the islands and instilling in visitors a sense of national pride.
Hostess Trần Thị Thanh Liêm warmly welcomed us and passionately recounted how she turned her idea of a coffee shop focused on the Trường Sa islands into reality. Her husband, who works at the General Political Department at the Ministry of Defence, made two trips to Trường Sa. He told her stories about the people on the islands and showed her photographs he took, and love for the motherland’s territory rose in her soul.
Unsure when she might have the opportunity to visit Trường Sa, she came up with the idea of opening a coffee shop about the islands—a place where all who hold the islands in their hearts may have the chance to learn more about these outposts of Vietnamese territory.
Describe herself as a connoisseur of business, Liêm created the menu, found clean ingredients and chose the chef quite easily and quickly. However, she had no experiences in the design field; she wasn’t sure how to deploy her ideas. Initially, she could only think of printing the most beautiful pictures and hanging them on the wall. But with the support of her neighbour—Major Nguyễn Quang Cường from the People’s Army newspaper—in measuring the walls and sketching on the computer, she was able to have a map of Việt Nam to give the message: Việt Nam has indisputable sovereignty over the Trường Sa islands!
Next generation: Children from nearby schools often come for snacks and learn about Trường Sa in the coffee shop.
On the opening day, her family and friends effusively praised the small but cozy coffee shop, the delicious fast food and especially the very meaningful design that provides education about the islands. Some of her friends who are journalists and artists asked: Why not make bookshelves featuring works on Trường Sa and other Vietnamese islands to make it a book coffee shop? Why there are no objects brought from the Trường Sa islands like flags and soldiers’ uniforms? Why not recreate the landmark?
Liêm noted their comments and quickly implemented changes to give the coffee shop more distinctions. With the help of a friend who is a book collector, Liêm collected dozens of books and maps of Trường Sa and other islands by prestigious Vietnamese and foreign authors such as Lưu Văn Lợi, Nguyễn Thắng, Nguyễn Hồng Thao, Nguyễn Nhã, and Monique Chemillier-Gendreau.
Among the books are many precious materials such as the last issue of the Journal of History and Geography printed in 1975 with specific information about Hoàng Sa (Paracel) and Trường Sa. After the writers and musicians Nguyễn Xuân Thủy, Nguyễn Quang Hưng and Mai Kiên learned about this coffee shop, they immediately sent poetry books and music sheets about the islands to enrich the bookcases.
The objects associated with Trường Sa are what make Liêm feel most proud. All of them were given to the couple by their friends and relatives who love the shop, and some of the objects could never be purchased with money.
It’s ours: The Trường Sa landmark - the symbol for Việt Nam’s sovereignty over the Trường Sa islands - is erected in the coffee shop.
Major Nguyễn Văn Thắng (of People’s Army Cinema), who has visited the Spratlys several times, collected the national flag with the signatures and seals of the military commands on the islands. The flag became a sacred object, but Thắng did not hesitate to give it to Trường Sa coffee shop.
The café also boasts a plaque depicting the sovereignty landmark on the Trường Sa island proper, thanks to the enthusiasm of Lt Col Nguyễn Mạnh Tiến ( a painter from the People’s Army newspaper) who designed and constructed it.
"I wanted to make a landmark to give to the Trường Sa coffee shop to convey the message: ’Today we must strive to firmly maintain the sovereignty of our territorial waters’,” Tiến said. “The landmark symbolises a connection between the heroic tradition of fighting foreign invaders in the past and the determination to protect the sovereignty of Vietnamese islands today.”
Besides taking care of the products of the coffee shop and enthusiastically serving guests, Liêm has continued to perfect the space and create more accents for the shop.
We met Mai Ly, a fifth grader at Ngọc Khánh Elementary School, as she pored over pages of books about Trường Sa. "Coming to this coffee shop, I learned many new things about the islands,” the student said. “Although I don’t have much knowledge, I now have the dream that when I grow up, I could visit and give gifts to the soldiers stationed on Trường Sa." VNS