City’s vintage cafes harken back to bygone era

May 15, 2016 - 09:00

People come here for a coffee, and it takes them back to the days a few decades ago when the city was less crowded, less busy and more romantic.

Historic: People relax at Út Lành Café, which was originally a house dating back more than one hundred years. -- Photos Yến Trinh
Viet Nam News

by Yến Trinh

People come here for a coffee, and it takes them back to the days a few decades ago when the city was less crowded, less busy and more romantic.

For the last few years, vintage style coffee shops have sprung up in HCM City with decor and drinks reminding visitors about the city, which was known as Sài Gòn, between the 1960s and 1970s.

Saigonese Coffee- Út Lành is in an alley on Phạm Ngũ Lão Street, District 1. With a few steps from the crowded road, people reach the café that was originally a house more than one hundred years old.

In Vietnamese, Út Lành means the youngest daughter named Lành with the word itself meaning ‘benign’. Its stylish decoration is based on Sài Gòn then with a plank bed on the left, a few tea tables along the wall, a cupboard and dining table sets behind. Additionally, with the name board designed in a way that was a rage in the 1970s, the vibe at Út Lành is always a taste of yesterday.

The 30-year-old shop owner, Chí Công, said that his wife and he wanted to give the coffee shop an atmosphere where visitors feel at home and are relaxed.

“Most of the things were bought from second-hand shops, some were borrowed from our acquaintances, and most of the tables and chairs we made ourselves,” Công said.

The Út Lành Café offers a discount of VNĐ5,000 (two US cents) if people don’t use mobile phones, and with no Wi-Fi available people will not be distracted, Công said.

The writer saw a group of guests at the shop on a late afternoon. They were first noisy in ordering drinks while reading a menu of milk/black coffee, soy bean milk, strawberry and pine apple juice and yogurt.

They also chose some dried fruits as snack and then, fell into endless chit-chat and laughs. Time around them seem to come to a standstill while the atmosphere was seemingly dreaming about good old days.

One of the girls was so interested in seeing old home devices around including an old-style cassette, black-and-white TV set and a flower vase made of a used bottle.

“I like them because they look like those I found at my grandparents’ place,” she said.

Another shop, Café 81 located on District 1’s Nguyễn Văn Nguyễn Street also feature old things.

It presents a sense of nostalgia through its old walls and now-extinct ventilation outlets. Visitors are usually impressed by the old Vespa motorcycle placed in front of the shop and black-and-white tiles inside. On the walls, there are posters for music shows of a few decades ago, all neatly framed.

The café is now officially the hottest one for the Instagram generation, thanks mostly to the exotic antiquities and partly due to the lack of air-conditioning.

Its owner Nguyễn Hoàng, 35, said that in order to shape the main idea of such a vintage café in a modern and busy city, he had to search information and images about Sài Gòn of the old days. For years, he collected things that he expected “would partly represent the city in nostalgia”.

After journeys, Hoàng usually brings back items to add to his vintage collection. An old sewing machine, tea pots, and lighters - many things that people consider are useless, but Hoàng gives them another life when putting them into his vintage world.

Sometimes, he makes tiny changes but impresses guests a lot, only by putting a citronella into a water bottle or lighting up oil lamps to add to the cosy atmosphere. 

The shop owner and his staff are also willing to make lunch for guests if required despite being understaffed, although they cannot do it regularly.

A regular guest to Cafe 81, Nguyễn Thị Sương said that she usually sat at the table in the back of the shop where she could see flowers planted in coconut shells.

“Life seems to be gentler during such moments,” she shared.

Those who prefer vintage style also prefer the coffee shop Năm Mười Mười Lăm (Five Ten Fifteen) on Ngô Thời Nhiệm Street, District 3. The café attracts people first because of its name which Vietnamese kids count out loud when playing hide-and-seek. The name partly represent the major theme of this café: A journey to find sweet childhood memories inside each adult.

The décor of the café helps guests return to their childhood again thanks to the sights of the Vietnamese countryside.

They can see paddy, a garden, a fish pond and bamboo trees in the café designed to resemble an old rural house with old-fashioned doors, windows, tables and chairs.

The owner of the café, Nguyễn Tuấn Kiệt, is an architecture graduate. This is also his final project at the university. He spent VNĐ700 million (US$31,000) to build it.

There are lyrics of children’s songs printed on back pillows, kites flying by the roof of the house and small birds made from leaves. Childhood memories are recalled.

There are cupboards in traditional southern style, bamboo baskets, small stacks of straw, and a flour mill, or a fan made of areca-nut palm.

The owner said items in the shop were bought from flea markets, collected from the countryside or created by his family in southern Tiền Giang Province.

Student notebooks are used to make the menus. Apart from beverages, the restaurant serves plain dishes of the countryside for lunch, such as thịt kho tàu (pork braised with duck eggs), chicken braised with lemon grass, fish braised in a clay pot, and deep fried snakehead fish, along with amaranth soup.

The nostalgic memories of his hometown inspired him while designing the café in a way that highlighted rural peace and simplicity in a modern and busy city such as Hồ Chí Minh.

Not only offering adults the chance to return to childhood, the café Năm, Mười, Mười Lăm also has a place for a child to enjoy fresh air and traditional games.

Sociologist Vũ Thái Hà said that such vintage coffee shops showed the creativity, passion and enthusiasm of their young owners. They rebuilt old space in romantic and gentle ways, which helped people, particularly young ones to know about the beauty of Sài Gòn of few decades ago.

"Senior citizens who have experienced and witnessed changes of the city also want to go there as a way to recall the good old days," Hà said.

HCM City is a city of cafes, from street-side stalls to air-conditioned cafes, movie coffee shops or international coffee restaurant chains. However, in a quiet corner, such vintage cafes still have their own charm - a quiet charm, as pure as childhood, as sweet as memory.

To get away from the busy, crowded and noisy streets, people reach out to these cafes for a cup of coffee and reminisce about the good old days. – VNS


Cozy: A corner at Cafe 81.
Nostalgia: Décor of the café Năm Mười Mười Lăm helps guests return to their childhood again thanks to the sights of the Vietnamese countryside.