Written by Erica Issenberg (Clark University), Student Correspondent CET Vietnam, Spring 2017
Ho Chi Minh City thrives on its diversity. A metropolis where the future meets the past, the city’s landscape is a juxtaposition between the old and the new. From a bird’s eye view, the cityscape of Ho Chi Minh City looks similar to any other ‘big city’ with its towering skyscrapers, neon lights, and bustling city center. On the ground, however, the city has a much different feel, as the futuristic architecture coincides with traditional Vietnamese customs still ever-present in the city. Locals wearing the habitual conical hats to protect themselves from the beating sun often inhabit the same areas that wealthy businessmen dotting expensive suits do, and street vendors selling Vietnamese specialties such as phở and bánh mì can be seen selling goods from their roadside shops right outside the city’s most expensive restaurants.
In order to really understand this collocation between the old and new in HCMC, one must observe it in a setting where people interact with both at once, as it is intriguing to see how people of all ages navigate a fast-paced, developing city in a country where the history and culture is still so ever-present. To study this intermingling of the old and the new, however, it’s pertinent to find spaces where both coexist. Fortunately, over the past three months of living in HCMC, I have discovered the perfect way to understand this way of life, and since the 19th century, has also been a way for locals to connect with both their past and present. This way of life is none other than sitting in one of HCMC’s highly renowned cafés or coffee shops, taking in the ‘coffee culture’ that encompasses the social and work lives of Vietnamese residing in HCMC today.
Although the French introduced coffee to Vietnam in the late 19th century, the Vietnamese have taken coffee and the culture around it to new heights. Often known as the ‘drink that fuels a nation,’ Vietnam is currently the world’s 2nd largest coffee exporter, as the highland region has been transformed into a vast array of coffee farms and plantations. Vietnamese, therefore, pride themselves on their coffee. For almost all occasions of the day – breakfast, lunch, dinner, meetings, catching up with friends – a Vietnamese local can be found at one of Ho Chi Minh’s numerous coffee shops. Although cafés and shops usually sell an array of different native-grown and imported coffee, teas, juices, and smoothies, the go-to drink in Vietnam is cà phê sữa đá, which directly translates to “coffee, milk, ice,” in English. It is, however, much more than that, as the drink is
comprised of about 60% of Vietnam’s notoriously strong coffee and 40% sweetened condensed milk. It is stirred, and poured over ice in a glass. It is not for those who prefer a cup of black coffee with their breakfast, but for sugar-lovers, it satisfies a sweet tooth like no other. Cà phê sữa đá in itself can be described as a fusion between the old and the new, as it can be found in the city’s most high-end coffee shops for around 50,000 VND (about $2.50 USD), as well on the street, where it is sold for about 10,000-15,000 VND ($0.50 – $0.75 USD). Cà phê sữa đá is, therefore, accessible to most of the population in HCMC due to its wide range of prices and accessibility throughout the city.
As it is evident throughout this article, Ho Chi Minh City has a tremendous amount of cafés and coffee shops within its city limits. While a few international chains have made their way into the city, such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, the city has established their own brands as well, such as Phuc Long, Highlands Coffee, and Trung Nguyen Coffee. The real gems, however, are the unique, independently owned coffee shops that add their own flare to the city’s vibrant coffee community. Below are a few favorite places among myself, as well as other CET students.
The Maker Concept, the café and boutique that I have been fortunate enough to intern for this semester, is one of the most popular cafés in the café apartment building, as well as in and around Nguyen Hue Street. The Maker has two spaces – a boutique and café. The boutique, which is located on the first floor of the café apartment building, sells clothing, jewelry, bags, and other products by local designers and artists. The Maker opened its boutique to be a space where local artists can come to make a name for themselves by showcasing and selling their designs and creations. The Maker Concept Café, housed on the third floor of the café, was designed to be space where the Makers, as well as other artists, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers can come to build, create, and share ideas. The café is styled in an industrial chic fashion with bare floors, minimal wood decor, high ceilings, and exposed light fixtures. Its mission statement, “Where Ideas Are Shared,” is one of the first things you see as you walk into the cafés front door, highlighting the café’s emphasis on its creative space. Along with its artistic crowd, The Maker also draws a large number of expats and HCMC youth to its café, as both crowds are attracted to the café’s aesthetics and delicious drinks. Teenagers can often be found taking pictures of themselves with their drinks and the interior decor. Another unique aspect of the Maker Concept is its outside balcony, an ideal spot to sit and watch the activity of Nguyen Hue Street below. It is particularly interesting at night when Nguyen Hue Street, also known as the “Walking Street,’ becomes a lively hangout spot. Although I may be biased due to my position as an intern, The Maker’s creative space and ideal location make it one of the best cafés in Ho Chi Minh City.
Located on 42 Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh
Although it takes a hike up several flights of stairs to find, The Workshop is a dream for any serious coffee drinker. Like The Maker, The Workshop is spacious and styled in an industrial chic fashion. It is extremely popular among expats and working professionals in the city, so it is often very packed, and sometimes difficult to do serious work in due to the crowds that it draws. The Workshop, however, has an impressive array of specialty coffee and a brew bar that allows customers to choose the type of brewing method they want for their coffee. Due to its location on the top floor of its building and its floor to ceiling windows, The Workshop also offers a great view of the HCMC’s bustling downtown streets below. If you are, therefore, looking for one of the best cups of coffee in HCMC and a pretty great view, The Workshop is a must visit.
Located on 3/F p. q. 1, 27 Ngô Đức Kế, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh
A small restaurant and café located in the heart of HCMC’s downtown area near the Caravelle and Opera House, L’Usine’s delicious cuisine, variety of coffee flavors, and finely-tuned cocktails make it a relaxing café in the morning, and an optimal dining location at night. Like The Maker, L’Usine also houses a high-end craft and fashion store, giving the space an overall ‘hipster’ feel. Its high ceilings and polished floor give it a similar vibe to both The Maker and The Workshop. L’Usine was so successful that it actually opened a second location that is a bit smaller, but still houses a café, restaurant, and boutique. If you are, therefore, looking for place to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning, a nice, sit-down meal in the afternoon and evening, and browse some of the most trendy clothes and lifestyle products in HCMC, L’Usine is the place for you.
First location: 151/5 Dong Khoi, District 1, Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh City 700000
Second location: 70B Le Loi, Bến Thành, Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh City 700000
Cộng Cà Phê
Hailing from Hanoi, Cộng Cà Phê now has several stores around Ho Chi Minh City. Each store has a ‘vintage’ Northern Vietnamese vibe. The café is best known for its coconut coffee smoothie, a popular drink in Hanoi that is less common in Ho Chi Minh City. Although Cộng Cà Phê has more than one location around the city, the most frequented spot is on the corner of Ly Tu Trong and Dong Khoi street.
Spot above is located on 26 Lý Tự Trọng, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh
Coffee is an integral part of daily life for most people living and working in Ho Chi Minh City, as it has been a fundamental component of Vietnamese culture and daily life for almost two centuries. Although coffee and the culture surrounding it is present in other parts of Vietnam, it varies slightly in HCMC due to the influences of globalization and rapid development in the city. The coffee culture, therefore, has been transformed into a unique phenomenon, as coffee shops and vendors alike can be found on almost any street in Ho Chi Minh City. Due to the prevalence of coffee, its accessibility throughout the city, and Ho Chi Minh City’s coffee culture, coffee has become a necessity in the lives of many Vietnamese, and has become a way for Vietnamese of all ages, gender, and social status to connect with one another. To, therefore, really understand Ho Chi Minh City’s unique intermingling between the old and the new and how locals living in the city find common ground with another, observing and partaking in Ho Chi Minh City’s one-of-a-kind coffee culture is a must.