Four cups of nostalgia: Saigon’s retro café revival

As Ho Chi Minh City propels itself into the future, we visit four cafés where the past is still very much alive.

From one day to the next, Saigon never stays the same. Whether you’re tracking its ever-changing skyline or the sidewalks and the streets beneath it, this is a city on the move in every possible sense.

As is so often the case, however, a rush into the future can see us losing touch with the past. But, “if you want to know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you’ve been,” as the old saying goes.

Despite Vietnam’s turbulent history, vintage urban cool is very much on trend in the southern hub, particularly where coffee is involved. Often hidden away atop narrow staircases or in a sleepy maze of alleyways, a new (old) style of café is making its mark on the city.

“Youngsters nowadays have so many modern things around them,” says Hieu Ngoc Nguyen, 26, a bartender in District 1. "But they want to know the lost part of Saigon; they want to embrace it and feel proud of the city they were born in.”

It’s time to look beyond the city’s opulent high-rise office blocks and shopping malls, forget the five-dollar caramel macchiatos, turn all electronic devices to silent, and travel back to a simpler, more relaxed time at one of the city’s best vintage coffee shops.

Tiem Cafe Saigon Retro

1st Floor, 55 Tran Quoc Toan, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.

Located in the north of District 3, this first-floor spot above a convenience store was the first of the new-wave retro cafés to appear in the city, having first opened its doors back in 2015. Find the discrete staircase in the adjacent alleyway and head up to a chilled-out space filled with the sounds of whirring ceiling fans and vintage Vietnamese tunes.

With sofas, coffee tables, a writing desk and plenty of antique ornaments, pictures and curiosities plucked straight from the 1960s, Saigon Retro feels more like someone’s private home than a café.

Grab an iced coffee, find a seat on the leafy balcony, and take a break from the 21st century for a few hours.

81cafe

216B, Nguyen Van Nguyen, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

Just a short hop from Saigon Retro, across Hai Ba Trung and into the diverse backstreet of Nguyen Van Nguyen, 81cafe is another glorious bolthole of peeling paint, exposed timbers, and dusty knick-knacks. It’s so full of antiques, in fact, that they’re only a few red velvet ropes away from becoming a museum.

While your iPhone might seem a bit incongruous among the VHS cassettes and thick glass television sets, this is the kind of place that those vintage camera filters were made for. But remember, this is 1981. Take the obligatory selfie and a soft-focus shot of your drink, then put that phone away.

Large and breezy, with high ceilings and an open front, you won’t even notice the lack of AC here.

The coffee is strong and cheap, the soundtrack is purely retro, and the vibe is Vietnamese bohemia at its very best.

Nha Minh Saigon 80s

9/8 Truong Quyen, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.

Escape the heat and leave the traffic behind you at this breezy corner café in one of District 3’s hippest backstreets. With just the occasional motorbike and a non-stop procession of street vendors passing by outside, it’s quite easy to picture how Saigon used to look and sound three decades ago.

In addition to a small selection of traditional street snacks — including a condensed milk banh mi — the drinks are straight-up old-school.

The curiously named (or perhaps curiously translated) "factory soot" prune juice is a blast from the past, while the farm-to-cup coffee (direct from Da Lat), is served in the traditional street style: straight from a bottle, rich, dark, and over a stack of ice.

Ut Lanh Ca-Phe

283/37 Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

Ideally located for those based in the backpacker quarter, Ut Lanh is the perfect antidote to the international coffee shop chains popping up nearby.

Decked out like a family living room, complete with floral curtains, retro toys, VHS tapes of 90s cartoons, and a stereo system the size of a small child, it’s obvious why one online reviewer likened it to a trip back to his childhood. For an added shot of nostalgia, they even have retro candy and snacks.

“Life is so busy these days,” says 21-year-old student Duy Bao Tran. “Cafés like Ut Lanh help a lot. They offer a laid-back vibe, but they’re also bringing back a lot of memories of the old Saigon.”

While the city’s authorities continue to carve out ever more elaborate plans for the downtown area, it seems we may not recognize certain parts of District 1 in a few years.

But as cafés like these are still around, with their classic drinks, snacks, and shabby-chic charm, some things, we hope, will never change.

Story and photos by Simon Stanley

Cam Tu Tran contributed

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