Saigon self-service cafés prove a big hit with young people

By Ngoc Ngan   May 8, 2024 | 01:20 am PT
Six times a week Hoang Phuc travels five kilometers to a self-service café in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 6 and spends four hours studying.

The 25-year-old says he needs some quiet space to hone his English skills to prepare for job hunting.

The café is located in a rented house measuring 70 square meters and lacks a name board. For a mere VND25,000 (US$0.98), Phuc secures four hours of tranquility.

There is a self-service counter in one corner stocked with tea bags, Milo and coffee. Patrons are allowed to use one to two packs per visit.

Glasses, spoons, ice cubes, and sugar can be found on the shelves, enabling guests to make their own beverages. The place employs only two workers to clear used glasses and guide first-time visitors.

Phuc usually makes himself a cup of coffee and chooses a table by a window while gently pulling up his chair, mindful not to disturb the 30 other people studying or working there.

"I feel like I'm paying for the space rather than the coffee," he admits. "The price is low, and the place is very quiet, allowing me to fully concentrate."

Three tables away, Nguyet Nga is engrossed in her final exam preparations. After discovering the café through social media, she has been a regular there since last year. Though not very good at making beverages, she likes the café for its affordability and pleasant environment.

The 19-year-old from Binh Tan District is often at the place from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. to work on her upcoming deadlines. "Being surrounded by many people who are also working on deadlines keeps me motivated," she says.

Since the café does not accept reservations, Nga usually arrives early to secure a place.

A self-service café in District 6, HCMC, in April 2024. Photo by VnExpress/ Ngoc Ngan

A self-service café in District 6, HCMC, in April 2024. Photo by VnExpress/ Ngoc Ngan

In the last three months the self-service café model has become very popular among youths.

A survey by VnExpress found cafés where customers pay and make their own drinks started to emerge in HCMC about a year ago, and patronage began to skyrocket in 2024, leading to a proliferation of such establishments, particularly in Districts 1, 6, 4, Binh Thanh, and Go Vap.

Some are open 24/7.

Luan Phi, owner of the café in District 6, says the customer base mainly comprises people aged 16 to 35. Mostly students and freelancers, they come looking for a suitable space to study or work, he says.

The most important rule in these cafés is to keep silent in order to not disturb other people. Besides tables and chairs, Phi has also installed electric sockets to enable customers to stay for long periods at a time. They are even allowed to bring food and water from outside, provided nothing has an unpleasant odor.

Phi's café, which has seen a five-fold increase in the number of customers in the last 10 months, has opened three more branches in Districts 10, Tan Binh and Go Vap, and attract 15,000 visitors a month.

Quynh Trang, who works for a self-service café in District 4, says the business model aims to meet the growing demand for workspace among young people.

Most of her customers are under the age of 25, who enjoy the experience of making their own drinks the way they like them.

Apart from ingredients for various beverages, guests can also find pastries and stationery. There are no time limits for customers. Staff members are around to provide instructions, arrange seating and help with parking.

Guests at a self-service café in District 6, HCMC, in April 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Ngan

Guests at a self-service café in District 6, HCMC, in April 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Ngan

Tran Trung Hieu, director of FnB Academy, a training center, explains that the proliferation of self-service cafés is understandable as this model caters to the needs of young urban customers who prefer an open place to work and study.

The benefits of the model include low labor costs and simple requirements with respect to space and location.

But since the ingredients for making drinks are limited, "not many people can make good drinks, which might quickly lead to boredom," he points out.

Besides, attracting new customers and retaining loyal ones will be a challenge in the long run, he adds.

Hai My, 28, a marketing executive, visits a self-service café in Go Vap twice a week with friends. She believes the model is ideal for those who "need space more than a drink," and thinks the place is more suitable for working alone rather than with a team.

She usually makes herself an iced lemon tea and stays for three hours. Paying only VND30,000, she is happy with what the place offers.

"Everyone has a home, but not every home has a good space," she explains.

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