Something’s Brewing in Saigon

In City Escapes, Holiday Reviews - Asia, Holiday Reviews - Vietnam by The H4C Team

John Gardner’s guide to Saigon’s coffee culture. 

As general manager of a famously historic hotel, I meet numerous guests grappling with the Vietnam they read about and the Vietnam outside our lobby doors. After rowing sampans in the Delta, snacking on spring rolls and ticking off the landmark attractions, they ask, “Is there is anywhere to go to see the ‘real’ Saigon?” 

My advice to dedicated culture-seekers is to explore Vietnam through the doors of its coffee houses. Vietnam is a coffee powerhouse and its cafes are often conceptual, intriguing spaces offering a window onto the city’s best views, art and architecture and occasionally, into its colourful past. 

The role of coffee is so deeply embedded in Vietnam’s social landscape that it’s hard to imagine this country without its ‘ca phe sua da’, its tin drip filters, its plastic lawn chairs facing the ever-changing spectacle of the street. Every morning, sheltered by a leafy branch or tucked into a quiet alley, Saigon’s elders, office workers, neighbours, taxi drivers and friends converge on the sidewalks for a leisurely chat over the day’s first cup. Visitors to Vietnam cannot fail to note this vaguely European tradition, played out wherever there are a few empty square meters and a little shade.

In fact, we have the French to thank for the fertile plantations along the Annam Plateau that last year yielded enough beans to propel Vietnam to first place among the world’s largest coffee exporters. Six varieties of coffee are grown in the complex climates and microclimates of the Central Highlands, and the intense, broad palette of Vietnamese coffee is credited to careful blending of these different bean species, and long, slow roasting in butter oil.

Perhaps the best place to get your first taste of high quality Vietnamese beans, and an five-star view to boot, is in the Caravelle’s own Lobby Lounge. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows let in the tropical sunlight, as well as an unrivalled lookout over leafy Lam Son Square, the historic and cinematic heart of the city. Across the square is the ‘Continental Shelf’ — as it was fondly nicknamed by war correspondents — of the Continental Hotel. (Film buffs may be interested to learn that scenes in the 1992 French epic ‘Indochine’ that take place at the Continental’s terrace cafe were in fact shot on the sidewalk of the Caravelle Hotel.)

From the air-conditioned comfort of the Lounge, you can enjoy the patient drip-drip-drip of Vietnamese-style filter coffee. This is a finely ground dark roast, individually brewed in a metal drip filter or phin. On the sidewalks, fresh milk is replaced with easy-to-store condensed milk for a kind of sweet flat white; and the higher the mercury climbs the more the icy ‘ca phe da’ is ordered, especially in the South. A cold green tea ‘chaser’ is the accepted way to rinse any lingering bitterness from your tongue afterwards.

If you’re ready to embark on your own coffee tour of Saigon, grab a map and prepare to be impressed. 

Just outside the Caravelle Hotel’s entrance on Dong Khoi, are the chic and contemporary spaces of L’usine. But you won’t find your way by looking on the sidewalk. I sometimes tell visitors that every good thing in Saigon is down an alley and up a stairs. While that may not always be true (Saigon Saigon Bar for example, is up an elevator and up a stairs), it certainly applies to L’usine, where one must enter through the art arcade at 151 Dong Khoi and turn right at the parking lot before seeing any signage for the cafe.

L’usine is a perfect example of how the Saigon cafe has evolved to suit its youthful, creative crowd. To see how it’s managed to preserve its French colonial past, walk a few blocks down on Dong Khoi, turn right and cross Nguyen Hue to Kita Coffee. Located in an old French villa, Kita’s second floor terrace retains its beautiful tiled floors and wrought iron railing. Customers have a pleasant, breezy perch overlooking the Saigon River and one of the city’s most important boulevards.

From Kita Coffee, Pasteur st. is just a block away, and on Pasteur you will encounter La Fenetre Soleil, another French-inspired, corner cafe that is also a favourite choice for cozy after-dinner drinks. You will, of course, have to locate the blink-and-you-miss-it entrance and ascend an ancient stairway before you can set eyes on this charming, airy alcove.

Down the street from La Fenetre Soleil are the wide pavements surrounding the park and the Notre Dame Cathedral. Aside from the lawnchair setups along the Bach Dang pier and the Saigon River, this is perhaps the best place in town to pull up a plastic stool and just enjoy the view. 

Ready to go local? Head toward District 3, where Cafe 42 has long occupied a prime spot on the Turtle Circle roundabout. If you’re feeling wired already, relax with a pot of fragrant Vietnamese tea. Near the Turtle Circle you’ll also spot Cafe Napoli on Pham Ngoc Thach. An endlessly popular hangout, Napoli has cushy indoor and outdoor seating and sports a baffling mishmash of decor that somehow enhances the easy-going ambience.

When it all gets to be a little much, retreat to Hideaway Cafe further down Pham Ngoc Thach. This lovingly preserved villa has been converted into a calming cafe-restaurant catering to locals and expats alike. 

Whatever you’re looking for in a cafe, it’s likely you’ll find it in Saigon. This city turns cafes upside down (literally, check out Up Cafe in District 3), makes fairy tale scenes a reality (Princess and the Pea in District 1) and builds space for friendship and fun around the remains of its conflicted past (Airplane Cafe in Tan Binh). 

With its thriving coffee production, multi-cultural influences and pool of creative entrepreneurs, Vietnam holds the recipe to one of the world’s most fascinating coffee cultures. The only step left? Just add hot water.

John Gardner is GM of Caravelle Hotel