By Karin Esterhammer
Special to the Los Angeles Times
May 8, 2011
Reporting from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
My husband, Robin, son Kai and I lived in Vietnam for a little more than two years. At first we found all the sounds of Ho Chi Minh City charming. Then annoying, as motorcycle engines, bus horns, loud karaoke music and construction noise erupted endlessly.
Just before our nerve endings short-circuited, our Vietnamese friends introduced us to some of the city's coffeehouses where patrons can escape the sounds of a city of 7 million people (10 million if you include the outskirts). Cafes that serve iced coffees and ice cream are so popular in this hot, muggy city that such venues sit on nearly every corner ready to cool off weary tourists.
After Brazil, Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of coffee, in particular the robusta and arabica beans, which have a dark, rich flavor that the southern Vietnamese temper with sweetened condensed milk and then pour over ice. This combo is called ca phe sua da and is Ho Chi Minh City's most popular beverage. I never liked coffee until I moved here. Now I'm addicted to it.
Eight coffeehouses in particular top my list of favorites because they are unusually peaceful oases. Each is tucked away in a tiny alley off a busy street. Some sit under a canopy of flowering trees with tables set next to waterfalls, koi ponds and sleeping Buddha statues. Some have soft couches with pillows and teddy bears to hug. In the evening, candles are lighted, greenery is draped with strings of miniature lights and soft music is performed. Best of all, the prices are low, and no one rushes you out.
Mien Dong Thao: A black-stone wall of falling water, natural woods, potted trees and flowers, shallow pools framed by tropical plants and fans with mist make guests feel as though they are in a cool forest. Smoothies, ice creams, coffees and fruited yogurt shakes all come in pretty glassware whimsically decorated with dollops of cream, little cookies, curly straws and tiny paper umbrellas. Each costs about $1.75. Beer costs $1.80, and snacks, such as French fries with butter and sugar, are $1.40. 221A Nguyen Trong Tuyen, District Phu Nhuan; 011-84-8-3845-1357. Open 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Du Mien Café: This coffeehouse and Mien Dong Thao share the same owner, which accounts for the similarities in décor. It can seat about 200 patrons, but with tables cleverly situated around different ponds and bubbling fountains, or tucked behind curtains of hanging philodendrons, it doesn't feel crowded. Every order is accompanied by delicious iced jasmine tea, which is refilled constantly. Banana splits made with tiny finger bananas are $2.50, beef noodle soup or seafood with noodles is $2, and smoothies made with papaya and avocado are $1.80. 49/8A Ho Bieu Chanh, District Phu Nhuan; 011-84-8-3844-3054. Open 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Casbah Cafe: This coffeehouse, with a Middle Eastern theme, sits in an alley so narrow and dark and behind a door so nondescript that you might think you are entering a Prohibition-era speakeasy. But climb up a winding staircase and you'll find cozy rooms with blue couches and coffee tables, water pipes and beaded curtains hanging between smaller rooms. A friend took me up to the rooftop terrace where there are tables, couches and views of the city, including the twin-spired Notre Dame Cathedral built by the French in 1863. Because the location is prime downtown territory, the prices are a bit higher. Tropical fruit drinks are $3 and cocktails are $4. A Middle Eastern menu is available with kebabs, steak, falafel and barbecued prawns for $4-$8. Belly dancing on weekends starts at 9 p.m. Alley No. 59, Nguyen Du St., District 1; 011-84-8-8382-4130. Open 8 a.m.-1 a.m. daily.
Den & Trang: The entrance to this café is on a busy street, but once patrons walk through a narrow garden-like corridor to reach the main room, they won't hear the traffic din. The coffeehouse is made up of many small rooms, either open air or under a roof. It's OK to plug in your laptop and sit for hours in a quiet corner, getting inspiration among the colorful aquariums, flowers, trees and climbing ivy. Guests can order yogurt drinks, fruit shakes, fresh juices and coffee for $1.50. Coconut ice cream is served in a fresh, hollowed-out coconut for $3. The milk and meat from the coconut are served on the side. Live music — acoustic piano, guitar and violin — runs 7-11 each night. 47 Tu Xuong St., District 3; 011-84-8-6276-7625. Open 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Niet Ban: Patrons enter by walking on steppingstones through a koi pond as water trickles from the ceiling, making bands of "rain" between table groupings. With the sounds of a gentle rain, Chinese lanterns, smiling Buddha statues and soft music, visitors might want to curl up on the couches and go to sleep. Wait staff in traditional Vietnamese attire hand out menus printed on a piece of soft leather — creative, but difficult to read. With businesses nearby, this cafe has a busy breakfast clientele that orders sticky rice with meat, braised pork noodles or eggs on a French baguette. But I like to go in the evening to take advantage of the soft lights, peaceful atmosphere and delicious coffees served over ice cream. Prices are $2-$4 for beverages and $3-$6 for entrees such as grilled fish and stir-fried vegetables. 14 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, District 1; 011-84-8-3910-0745. Open 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
The Journey: This small, off-the-beaten-track cafe is an architecture/home décor business in the daytime and a coffeehouse with talented student musicians by night. It feels like someone's living room, with upholstered benches and chairs, colorful pillows, an old-fashioned sewing machine and petite glass vases with dried flowers adorning shelves. It seats only about 30 people, many of whom are here to hear their friends sing and play guitar and piano. The cloth menus look like someone's scrapbooks with decorative buttons sewn on the cover. Menu offerings include chocolate-covered strawberries for $2, kumquat smoothies, a healthful red pepper/tomato/carrot juice for $2, and — one of my favorites — an icy-cold drink made with grape juice, green apples and cucumbers. Prices go up a bit when the music starts at 8 p.m. 158/12 Tran Huy Lieu, Phu Nhuan District; 011-84-8-3997-6213. Open 3 -11 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Nhen: Ngoc Anh, one of the past winners of "Vietnam Idol," owns this funky, clever coffeehouse with a spider theme — but they're not dangerous. Giant fuzzy spiders crawl on rope webs that separate low tables and pillows for chairs, pink and green painted walls and shabby chic curtains. After ordering drinks or ice cream, you can take a magazine from the shelf, sit back and relax. Friday nights from 6:30 to 10:30 is a comedy and music show. Smoothies cost $1.50, coffee is $1.25 and ice cream is $1.80. 288/5 Huynh Van Banh, Phu Nhuan District; 011-84-8-2210-6115. Open 8:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily.
Country Houses Cafe: This cafe is about 25 minutes outside the city center but close enough to the airport that it warrants a place on my list. If you check out of your hotel at noon and your flight isn't until evening, this is a wonderful place to wait. The cafe's name hints at its décor, with plenty of ceramic ducks, picket fences, cushy upholstered chairs and a porch swing. There are so many cute places to sit, it's hard to choose. You can sit under a colorful umbrella in a patio area with wooden tables and chairs, or enjoy a living room setting with couches and soft lights. Coffee is $1.50, fruit smoothies are $3, lemonade with peppermint syrup is $1.75, ice cream topped with pears or rum is $3.50, and bowls of noodle soup or fried rice are $3. 18C Phan Van Tri, Go Vap District; 011-84-8-3921-2353. Open 7:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily.
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