Over the past decade, cafes has been on the rise in Vietnam’s largest city. A young and expanding Saigonese middle-class and a steady increase in Western tourism, accompanied by an enduring taste for colonial-style establishments in Vietnam, have given rise to an array of new coffeehouses, lounges and restaurants. From withdrawn smoothie spots to bar hybrids that get louder as the night draws on, these are 10 of the best cultural cafés in Saigon, or, as it is officially known, Ho Chi Minh City.
Chez Vous Coffee Lounge
This French inspired, cushioned space of the Chez Vous Coffee Lounge opposite Ben Thanh Marketis awash with pastel shades and muted, multi-colored bulbs. The interior blends a certain European 1970s living-room warmth coupled with contemporary lighting and a dash of Vietnamese décor to keep you rooted in Saigon. Their menu has an attractive range of Western and Asian fare, although many come for the fruit juices and smoothies, served in twee jam jars and corked bottles. Cocktails are also available. There are acoustic nights held some evenings and outdoor seating is popular during the evening hours.
A homely, airy space located on the second floor of an old warehouse building, this ‘window to the sun’ soaks up the light through its huge French windows. A popular daytime hangout for Saigon hipsters, La Fenetre Soleil blends exposed brick, antique furnishings, gilt frames and mosaic tiles to achieve a cherished mix of old French charm and modern Saigonese vibe, while fur cushions and welcoming sofas tempt guests to lounge the afternoon away. The café specializes in Japanese-Vietnamese food, the California rolls and duck with Dijon mustard are popular, and the passion fruit crepe comes highly recommended. They also function as an evening venue; hosting salsa nights, jazz performances, live bands and lounge pianists.
For many, La Rotonde’s main selling point is its grand interior design; its romanticism and high ceilings attempt to capture some of the grace and beauty of the Old Saigon, as well as its nursed nostalgia for the ancient Indochina era. The spacious main hall takes in light through huge main windows overlooking a peaceful boulevard, and Bach Dang Wharf can be seen in the distance to the right. A changing daily lunch special served in traditional Vietnamese style feeds its busier noon-day crowd and a wide array of fresh juices and cocktails is available for fending off the city’s heat.
The 2010 opening of L’Usine fashion boutique and café proved so successful that they’ve recently opened a second outlet. The original, based in the heart of Saigon near to the Caravelle and Continental hotels, sits in a huge French era warehouse space. The fashionistas’ first pick downstairs harbors global clothing trends as well as work by local designers, whilst the upstairs café serves sandwiches, cake, coffees and juice. There is also an art gallery showcasing monthly exhibitions and live performances. The new store has opened up on Le Loi St, on the strip between the Rex Hotel and Ben Thanh Market, but the original has recently expanded its kitchen and boasts a more extensive food menu.
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Although the street outside may not be Saigon’s most salubrious, the four flights of stairs heading up to this hidden coffee spot lead you to views over much of the city’s downtown financial district, including the Soviet-Gothic façade of the State Bank of Vietnam. A small, leafy outside balcony at Mockingbird Café allows you to sit and drink while you gaze on the bustle far below. Inside, chalk murals and art prints dot the walls. The cafe is set in an old colonial apartment block, still lived in despite its frayed edges, and the shop’s atmosphere absorbs some of the raffish, unkempt charm sported by the rest of the building. Alcoholic drinks are also served.
The Fig Café is a spiritually inclined and organically sourced hideaway, roughly a ten-minute drive from the city center. Like many of the city’s favored ‘garden cafes’, it boasts a peaceful outdoor space in which to hide from the diesel and the traffic complete with lotus ponds, Buddha statues and tropical foliage. The accomplished contemporary Asian design, both inside and out, is worth admiring. They specialize in oriental cuisine, mango salads, BBQ pork and sweet cakes. They also provide a selection of French, Chilean and Australian wines, as well as cocktails. The Fig Café has also announced that its boutique store will soon be selling decorative home items designed by local artist Dzung Yoko.
The Observatory has relocated to District Four but still sits easily within walking distance of Saigon’s main backpacker area. It prides itself on its cocktail menu and lively schedule, hosting a steady stream of DJs, film nights, reading groups and art exhibitions. It aspires to be something of a cultural hub for young Saigonese and tourists looking to push further into the city’s eclectic mix of alternative entertainment. An information centre with a ‘Saigon Underground’ interactive map gives recommendations on places tour guides might not think of.
A firm choice for wandering aesthetes and collectors, the opulent Villa Royale has grown in popularity as both an antique gallery and tea-house. Whilst sampling an array of baked pastries, cakes and hot drinks, guests can marvel at a dazzling spread of paintings, china, trunks, silverware and vintage clocks from around the globe. The Australian owner repairs and upholsters antique furniture using traditional Vietnamese cloth. He is happy to share his extensive knowledge of objets d’art with anyone passing through, be they connoisseurs or curious tourists. Villa Royale also hosts special exhibitions and private functions.
The Windows Café is a livelier spot than some of its more retiring, lounge-like contemporaries. It is popular with locals, has a large open terrace, multiple floors affording you park and street views, and offers a comparatively affordable daytime menu. Its location is prime for tourists, lying just across from the historic Reunification Palace and in the vicinity of both the Old Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral. In the afternoon, it offers some respite after a few heavy hours’ sightseeing. As the evening draws on, the cafe turns into a bar, the music evolves into club, and the seats pack out. Young Vietnamese often use it as a leaping point before the rest of the night.