Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee exporter, and its vibrant cafe scene is having a real moment. One of Southeast Asia’s fastest developing economies, it has a relatively young population and more than a century of caffeine tradition.
Leading the way is the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City with some of the country’s best cafes: from historic streetside stalls to plush lounges 50 stories high.
Nameless stocking coffee
Opened in 1954, this no-name coffee shop is one of the last places you can still try what the locals call ca-phe vot (net coffee) or ca-phe vo(stocking coffee), so named because the mesh filters look like women’s stockings. Born in an era where the now-ubiquitous metal drip filters were hard to come by, stocking coffee is made by steeping finely ground coffee through fine mesh nets; with the addition of sweetened, condensed milk the result is a rich, almost caramel-like drink.
It’s open 24/7, but come early to watch the carefully choreographed chaos unfold as dozens of patrons on motorbikes line the narrow alleyway for their morning brew on the way to work. Keeping with the mysterious vibe, this cafe doesn’t have any website or social media, but you can find it in the flesh at 330/2 Phan Dinh Phung, Phu Nhuan District.
L’Usine Le Thanh Ton
L’Usine Le Thanh Ton is coffee wrapped up in a highly photogenic lifestyle package. Inspired by Old Saigon, the trendy coffee shop-cum-boutique serves up some of the city’s best drip coffee as well as to-die-for red velvet cupcakes, sweet and savoury canapes and even craft beer. Hang out on the 1st floor with its vintage-inspired tiles and plantation shutters, or work your way upstairs and sidle up to the gorgeous wood slabs reclaimed from underwater trees for a more peaceful workspace. There’s also a boutique selling unique Vietnam-inspired gifts and clothing by trendy local designers.
For expansive views of sprawling HCMC, skip the observation deck on the 49th floor of Bitexco, the city’s tallest building, and head up to Cafe EON on the floor above instead. Enjoy an Italian coffee next to giant windows in the family-friendly space or, better yet, head up one level to the 360-degree fine-dining restaurant where you’ll find quiet tables for two in the ‘Couples Corner’. Coffee is served with a kick in the adult-only 51st-floor lounge – the Cafe EON version of an espresso martini is a boozy concoction of vodka, Kahlúa, espresso and chocolate sauce. Views include Bitexco’s famed helipad, which is available for parties at US$3000 per hour, complete with a ring of security guards to make sure tipsy guests don’t tumble over the edge.
The industrial chic Maison Marou triples as a tea salon, chocolate shop and miniature chocolate factory. While you can certainly order coffee here, the hot chocolate is the Marou brother’s speciality. Made from single-origin Vietnamese chocolate vigorously shaken with hot milk, the frothy, intense, slightly tart, not-too-sweet elixir is nothing short of life-changing. The cafe’s quirky yet sleek interior will be popular with design enthusiasts and there’s lots of entertainment to be had here, with a large window allowing customers to view the chocolate factory while enjoying the results!
A cafe and eatery nestled in a gorgeous room brimming with curious antiques, Villa Royale is an exercise in quaint gentility smack in the middle of frenetic HCMC. Sip Lavazza coffees or 50 varieties of TWG teas in beautifully patterned cups amidst an eclectic collection of treasures from around the world – including Buddhist monk scrolls from Laos and traditional tattoo needles from Myanmar. Sweet and savoury treats are also made in-house, many using products from the highlands of Dalat, where cool temperatures allow for the growing of strawberries and blueberries.
Nu Bistro coffee lounge
Just upstairs from Villa Royale, Nu Bistro has some of the most beautiful murals in the city. The dreamy white and turquoise space channels an artsy, hipster vibe with birdcage lamps, exposed brick wall and a gorgeous, slightly racy, East-meets-West mural. Opened in mid-2017, the lounge features a Chinoiserie-chic ambiance with very reasonably priced Vietnamese coffees, cappuccinos and lattes. Bring a laptop or a sketchbook and spend the afternoon tucked away nibbling on gorgeous French- and Japanese-inspired desserts, such as choux, truffles and almost too-pretty-to-eat sakura mizu (delicate water cakes).
Partea English tearoom
Something out of a faded children’s storybook, Partea is a two-room ode to all things British. Yes, staff will reluctantly make you a cup of mocha coffee (iced or hot), but most come for the tea and stay for the kitsch. Choose your own cup and saucer and select from a wall of teas ranging from English Breakfast to Caramel Popcorn. Then sit back and let it all steep amidst cuckoo clocks, vintage suitcases, and whimsical tea sets. Order tea by the pot to go along with proper scones with jam and clotted cream (in tropical HCMC!) or a high tea set. Try to nab a seat by the window, which overlooks pedestrian-only Nguyen Hue St – especially pretty when illuminated at night. Once you’ve quenched your thirst and had your fill of chintz, explore the magnificent art deco building that houses Partea – most of the nine floors have been converted to trendy cafes, cute boutiques and quirky businesses.