5th May 2021
Coffee shops, as I drill into my students, are ubiquitous in Sai Gon, so cafes need something special to make them stand out, to encourage people to go there by choice, not merely out of convenience. One such cafe is:
Cà Phê Cô Ba
4-6 Đồng Khởi, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 700000
The cafe exudes an old-world charm, a romanticised exotic and mysterious Sai Gon. Dark-wood furniture, a twirling staircase, the aroma of fresh coffee; it requires but little imagination to picture the spirits of beautiful Vietnamese ladies in áo dài, amidst the heady scent of perfume and opium.
Enhancing the ambience, the main room has antique sewing machines along one wall, while the wooden shutters display the boy reporter Tintin on his (unofficial) visit to Viet Nam.
Furthermore, there is a back story. The cafe is named after Trần Ngọc Trà, born around 1906, and named ‘The First Beauty of Sai Gon.’
I’ve had to rely on some online translations, but it appears Ms Ba Trà was a great beauty who intoxicated powerful and wealthy men with her charm. Unfortunately, as her looks faded, she became addicted to gambling and ended her days in poverty.
You can read more (in English) here: https://vtc.vn/nguoi-dep-sai-gon-dung-bua-ngai-lam-tieu-doi-10-ty-phu-ar140046.html
The coffee is pretty average but the price is reasonable considering the central location. Incongruously, the cafe is situated inside a modern office block and is reached by lift. The sounds of modern Ho Chi Minh City, of people shouting into mobile phones, and advertising covering every space bring one back to the modern world.
Serendipity – I had to go into my bank, which had moved to a new location, and afterwards, driving around a famous ex-pat area of District 2, I discovered this:
I haven’t had a bagel since my last visit to London, way back in 2020, and that was factory produced, purchased from a supermarket, in a pack of six. There was nothing for it – I simply had to go in, get my coffee ‘n’ bagel fix.
I opted for the classic smoked salmon & cream cheese, along with ice coffee.
Motorbikes, coffee and bagels … a sign of changing Sai Gon.
Bagel with ‘everything’ (poppy seed, sesame, cheese). My bagel cost about £3, the BLT £2, coffee just over £1.
The verdict ? Well, delicious, of course, nostalgic, you betcha, but a bagel … ? No, not what we have back in east London (where there are still two all-night bagel bakeries). It was more like crusty bread, bagel-shaped, as opposed to the chewy, doughy texture I am used to (goes without saying that bacon and ham are not on the menu in Kosher delis).
However, I was delighted to find this store and though it’s a little far away, I’ll be happy to return.
Meanwhile, I noticed a New York Bagel store in District 1 … I shall try that in due course.