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Saigon’s new Walking Street offers many historic, modern, and culinary attractions. But, one place in particular has undergone such a metamorphosis since the opening of the pedestrian walkway, in April 2015, that it’s now the coolest address on the entire street: the old apartment block at N°42 Nguyen Hue. Built sometime in the middle of the 20th century*, the apartment has a history of housing government and military personnel: from US advisors in the 1950s and 1960s to naval officers in the post-war period, after reunification in 1975. Today, however, this characterful, crumbling, nine-storey apartment block is a veritable chocolate box of hip, independent cafes, fashion boutiques and co-working spaces, which seem to grow in number each week. Wander from floor to floor – up the twisting stone staircase and along the tiled corridors – ducking into any coffee shop that takes your fancy. Local, trendy, and abuzz with Vietnamese youth, this old Saigon edifice is reborn. I call it the Cafe Apartment, and this is my complete, floor-by-floor guide.
*Historical information is based on conversations with residents and staff at N°42
GUIDE: THE CAFE APARTMENT
The Cafe Apartment is packed with cool places to hang-out, meet-up, socialize, bring a date, or do some work. The building, which is an attraction in itself, is like a library of coffee shops: browse each floor, checking out the décor of each cafe, before deciding which one to settle into. All the cafes face southwest, with little balconies overlooking the Walking Street, downtown, and the Saigon River. A staircase leads to all floors or you can pay 3,000vnd to use the elevator (cafes will refund this fee when you pay your bill). Most cafes are open from 8am to 10pm (when the building closes); prices for drinks and snacks are reasonable but not cheap; parking is next door at Lucky Plaza (5,000vnd). You could easily spend a whole day exploring this building and its cafes: it’s very fun and very ‘Saigon’. In this guide, I’ve written a description of all the cafes on all the floors of the Cafe Apartment.
Click on a floor from the list below to read more about it:
The Cafe Apartment, 42 Nguyen Hue Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City:
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The entire ground floor is taken up by the enormous Fahasa Bookstore. If you’re looking for a book, map, newspaper or magazine, you’re more likely to find it here than most other Saigon bookstores. The entrance to the Cafe Apartment proper is to the left of the bookstore (if you’re looking at the building from the Walking Street). It’s a diminutive entrance, covered in electrical cables and plastered with at least a dozen signs for all the cafes and boutiques that the apartment houses. Before entering, don’t forget to step back onto the Walking Street and view the Cafe Apartment block from the outside: it’s quite a sight, especially at night, when each of the cafes is lit by various forms of lighting: neon, fairly lights, lanterns, naked light bulbs. Viewing the building from the street is also the best way to form a visual map of the Cafe Apartment: make a mental note of which cafes and balconies look particularly appealing from the outside, because, once you’re inside, it can be quite disorienting….but that’s what this guide will help you with!
The first floor is very spartan indeed, with only one outlet. The Maker fashion boutique – to the right as you climb the stairs to the first floor landing – is a chic little outfit with whitewashed brick walls and exposed light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The Maker offers some interesting clothing and knick-knacks, but its other incarnation – a cafe on the third floor – is a more appealing place to kick back and relax. The first floor may only offer one shop, but keep climbing those stairs, because things get a lot more diverse and exciting on the other floors.
To the right of the 2nd floor landing, you’ll find Chicbae fashion boutique and Beauty Secret beauty salon, both of which make the most of their poky spaces. Follow the tiled floor around to the left of the staircase until it opens onto a corridor: this is where the cafe bonanza begins. Saigon Vieux is a stylish coffee shop with sleek interior design and a good-sized balcony. Next door, The Dark Eye clothing store and The Balcony Cafeteria is a grungy little place with bare concrete floors, wooden benches and a decent (but small) terrace. It’s an uneasy fusion of fashion boutique and cafe, with the emphasis on the former.
To the right of the third floor landing is the fashion boutique, Baddest Blue, and the jewelry store, Shimmer Silver. To the left of the staircase, Mango Tree is a fun and colourful dessert cafe. With child-like murals on the walls, a mango mascot, and staff in luminous uniform, it feels a bit like a chain aimed at teenagers (and indeed it will be, once a new store opens in District 7). But the dessert creations – including ice creams, waffles and syrupy drinks – are good enough to satisfy the Saigonese sweet tooth. At the end of the third floor corridor, The Maker is one of the most spacious and popular cafes in the apartment. Heavy on industrial chic – bare floors, whitewashed brick walls, exposed piping, naked light bulbs – The Maker bills itself as a cafe-workshop. With an emphasis on creativity and artistic endeavours – there’s a mission statement written in pen out front – this cafe has an arty vibe, which appeals to trendy Saigon youth. There’s a wide range of sweet drinks, cakes and good Western-style coffee available, and a large outside area from which to watch the activity on the Walking Street below.
On the fourth floor, to the right of the staircase, there’s Maison de Jenny fashion boutique and Cosette tailors and clothing store. To the left of the fourth floor landing, it’s difficult to miss Mekong Pizza, whose facade is decorated with Chinese-style lanterns and – clashing somewhat with the former – yellow and red plastic signage. As the name suggests, the menu offers a variety of Italian dishes, from pizzas and pastas to steaks and panna cotta. Prices are reasonable, quality is decent, and the ambience is pleasant enough: it’s a good place to fill up between cafe-hopping. Next door, the romantically named Thinker & Dreamer is an intimate little cafe with clean and clinical décor and a lovely (but tiny) tiled terrace, The corridor on the 4th floor is also the greenest in the building.
However, the fourth floor is best known for Partea: an English-style tea house which now extends over two separate apartment rooms, with the Thinker & Dreamer partitioning them. Probably the most popular, and certainly one of the first, cafes in the building, Partea has won over the hearts of young Vietnamese with its endearing attention to kitsch details, all based around the theme of a traditional English tea room. Indeed, despite being English myself, I can safely say that I’ve never been to a tea house quite as ‘English’ as this one. Choose your own variety of tea (there’s an encyclopedic selection), your own English-themed teapot (including one depicting Henry VIII and each of his wives), your own teacups (including ones with teddy bears, Alice in Wonderland, and ghastly floral patterns), and your own teacakes (including scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream), and then find a cosy, memorabilia-filled corner to enjoy it in. It’s all great fun – like taking tea in a life-sized doll’s house – and the quality is excellent too.
To the right of the 5th floor landing there’s The Twin fashion boutique and the interesting Tôi Làm Mộc woodwork and furniture store, which is worth a quick look. On the left of the stairwell, this floor belongs entirely to Saigon Ơi Cafe. A spacious, elegantly furnished, bright and attractive place, this cafe is great for work or play. There are two separate entrances along the corridor, a large balcony, wooden floors, hanging plants and lanterns, beautiful furniture, and – my favourite – a herb garden in an old bathtub. Drinks, cakes and salads are all good quality, including creative mixes of fruit juices, spices and herbs. Saigon Ơi’s crisp interior décor and friendly service attracts a young and arty crowd: it’s a great place to be.
The 6th floor has a distinctively Japanese flavour to it. To the left of the stairwell, The Letter Cafe is a pretty space painted in pastel tones and filled with Japanese-style pottery and bric-a-brac, some of which is for sale. The tiled floors are dotted with low wooden furniture, and the walls are hung with drapes and textiles. Wooden and glass doors open onto a good-sized balcony with excellent views over the Walking Street below. Find a cosy, cushioned corner and choose from several refreshing juice combinations, such as calamansi and Chinese plum (tắc xí muội). At the end of the corridor, Mêlee specializes in Japanese-style chicken and beer. More of a bar than a cafe, Mêlee’s interior design is a brooding and confusing mixture of wood and plastic. All the normal Asian lagers are available on tap but so too is the IPA from Pasteur Street Brewing Company. The chicken is decent and there’s even a private shisha room. Mêlee is at its best in the evenings, when candles adorn the tables and the city views are excellent.
To the right of the staircase on the 7th floor is the Men in Blue jeans shop. To the left of the landing, Buihaus Cafe is accessed via a dark and narrow corridor. Stark, stylish, and clinically clean, this little coffee shop and workspace has wiry modern furniture and lots of natural light. There’s a long list of drinks, including a few alcoholic cocktails, and some imaginative fruit mixes, such as ambarella and mint. Next door, Muteki offers casual Japanese dining in a minimally furnished, but very spacious, apartment. The tiled floors are beautiful and the terrace is superb, affording the best views in the building. A variety of reasonably-priced Japanese dishes are available throughout the day, including soba noodles for lunch. There’s a wide range of Japanese plum wines and other liquors, making this a good spot for a gin & tonic after dinner.
To the right of the 8th floor landing, a tight corridor leads to Metsign Cafe. Swish and colourful, Metsign serves Western-style coffee and pastries – the smell of the roasting beans drew me in from the stairwell – in a soft and bright space. Seating is on colourful sofas by the window looking over the city, or on a cosy mezzanine floor above the kitchen. There’s no balcony so it can get hot during the day, but at night it feels like a Manhattan penthouse. Mercifully, the owner chooses to play jazz classics rather than generic pop songs, which raises the tone somewhat. At the end of the 8th floor corridor, Boo Cafe is a cutesy milk-tea house with a playful, nursery-like interior. Painted murals, cotton clouds, a separate room with seating on the floor, and a white and sky-blue colour scheme, make this a fun little space. The terrace is large and the teas are sweet. At the time of writing, a new coffee shop, called Blackwell & Elegantine, was under construction between Metsign and Boo.
To the right of the stairwell on the 9th floor, Ailuros is a fashion boutique occupying one of the apartments along a pretty balcony. Follow this around to the right until it reaches a little back terrace with good city views. To the left of the staircase is the second location of Boo Cafe. Down a dark corridor, this is an intimate space with a nice little balcony, filled with the scent of sweet tea. At the end of the 9th floor corridor the apartments get smaller and smaller, yet they appear to house very large families. The last rooms in the building are occupied by Double Double (on the left) and Suvitality (on the right). The former sells an obscure collection of clothes, laptop and mobile phone covers, and anime-themed slippers; the latter is a clothing store.
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