In Hanoi, when a place is good, word spreads fast. For a couple of weeks, I’d been hearing from Vietnamese friends about a new art space-turned-café that had opened in the outlying ward of Vinh Phuc. The café, supposedly one of Hanoi’s best kept secrets, was notoriously difficult to find.
Of course, the prospect of an adventure only made it sound more appealing.
As you pull off the main street of Duong Buoi into Alley 462, you’ll quickly find yourself weaving through the kind of charming alleyways that Hanoi is famous for. The neighbourhood itself is also worth a browse, offering visitors a glimpse of the old Hanoi, littered with old yellow apartment blocks and lively public squares.
The café is housed in a traditional Muong ethnic minority house on stilts, transported from the mountains of Hoa Binh Province to the capital in 1993. Artists Nguyen Manh Duc and Tran Luong founded it as the Nha San Collective’s studio in 1998, creating Vietnam’s first experimental art space, which has given birth to the avant-garde careers of artists like Nguyen Minh Thanh and Truong Tan.
While the art space itself was shut down in 2010, the house has now been turned into a café and plays host to events from the underground art scene.
Access to Inspiration
As you walk through coloured drapes into the café’s calming open-air layout, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The furniture itself is from Vietnam’s Subsidy Era, while everything from empty mortar shells, transistor radios, water canisters and antique medals line the shelves in an ode to the country’s wartime history.
The menus have been enscribed onto worn Russian volumes of books, in between pages of Cyrillic code. In some parts of the cafe, tables have been replaced with old green war chests that were used to transport weapons during the war. A restored Honda 67 and a rusty Thong Nhat bicycle also make for interesting showpieces on the café’s ground floor.
Drink prices start at VND20,000 and include the typical selection of smoothies, coffee, juices and local brews. We recommend trying the Vietnamese iced coffee with coconut milk (VND25,000) and the mango smoothie (VND45,000). For an extra VND15,000 visitors can also share a plate of sunflower seeds or some curiously-named ‘field rations’.
Lounge seating on the upper levels allows visitors to while away the hours as they listen to Vietnamese covers of classics like Ave Maria. Creative types may find this a useful place to find inspiration among the thousands of historical artefacts.
This place hasn’t been set up to make millions — and in some part that shows. But we expect its rustic authenticity and charming interiors will score a place in the hearts of many. — David Mann
Café Nha San is at Alley 462, Duong Buoi, Ba Dinh, Hanoi. For more info, go to cafenhasan.com