It’s the Sunday following Independence Day and the streets are quiet. The cloud cover shifts, slowly illuminating the impressive shop front of Café 81. Its postcard-like appearance draws the first of many amateur photographers. What lies through its doorway is unclear, the dimmed seclusion creating a sense of mystery.
Once inside, you are immediately struck by a feeling of intimacy. Customers in sparsely lit areas seem truly engaged with one another. Clustered around are a myriad of items, many from Vietnam’s subsidy period, thoi bao cap. Typewriters, amplifiers, radios and cassette players. Tables are forged from antiquated sewing machine stands, or are glass-topped to display a collage of aged flyers. Walls are artistically dilapidated, continuing the cream and blue-green colouring seen outside. With the limited daylight fluctuating between light and grey, the room breathes a changing ambience. The upper level is less cluttered. The wooden smell and quietness feels even more like a genuine home.
Pause for Harmony
Owner and interior designer Nguyen Hoang explains the idea behind the venue.
“Life in Saigon is taut like a violin string,” he says. “I have lived here for 20 years. The city changes day by day, and people are always busy with work. I think that people need to slow down — to enjoy the many great things in life.”
He adds: “I wanted to create a place that people can stop and relax in for a moment. To meet their friends. To share their feelings. In this space, every decoration recalls old memories. I love everything that is old — old friends, old books and old wine.”
Previously located in Binh Thanh, Cafe 81 opened its District 1 doors in February this year. Smoking is allowed throughout. At present the menu is drinks only, with its selection maintaining an unassuming feel. Prices range from VND25,000 to VND35,000.
Coffee is naturally a priority, alongside northern tea and fresh milk. Other refreshments include dracontomelom or apricot juice, kudzu, or honey with lemon and kumquat. The latter of these was deeply refreshing.
Regular visitors are young adults with a noticeably relaxed countenance. The tranquil surroundings offer students an opportunity to focus, while business workers appreciate the informal backdrop that it offers their meetings. Freelancers across various arts fields also make up the clientele, understandable given the inspiring style of this abode.
Hoang’s design choice of purposeful disorder resonates with Saigon’s chaotic symphony. It offers a warm welcome to all, one that he intends to maintain — “I hope that the cafe will always be taken care of like my house.”
Cua Hang Cafe 81 is at 216B Nguyen Van Nguyen, Q1, HCMC
Photos by Alex McKeown