VietNamNet Bridge – From the day the first coffee cups were processed, after many changes of history, Chieu, Cheo Leo and Am Phu coffee shops are still open in the heart of Saigon.
Tucked onto a short alley off Cao Thang Street a safe distance from the roaring traffic of the nearest main road, Chieu Café is still a good spot for groups, couples or anyone to hang out and have some drinks as well as to flee the scorching heat and hustle and bustle of city life.
Built in 1969, Café Chieu is one of the oldest coffee shops in HCMC. Its interior design is full of warm earth colors and the blend of burnt oranges and browns gives the space inside a comfortable vibe. Furnishings such as table lamps add style and charm without breaking the level of down to earth casualness. The beautiful green lianas and the ornamental trees make it easy to stay for a while.
Quality tables and chairs made of seasoned wood provide wonderful colorful tones as well as relaxed seating. Prewar music written by Trinh Cong Son and Ngo Thuy Mien fill the background. The menu includes many types of fruit juices, coffee, cocktails and Vietnamese cuisine for breakfast and lunch.
Café Chieu is at 118 Cao Thang Street in HCMC’s District 3.
Am Phu (Hell) café
The creepy nickname is for a no-name small café which has been operating for 60 years. This was the first mobile café, which is set on a trolley, in Saigon. The café is at the alley at 330 Phan Dinh Phung Street, Phu Nhuan District of Dang Ngoc Con and his wife.
In memory of Mr. Dang Ngoc Con (aka Mr. Ba Con), his father began to push a trolley to the road to sell coffee from the mid-1950s. Con took over his father’s trade. After the country’s unification in 1975, he moved the coffee trolley to the alley at 300 Phan Dinh Phung and the trolley café has been there since then.
The café has never been closed, except for only one day in the past 60 years. The trolley is now set inside the old couple’s small house, with several plastic chairs and tables around. The café is always packed with familiar customers.
This café is special because Con and his wife still use a small “net racquet” to process coffee.
Cheo Leo cafe
Hidden in an alley in District 3, Cheo Leo is overshadowed by surrounding houses and stores.
Unlike many trendy coffee shops around the city, it looks quite plain, with stainless steel tables and plastic stools. There’s a wooden sign with the name of the shop and a timid coffee cup.
But who needs a fancy sign for a coffee shop that has stood for 77 years?.
In the past, the place was popular among students of Saigon’s elite high schools such as Pétrus Ky, now Le Hong Phong, and Chu Van An. These days it is a favorite venue among people who are nostalgic and want a reminder of what Saigon coffee used to taste like.
The essence of Cheo Leo’s lasting charm lies in its old-fashioned, almost extinct, way of brewing coffee with a clay pot and a cloth strainer. There are just a handful of shops that are still using the method around the city.
Cheo Leo’s owners are known for having been meticulously carrying out the whole brewing process for decades, treating it like a ritual.
The current owner, Nguyen Thi Suong, says she uses tap water to brew coffee, but before it can be used, the water must sit still in a tank for three days.
The practice was dated to the days when her father, Vinh Ngo, still ran Cheo Leo and wanted to get rid of all the unwanted smell of disinfectants in the water.
Suong still uses an old stove that her father made specifically just for boiling water on.
Suong then pours the hot water into a cloth strainer containing finely ground coffee. The strainer is placed in a clay pot that Chinese people often use to cook medicinal herbs.
The coffee sits in the strainer for a while before being poured into another pot, which she then places near the stove to keep the coffee always warm and maintain its perfect flavor.
It is important to keep the stove at a right temperature, because if it is too high it will spoil the coffee, she says. But when the temperature is too low, it will fail to draw out the coffee’s fragrance.
Every cup is also washed in boiled water before use to make sure the coffee stays warm.
Cheo Leo is best known for bac xiu — Chinese-style milk coffee with more milk than coffee. Many people love Cheo Leo’s bac xiu recipes, saying its proportions of coffee and milk are just right.
The father, Ngo, opened the coffee shop in 1938 when the rural neighborhood was nearly uninhabited.
Ngo named his shop Cheo Leo, which means “high and dangerous” in Vietnamese, being inspired by the fact that it stood on an isolated spot quite far from the nearest houses.
Even though Ngo passed away more than 22 years ago, people who have patronized it for a long time have many stories about the late owner.
A regular customer describes Ngo as a stylish person who often rode his Vespa to Ben Thanh Market to buy French-branded coffee.
He says the late owner was so loyal to the straining method that he refused to follow the now ubiquitous drip brewing, even when many of other shops had already adopted the new way.
Compiled by Pha Le