The Cafe Apartments is a nine-storey maze of coffee shops, boutiques and beauty parlours. It’s also one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most-photographed buildings.
Take a stroll along Ho Chi Minh City’s “Walking Street” and you can’t help but notice the dilapidated building at 42 Nguyen Hue that resembles a giant doll house.
Especially at night, it’s impossible to mistake this nine-storey landmark, nestled alongside skyscrapers and luxury hotels, thanks to its tiny neon-lit, candy-coloured apartments.
The Cafe Apartments – home to an eclectic mix of cafes, fashion boutiques and beauty parlours – is now one of the hippest addresses in District 1. Its colourful facade and unique signage also make it an Instagram sensation.
The building itself may have seen better days, but it’s packed with history. It once housed government and military personnel: from US advisors in the 1950s and 1960s to naval officers in the post-war period, following reunification in 1975.
These days, it’s like a library for coffee-lovers with more than 30 cafes, tea shops and other businesses spread over nine floors with views of the Saigon River and Walking Street below.
In Vietnam, coffee is a drink that fuels the nation. It was introduced by the French in 1857, but really took off in the 1990s when the Vietnamese government pushed a massive coffee production program.
The country is now the second-biggest coffee producer in the world after Brazil, with coffee beans a popular site at the Ben Thanh Markets (pictured) and many major produce stalls.
You’ll also find cafes serving the dark, strong brew with sweetened condensed milk on every second street corner, as well as from street carts and in buildings like the Cafe Apartments.
The classic Vietnamese coffee is known as ca phe sua da, which means “coffee, milk, ice”.
The traditional local brew is made using strong coffee, dripped from a small metal filter into a cup containing a quarter as much sweetened condensed milk, then stirred and poured over ice in a glass.
On the ground floor of the Cafe Apartments, you’ll find Fahasa Bookstore. It’s a government-run chain of bookstores but it has possibly the largest selection of English literature in the city.
If you’re looking for a book, map, newspaper or magazine, you’re more likely to find it here than anywhere else in the city.
Grab a newspaper or a good book before heading up the twisting stone staircase for your morning ca phe sua da.
As you wander between floors, you’ll see signs and menus for the various cafes and shops.
You can also shell out 3,000 VND to use the lift and the cafes will refund the fee when you pay the bill. (Given the hot and humid weather, it’s probably not a bad idea.)
Most cafes are open from 8am until around 10pm when the building closes.
The Maker, on the third floor, is one of the more popular cafes, probably because it’s like one giant creative space for young Vietnamese workers to come and mingle.
Tea lovers should head to Partea – an English-style tea house (pictured) – on the fourth floor with an impressive collection of teapots, cups, saucers and cakes.
Other popular apartments are Mango Tree, Melee and The Letter Cafe.
Truth be told, you’d probably pay less for coffee almost anywhere else in Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s worth visiting the Cafe Apartments for the charm – and the great photo opportunities.
There are other cafe apartments worth exploring across the city’s 24 districts, including Pasteur Apartment Block (158 Pasteur St), the Ton That Dam Building (14 Ton That Dam, District 1), Ly Tu Trong Apartment Block (26 Ly Tu Trong St) and Thai Van Lung Apartment Block (Thai Van Lung & Nguyen Du St).
© 2020 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved.
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