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Hẻm Gems: Saigon Retro Cafe Has Just the Right Amount of Sentimentality

It’s a teensy bit weird to say that my new favorite hangout is above a VinMart.

At this point, I’m not even surprised anymore. A lack of stringent zoning, especially in peripheral neighborhoods, means that at any given corner of Saigon, wet markets can commingle with glossy gyms, petite knick-knack shops rub shoulder with ancient heritage homes, and convenience stores can share the same shopfront with vintage coffee shops — it’s a win-win situation for coffee and snack addicts.

To reach Tiệm Café Saigon Retro, take a turn into Tran Quoc Toan Street from Tan Dinh Market and seek out the first VinMart you can find; the coffee shop is up two flights of stairs. Those with motorbikes, however, will have to park their vehicle inside the Khai Minh tenement compound at 72 Tran Quoc Toan, a minor convenience, but if you’re lucky, the building’s courtyard cats might grace you with their aloof presence and instantly make your day better.

Cozy yellow lamps and natural lighting make the inside of Saigon Retro very inviting.

Take the hẻm to the right of the convenience store, ascend the stairs past a cozy-looking leather workshop and step inside Saigon Retro. True to its name, the café contains a sensible amount of vintage décor, such as analog cameras, 60s posters and a tattered cover of The Carpenters’ ‘Close to You’ record (Karen, may you rest in peace). Cluttering is a precise art form; too sparse and the atmosphere could swing towards cold and lonely while over-decorating can make one’s coffee shop look like an episode of Hoarding: Buried Alive. This is all to say that I appreciate Saigon Retro’s restraint in interior design and adherence to old-timey aesthetics without trying too hard. With huge windows in front, the main room is illuminated by natural light that’s just enough for reading and writing, but not too glaring.

A small patio offers great people-watching spots.

Upon ordering, a waiter immediately brings out a pot of tea and complementary bánh tai heo, a swirly cracker many Saigoneers will recognize from their childhood. Apart from staple beverages like cà phê sữa đá and peach tea, there are a few novelty specials that I couldn’t wait to have a sip, such as Saigon Prune, made of Coca-Cola and sour plum juice. The touch of saltiness nicely complements and tempers down the fizzy drink’s artificial sweetness. My colleague orders a blueberry smoothie, which is adequate but nothing to write home about.

Bánh tai heo and tea are on the house.

My favorite part of Saigon Retro, however, is neither the drink nor the location, but the range of old ads gracing its walls. Even encapsulated in glass frames, these have obviously seen better days judging by the extensive browning and worn-out lettering. Still, it’s fascinating to see early iterations of Tiger Beer or Bastos cigarettes rendered in distinctive modernist typographies.

Some old ads gracing the walls of the coffee shop.

Once you’ve settled in a comfortable nest at the café, munching on bánh tai heo and listening to the soft jazz numbers from the speaker, it’s very easy to lose track of time. This is a prized sense of comfort unique to independent cafés that’s sometimes impossible to get from popular chains like Cộng or Starbucks, where prestige and social media cred tend to trump quietude.

Saigon Retro Café is open from 8am to 10:30pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5 — free bánh lỗ tai heo makes this an instant five-star joint. 3.5/5 for drinks.

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 5/5 

Friendliness: 4/5

Location: 4/5 – parking is a few doors away across a busy street, but brownie points for cute cats.

Khoi loves tamarind, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Tiệm Cafe Saigon Retro

55 Tran Quoc Toan, Ward 8, D3

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