Café Chanh in Hoi An
Photo: Vu Trong Anh
Vietnam Heritage, June-July 2011 -- The owner of Café Tieu, a woman who moved to Hoi An in 1954 and was recently living with her children and grandchildren in a small house at the Hoi An market, showed me black-and-white pictures of her in her shop in the 1960s, with customers from abroad ‘who took a picture because they fell in love with the face of the woman owner from the North’.
Eighty-eight-year-old Mr Dao, owner of Café Dao, founded in 1950, said he had shut down his shop seven years ago. His daughter turned it into a souvenir shop. He said, ‘Business is very different now. Then I slept little and served the customers from 3 a.m. till midnight.’ On New Year's Eve he stayed open till dawn and gave customers a New Year’s card. Each day he sold hundreds of cups of coffee, but didn’t need an assistant. He chose the beans and roasted and ground them, with secrets he is still proud of.
Old customers, especially artists, still remembered Mr Dao. He said, ‘I never go anywhere, but I know everything.’ These days, every morning Mr Dao made his own coffee, drank it, got dressed neatly then walked around with a felt hat on. He said, ‘I need to enjoy my life to make up for the time I was up to my ears in work.’ Mr Dao still kept a small, blue, steel plate with the words ‘Café Dao’, painted in white, on it on the wall of his house.
Of the three old coffee shops in Hoi An, the Dao, the Tieu and the Chanh, only the Café Chanh, in front of the Assembly Hall of the Chinese Congregation (or Le Nghia school) was still operating. It worked perfunctorily and had been reduced to less than half its former area. Unless you were a regular, you would not have recognized this as a coffee shop: no signboard, no music, no ‘design’ no decoration, only five small wooden tables and a few stools not far from a wooden bed.
Mrs Chanh, the owner, over 60, was sitting with regulars. ‘Long time no see,’ she said to me. Younger than Café Dao or Café Tieu, Café Chanh came into being in 1969. During the 1980s, when the national economy was centrally-planned, with subsidies, Mrs Chanh could sell a thousand cups a day, though just a few years ago her shop still had so many customers extra chairs and tables had to be put on the veranda. Now she could sell only a few dozen cups. The customers had mostly been frequenting the shop for dozens of years.
Among the regulars was a man from Hanoi who had made his living in Hoi An since the 1950s. His name was M. ‘He comes here, refusing to go anywhere else,’ Mrs Chanh said. Apparently he spoke out cheerfully to everybody but really wanted to talk to the woman owner.
Now there were so many coffee shops in Hoi An that you almost needed a directory. A ‘town of coffee shops’ had been built within a few years in Nguyen Duy Hieu Street, with impressive designs, for example, Thien Duong, Ba Lu, Da Cuoi and GoGo.
Those who wanted to listen to music mixed with the babbling of a man-made spring would go to this area.
Young customers with boisterous lifestyles would have gone to the Tinh Thuong, at the Le Loi Street intersection, where you could thump along to a song out of a loudspeaker.
The female customers have gathered at quiet shops such as Thien Thanh and Tigon.
Well-educated people and the artists would go to shops with a violet trellis and classical music, in alleys, like Lac Vien, Serenade and Ha Vang.
Those who wanted to listen to live music would have gone to the only coffee shop that provided it, the Cung Tram Pho Café. The music was of the genre known as ‘pre-1975’.
Coffee shops more reserved for foreigners were in Bach Dang Street and Cua Dai Street, such as Café Can, Café Thang Long and Café Des Amis, where you not only drank coffee but ate dumplings, vạc cake or cao lầu soup, listened to classical music or flamenco, looked at the Hoai River at dusk, wrote down feelings in notebooks and sent e-mails.
There was something in particular about the Des Amis coffee shop, owned by Mr Nguyen Manh Kim, at 52 Bach Dang Street. Extraordinary power came not only from the tasty coffee or the delicious food but from the owner’s being able to speak different languages fluently, having fine remarks and being smart in business.
Des Amis was a not very big coffee shop where you could view the Hoai River. For seventeen years, Mr Kim had been doing business in his own way: no menu, no tablecloth, but the dish appeared miraculously quickly, at least according to a comment written by customer called Helen. Customers who came back after five or ten years could still find their original impressions in a book.
Mr Kim said that in the early days nine foreign students had stopped their bikes in front of his shop and said they were students and had been told about the shop with its tasty coffee and delicious food but they could afford only half-price. Mr Kim had said, ‘No,’ which had made them sad, and had then said that ‘No’ meant there was no half price, which in turn meant they could eat and drink free, which the students had done for two weeks. For the last meal he had invited them to eat with his family. They had left their testimonials, including something like, ‘During our trip, if anyone we meet is as goodhearted as Mr Kim, we won’t want to return home. We would want to travel around the world forever ...’
Among the coffee shops whose owners wanted to make them more attractive with impressive designs was the Thang Long Café, on the other side of An Hoi Bridge, near the Japanese Covered Bridge. Many would have called this ‘the café with candles’, because the owner had lit candles on stands he had designed himself and the wax had flowed and built up.
Many customers, lost in thought, watched the wax melting and running and then thought about human life, of the passing of time, and reading G. Apollinaire, for example. The shop was intended to serve foreign tourists only, but Vietnamese customers were welcomed equally and even at more Vietnamese prices.