Patrons can relax by the fountains at Du Mien Caf in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Karin Esterhammer / For…)
Reporting from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — My husband, Robin, son Kai and I lived in Vietnam for a little more than two years. At first we found all the sounds of Ho Chi Minh City charming. Then annoying, as motorcycle engines, bus horns, loud karaoke music and construction noise erupted endlessly.
Just before our nerve endings short-circuited, our Vietnamese friends introduced us to some of the city's coffeehouses where patrons can escape the sounds of a city of 7 million people (10 million if you include the outskirts). Cafes that serve iced coffees and ice cream are so popular in this hot, muggy city that such venues sit on nearly every corner ready to cool off weary tourists.
After Brazil, Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of coffee, in particular the robusta and arabica beans, which have a dark, rich flavor that the southern Vietnamese temper with sweetened condensed milk and then pour over ice. This combo is called ca phe sua da and is Ho Chi Minh City's most popular beverage. I never liked coffee until I moved here. Now I'm addicted to it.
Eight coffeehouses in particular top my list of favorites because they are unusually peaceful oases. Each is tucked away in a tiny alley off a busy street. Some sit under a canopy of flowering trees with tables set next to waterfalls, koi ponds and sleeping Buddha statues. Some have soft couches with pillows and teddy bears to hug. In the evening, candles are lighted, greenery is draped with strings of miniature lights and soft music is performed. Best of all, the prices are low, and no one rushes you out.
Mien Dong Thao: A black-stone wall of falling water, natural woods, potted trees and flowers, shallow pools framed by tropical plants and fans with mist make guests feel as though they are in a cool forest. Smoothies, ice creams, coffees and fruited yogurt shakes all come in pretty glassware whimsically decorated with dollops of cream, little cookies, curly straws and tiny paper umbrellas. Each costs about $1.75. Beer costs $1.80, and snacks, such as French fries with butter and sugar, are $1.40. 221A Nguyen Trong Tuyen, District Phu Nhuan; 011-84-8-3845-1357. Open 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Du Mien Café: This coffeehouse and Mien Dong Thao share the same owner, which accounts for the similarities in décor. It can seat about 200 patrons, but with tables cleverly situated around different ponds and bubbling fountains, or tucked behind curtains of hanging philodendrons, it doesn't feel crowded. Every order is accompanied by delicious iced jasmine tea, which is refilled constantly. Banana splits made with tiny finger bananas are $2.50, beef noodle soup or seafood with noodles is $2, and smoothies made with papaya and avocado are $1.80. 49/8A Ho Bieu Chanh, District Phu Nhuan; 011-84-8-3844-3054. Open 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Casbah Cafe: This coffeehouse, with a Middle Eastern theme, sits in an alley so narrow and dark and behind a door so nondescript that you might think you are entering a Prohibition-era speakeasy. But climb up a winding staircase and you'll find cozy rooms with blue couches and coffee tables, water pipes and beaded curtains hanging between smaller rooms. A friend took me up to the rooftop terrace where there are tables, couches and views of the city, including the twin-spired Notre Dame Cathedral built by the French in 1863. Because the location is prime downtown territory, the prices are a bit higher. Tropical fruit drinks are $3 and cocktails are $4. A Middle Eastern menu is available with kebabs, steak, falafel and barbecued prawns for $4-$8. Belly dancing on weekends starts at 9 p.m. Alley No. 59, Nguyen Du St., District 1; 011-84-8-8382-4130. Open 8 a.m.-1 a.m. daily.
Den & Trang: The entrance to this café is on a busy street, but once patrons walk through a narrow garden-like corridor to reach the main room, they won't hear the traffic din. The coffeehouse is made up of many small rooms, either open air or under a roof. It's OK to plug in your laptop and sit for hours in a quiet corner, getting inspiration among the colorful aquariums, flowers, trees and climbing ivy. Guests can order yogurt drinks, fruit shakes, fresh juices and coffee for $1.50. Coconut ice cream is served in a fresh, hollowed-out coconut for $3. The milk and meat from the coconut are served on the side. Live music — acoustic piano, guitar and violin — runs 7-11 each night. 47 Tu Xuong St., District 3; 011-84-8-6276-7625. Open 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.