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A Whole Building Full of Cafès!

I embarked on my Southeast Asian trip with an express desire to seek out the region’s best coffee shop. I planned on going away for 16 days in total, but only a few days into the voyage, I already visited so much more coffee shops and cute cafes than I knew what to do with. Ho Chi Minh City was just brimming with cafes and cute little hangout spots where I could hole up and enjoy a quiet and productive afternoon poring over stuff that I needed to read and write for work.

To give you an idea on just how cafe-crazy Vietnam is, and how the coffee culture is very much alive in the crazy and frenetic Ho Chi Minh City, I already came from two different coffee shops earlier that day when I decided to walk around and check out my surroundings. I had previously enjoyed a refreshing cold brew from The Workshop which is smack in the middle of Saigon’s swanky District 1, and I was in no mood for any more coffee. However, I was in the mood to take in a lot of the things that I enjoy about coffee shops i.e. the quaint and quiet feel and that palpable creative energy generated by charming surroundings and cute decorative elements that lend these places with that distinct character.

I didn’t even have to go far when I chanced upon this building on my way to the nearby walking street, where I was expecting to get some street food.

The Cafe Apartment as it is aptly called is a block of residential apartments that young, creative, and enterprising hipsters turned into a hub of art, coffee, and food. I am all for adaptive reuse of old buildings, as demonstrated by my love for Escolta’s First United Building in Manila, and Jakarta’s Pasar Santa. This one was apparently a pre-war apartment complex that local youngsters salved and turned into 9 floors of cafes, boutiques, artist studios, restaurants, and stores for all sorts of merchandise.

The shopping and cafe complex can be accessed through a sketchy-looking elevator at the basement, just off the entrance of a modern bookstore that sells books in the Vietnamese language. There is an uncle who collects 3000VND for an elevator ride to the top, and you work your way back to the ground floor by winding through its serpentine staircases, ducking into store after store.

You need to look past the grit and the grime. Actually, I noticed a lot of foreign tourists balk at the site of the entryway. I mean, who can blame them? This looks like it would lead somewhere creepy. The ceiling was leaking and the floor tiles probably haven’t had a good cleaning in ages. It looked sketchy af, and the tourists probably thought they weren’t gonna make it out of there alive.

If the dingy and dirty entryway was any indication of the age and the disrepair of the building, the flights of stares were just something straight of a horror film.

However, if you could stomach the dirty and the chaos of the hallways, you will be rewarded with cute corners and nice terrace views of the Walking Street below, like in one of the shops in the upper floors. At this point, I was just basically passing time and was in no mood to eat or drink anything, so I basically just peeked into whatever shop or cafe piqued my interest.

There was a shop that sold a silk-screen printed canvas tote bags. I love a good tote bag any day, and I thought the designs were pretty cool, but I wasn’t up for any shopping. I got acquainted with one of the store owners, though, and we chatted a bit about the creative energy that is enshrined in the boutiques and the stores within the Cafe Apartment complex. And then I was off to explore some of the other stores!

They had places where you can have high tea, because the Vietnamese love coffee and tea in equal measure.

Some cafes and restaurants had ample seating in dining areas awash with natural light.

I love these random signs that are poorly translated. I look for them everywhere I go. There are also some stores that sell tailored clothing and one-of-a-kind pieces.

The stores really vary in terms of the things they carry or serve, ranging from tea and coffee to fusion Vietnamese food. There are even some boutiques that hawk lingerie and sex toys. Yeap, because you might be up for some naughty role play stuff after you sip fancy tea with dainty little tea sets, IDK.

Also, let me add that apparently, some of the units in the building still function as occupied residential units. I made a wrong turn and ended up opening the door into someone’s living room. An half-naked elderly man peeked his head from a partition wall to the kitchen and tiredly told me to basically fuck off. I was probably not the first one to have made the mistake that day. You’ll never know with the concepts that hipster come up with these days. So fucked of, I did, but not without a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

I saw a donut shop that had a funny grammatically incorrect decal, but you get the point.
More or those funny, mistranslated signs but this time, in neon lettering. Because what trendy place does not have neon signage these days?

They even have a poke place!

I often wonder if there is another building somewhere in Manila that could probably be turned into one of these. I truly believe that giving the youth and young entpreneurs creative spaces to express their entrepreneurial drive and spirit will be instrumental to birthing the next big thing. I think these places are pretty cool, because they are a concentration of fun and quirky stuff that young people come up with these days. If we can marry functional spaces set in heritage buildings to promote adaptive re/use of these buildings, then why not, diba? Because quite frankly, Manila doesn’t need another shiny and gleaming shopping mall.
We should learn from the Vietnamese, then.
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