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Ngõ Nooks: The Peculiarity of a Coffee Sanctuary With No Menu and No Address

"SOLitude" — At first glance, the word conjures a sense of melancholic privateness in my ever-anxious soul. But not in a pessimistic way, fortunately.

It’s been almost six years since I’d braved a trip up north, and this time I was alone. Well, perhaps not alone in a strict sense, since a 10-day scooter ride from Saigon to Hanoi involves the help of friends and acquaintances in various familiar places along the way.

When alone and detached from the baggage of commitments rooted in a city one considers home, one seeks the basics⁠. For me, that means the picturesque ngõ and hẻm cafes that sparked my decade-long romance with Vietnam. Upon a tip-off from a trusted coffee-dante down south, the trip to seek out SOL Arch Space in Hanoi was only a matter of packing the right camera lenses.

The first thing I come across when I get to the address is a... dental clinic? It's an alley with nothing but two dentist's offices sitting side by side. Then I realize that one's supposed to go deeper; then, a receptionist pointed to an even smaller alley. Apparently, these are called ngách in the capital city — an appreciable distinction of city planning nuances.

When I finally set foot into SOL Arch Space, Antoine Cao Ngô, an interior designer by trade, greets me. I sip on a respectably made cold brew coffee while we chat. When asked if the space was inspired by, or perhaps follows, a specific style, he replies: “Không phải là style! It would be preposterous to say there is a style.”

SOL Arch Space matches its name’s implications. Antoine’s approach seeks to achieve what he believes is the key to purposeful architecture, with the foundations of space being prioritized before any distracting thoughts of pre-classified styles are considered. “An actor needs to get into shape for a specific role [and] he has to fit the theme of the role,” he explains.

And indeed, the inspiration for the coffee space is the original structure itself, based at the rear-end of a hundred-year-old colonial building that now lives a second life as the Religion Publishing House under the Religious Affairs Office in Hanoi. The space’s original architecture provides limitations within which SOL Arch Space finds its innate soul.

Divided into four distinct zones, SOL Arch Space also functions as a meeting space for clients and colleagues. The brewing area contains a small barista workspace where Antoine or his baristas brew with a La Marzocco coffee machine and his choice coffee beans roasted in Vietnam or the United States, where Antoine admits his favorite roasters hail from. No menus are offered here since the coffee you order depends on what’s in stock.

“My customers start with a cup of coffee when they step in. No tea, we focus on coffee,” Antoine says.

On an open "attic" seating area right above the brewing area, the interesting furnishing — the result of Antoine’s eagerness to reinstate usefulness to discarded furniture — can be spotted basking in the light filtered through jade-green bamboo leaves. From the outer reaches of the Religion Publishing House, sunlight shines into a repurposed altar room filled with antiques and the like.

As one explores deeper into the air-conditioned section, a number of unique installations emerge. Most notably, a subtly lit “doorway” is constructed from traditional fabric-like paper, and a drum belonging to the Êđê people of the Central Highlands hangs from the ceiling in a rather unexpected position.

“Some things may look good and minimalist on their own, but it gets challenging when things pile up,” Antoine elaborates. The difficulty lies in selecting the right articles for the same space and in his own words, preventing “overload.” “It’s all about form and shape. Respect the article’s innate beauty and a new form will emerge,” he adds.

SOL Arch Space turned out to be a completely different experience than my initial intention, which was motivated by an urge to seek familiarity with the hidden spaces here, something that I've grown used to down south in Saigon. More than just a hidden gem, it is an expression of how form and factor interact with our daily lives. Most architecturally focused “coffee workspaces” I’ve encountered in Vietnam seem to place emphasis on shadow-play and specific construction materials, yet Antoine’s interpretation definitely breaks everything down to the basics by creating personal comfort in a space that one has been given.

Please contact SOL Arch Space before visiting to book a time via their Facebook page.

SOL Arch Space

At the end of Ngõ 54, Quán Sứ, Hoàn Kiếm District, Hanoi

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