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Hẻm Gems: In Saigon's Greenest Cafe, a Rabbit, Cotton and Succulents Galore

On a windy autumn day of 2019, I did what any existentially precarious millennial would eventually do some time in their 20s: I bought a houseplant.

It was a cherubic succulent pot that could fit in my palm like a brief moment of hand-holding. Its Vietnamese name, sen đá, means “rock lotus,” an apt name for a cabbage with plump leaves that curved into a center, resembling a tiny turquoise lotus. At just VND20,000 — cheaper than a bowl of phở and slightly more expensive than a stick of kem chuối — it was practically nothing as far as impulse purchases go, but what the diminutive bulb of leaves represented was much more than that.

Holding the terra cotta pot of sen đá in my hand, visuals of an amber-tinted future flashed before my eyes. A small balcony that catches the morning sun just right, bathing rows and shelves of plant pots with nurturing, gentle warmth. Pothos, fiddle-leaf fig, string of turtles, peace lily all thriving. The tiny pot of sen đá, still alive and plump, sits in a corner where it all began, a testament to my arboricultural prowess.

Call it a ticking biological clock or innate parental instinct, life will find a way to nudge us young adults into a rite of passage to gauge our ability to care for another living being, be it a house plant, a pet, a niece, or — God forbid — an actual baby. Being able to keep a houseplant from perishing is no easy feat, as I’ve learned the hard way, so I’ve developed great respect for those who are not only brave enough to take on the task, but also flourish in their plant parent role. Which was why setting foot inside Cú Trên Cây Café elicited a strong emotional response from me.

Every inch of the medium-sized coffee shop is covered in pots of plants, vines, tropical flowers and shade from the thick canopy of legacy trees above. In Vietnam, the term cà phê sân vườn, or garden café, refers to a class of spacious hangout places where most of the tables are outdoors in the middle of plants and perhaps a water feature or two. And Cú Trên Cây stands out as a shining example of this genre of cafés, where shades of natural green dominate every corner that one can set their eyes on.

It was a welcoming surprise to discover the comfy café right in the middle of Binh Thanh’s nowhere. On a side of Ung Van Khiem Street, Cú Trên Cây is surrounded by makeshift cơm tấm carts, bike-washing shops and rows of nondescript residential abodes, a far cry from the clusters of fashionable boutiques and hipster cafés of Tu Xuong or Ngo Thoi Nhiem. The place’s exterior adds another layer of camouflage, as it also doubles as a houseplant shop, selling everything from ferns to cousins of the sen đá that sparked my houseplant phase.

The furnishing and décor inside follow a vintage style commonly seen in many Saigon cafés, though there are touches of rustic countryside charm that are enough to set it apart. Each table is adorned with a small plate of cotton blossoms while, here and there, owl-themed sculptures fill in empty corners — a callback to the coffee shop’s name, meaning “tree-perched owl.” Of course, pots of vines like trầu bà sway in the wind. The drink and food menu is adequate, if nothing to write home about, but the joy of visiting Cú Trên Cây is not usually the drink, but the peaceful atmosphere brought about by its smorgasbord of green plants and well-curated decorations. At times, however, this is unfortunately disturbed by questionable choices in background music and the raucous chatter of the employees manning the counter.

A member of Cú Trên Cây’s staff roster, however, seems to have captured the affection of every visitor and deserves all the praise and lettuce — a humongous bunny named Te. A separate section of the café right near the entrance is reserved for Te’s shenanigans, be it munching on rau muống or passionately trying to solicit pets from passersby.

You can probably tell from the use of past tense that my time with sen đá didn’t last long. I was too anxious and eager with watering, so it slowly succumbed to a waterlogged withering. Every time I set foot in a garden coffee shop like Cú Trên Cây, it reminds me of the succulent and the future that could have been. Perhaps it’s time for a fresh new start?

Cú Trên Cây Coffee is open from 8am to 10pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 3/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 3/5

Location: 5/5

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

Cú Trên Cây Coffee

262 Ung Van Khiem, Ward 25, Binh Thanh

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