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Hẻm Gems: Lower Your Voice, the Hidden Elephant Is Reading

In Saigon’s indie cafe scene, there are household names and well-kept secrets; and then there are secrets that one might think are well-kept, but are actually household names. 

The Hidden Elephant Books & Coffee belongs firmly in the latter category, a covert oasis that patrons who love it attempt to keep to themselves, though they will eventually find out that the proverbial proboscidean is not that “hidden” after all.

The Hidden Elephant first came up during a conversation I had with a close friend. She prefaced it with, “I just discovered this new secret coffee shop that I think you would love.” It’s very quiet, based on the second floor of an old house, and has lots of books, she cooed with delight. It sounded incredible, I thought. As it turned out, I had already discussed The Hidden Elephant with another friend and made tentative plans to pay it a visit, but the rendezvous never panned out. In Saigon, the Hidden Coffee Shop Discovery Olympics are dizzyingly competitive, and in this particular round, we all lost.

To be fair, the presence of the cafe is considerably easy to miss by the city’s standards. Wedged in the middle of downtown’s most populous tourist trap, District 1’s Ben Thanh Ward, the place is well-camouflaged by surrounding money exchange shops, three-star hotels, tour agencies and souvenir kiosks that can distract even the most veteran hidden coffee shop hunters.

To get to Hidden Elephant, one will need to  squeeze through a claustrophobic corridor, ascend past a nail salon awash in millennial pink, and finally arrive at the glass door that opens into one of Saigon’s best places to hunker down and while your time away with a good book.

The cafe has three main reading areas for your choosing: the main floor that houses the counter, bookshelves and tables; a small smoking patio with some more seats; and a mezzanine that leads to a back garden. Books and bookshelves are prominent features of the space, while artworks embellish the remaining open walls. The setting is nothing novel if you’ve been to a few book cafes in Saigon, but there’s noticeable care in how the staff maintain their space here — shelves are dust-free and books are treated as proper amenities in a reading place, instead of props only there to boost the overall “vintage-ness” of a drinking and socializing establishment. On the walls, a selection of posters also shows the personal taste of the owner, from a sketch of Haruki Murakami and his cat to a set of monochromatic portraits inspired by famous paintings.

Regarding the name, a poster outside of the entrance reads “the elephant is hidden because he’s too noisy” and “don’t be like him” — which presents more questions than answers. Is it an origin story? Is it a warning? Should I watch my six? Who is the elephant? Is he/she actually hidden or, you know, “hidden”? Is this a front to an anti-noise cult that will kill you for violating their ode to the silence deity? No matter what the implications behind the ominous notice are, after a few minutes in the coffee shop, it will become apparent that reading is an activity of utmost priority here, and auditory disturbances are not welcome.

During my visit, all of the other guests are either working on their computers or deep in thoughts over a book. A soundtrack of acoustic Studio Ghibli covers lingers sheepishly in the air. It’s pleasant. If you’re a reader who takes their reading seriously, you will feel right at home here in the midst of many comforting elements: tea, soft cushions, many reading nooks, a calming quietude, and most importantly, the company of fellow readers — everything that makes a library great, minus the borrowing of books and plus the drinks.

Still, Hidden Elephant has some shortcomings. I pick a perfect armchair up on the mezzanine, but the wooden staircase leading up to it creaks a lot, which is a no-no in this temple of stillness. I don’t want to be “disappeared” like the elephant! The drinks are also quite expensive — most are in the VND60,000–70,000 range — though I think it’s acceptable considering its prime location and high-quality ambiance.

In hindsight, right from its name, Hidden Elephant has set itself apart from the rest of hangouts in Saigon: it’s a place for “books and coffee,” not a traditional “cafe,” which encourages hearty but raucous fraternizing. Here, there are books and there is coffee, and you’re welcome to find a corner to relish those two things to your heart’s content, just leave the boisterous gossiping outside.

The Hidden Elephant Books & Coffee is open from 9am to 10pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 3.5/5

Price: 3/5

Atmosphere: 6/5 

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5 — Parking is free, but remember to state that you’re visiting Hidden Elephant.

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

The Hidden Elephant Books & Coffee

2nd Floor, 35 Phan Chu Trinh, Ben Thanh Ward, D1

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