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In Search of Charming Cafes Along Saigon's Train Alleys

Compared to Hanoi’s now-restricted Phung Hung “Train Street,” the neighborhoods bordering the railway in Saigon have neither the romanticism nor goosebumps-inducing adrenaline rush that turned the former into a world-renowned tourist attraction.

After spending half a day strolling back and forth between the sides of the train track that traverses a pocket of Phu Nhuan, it became apparent to us that the occasional appearances of locomotives here excite no one but errant visitors — a role that we are more than happy to play in pursuit of cute coffee shops. In this community, the existence of passing trains blends in as naturally as being, like an indigenous bird or the soft rustling of leaves.

The history of urban railways in Saigon is rich and complicated, involving several different terminus locations, reroutings and, as of now, track removals. Trains to the city stop at the Saigon Station (Ga Sài Gòn) on Nguyen Thong Street in District 3. The current terminal is the third location in Saigon history, after previous structures on Ham Nghi Avenue and then at what is now September 23rd Park.

Today, according to Director of Saigon Railway Transport Company Do Quang Van, around 14 kilometers of the North-South track lies within Saigon, beginning at Saigon Station, passing through Phu Nhuan, Go Vap, Binh Thanh and Thu Duc districts before entering nearby Binh Duong Province. Even though the route pierces through an expansive area of Saigon, for those hoping to engage in recreational train-spotting, the stretch of the track in Phu Nhuan — surrounded by charming coffee shops, casual noodle houses, and walkable paths — is the most accessible to pedestrians.

Embarking on a simple quest that combines both our fondness for Saigon cafes and trains, we begin our day at a spot on Truong Sa Street where the track leaves District 3 and enters Phu Nhuan. From Saigon Station just a short walk away, trains bound for Hanoi would cross a bridge over the Nhieu Loc Canal to venture deep inside the hẻms and backyards of northern Saigon before moving eastward.

Where to Visit in Saigon's Train Alley?

1. Train Coffee

Address: 1122 Truong Sa, Phu Nhuan

Our first stop is a simple pavement coffee place, which comes with plastic chairs, tables and a single coffee cart offering a variety of beverage staples — cà phê sữa, orange juice, trà đá and the like. This spot, in spite of its simplicity, has a fair amount of mise en scène to get one in the mood for train hunting: in front, the railway bridge, the placid canal, and throngs of morning traffic beckon; behind you, a colorful train mural takes up the entirety of a wall.

The coffee cart is run by the charismatic Loan, who has been living in the house behind for more than 10 years. Every morning, she sets up her coffee cart on the pavement to accommodate anyone in need of the first dose of caffeine of the day. Loan's legal name is Ut, a common first name in southern Vietnam given to the youngest child of the family, an endearing designation sometimes considered generic. Though, as we find out, her parents eventually went on to have two more children. Feeling sorry for Ut, as her younger siblings were given nicer names, her father renamed her “Loan,” after a mythical bird in local lore.

Loan’s cafe inherited the train mural from a now-defunct restaurant nearby. The mural was commissioned by the restaurant owner to boost the ambiance of their eatery, though the business went under shortly after. Although the restaurant is a thing of the past, its red and green train on the wall remains, billowing steam as it chugs along past tube houses, giving you a glimpse of what you may see if you are lucky enough to catch a passing train.

2. Ca Phe Mua Rao

Address: 115/174B Le Van Sy, Phu Nhuan

Bidding Loan goodbye, we begin our stroll in Hẻm 115 Le Van Sy, which runs along the track on both sides. If on Hanoi’s “Train Street,” one can literally touch the train as it inches past the tight alley, the track here is protected by metallic railings and rows of luxuriant shrubbery. Two alleys run parallel to the railway, wide enough for pleasant strolls and narrow enough to keep automobiles and their noise away from the coziness of the area.

The first spot we encounter is Ca Phe Mua Rao, a dreamy 1990s-centric vintage cafe that can be described as a playhouse for nostalgic adults. Wooden armchairs with red padding and white lace, a cassette player, a retro Japanese Nintendo NES, geometric tiles — the inside is a study into the interior design of Vietnamese homes three decades ago. A green Honda Cub rounds out the wistful factor while a range of 90s snacks and other trinkets are available for purchase, in case one’s craving the umami crunchiness of mì trẻ em or the chalkiness of cheap chocolate.  

The last feature of the cafe that catches our attention is a tire swing in a nook by the entrance. It might remind one of childhood memories being rocked to sleep by older siblings. What makes Ca Phe Mua Rao endearing, compared to other retro spots in town, is that it isn’t overly stuffy. Although the vintage feel is palpable, the space has a comfortable airiness so one never feels cloistered.

3. A whimsical community space

Address: 115/88 Le Van Sy, Phu Nhuan

Somewhere in the middle of Hẻm 115, we chance upon an open-air exercise area that turns out to be Govi’s favorite spot of our little adventure. A community space which consists of a small rectangular cement yard covered in faux grass, outfitted with three items of exercise equipment, a swinging bench, an oddball mural, and plenty of bright green pothos snaking up the wall.

Among other things, the mural depicts a playground and has been amusingly defiled — a little girl coming down a slide with her arms in the air has been given bushy black armpit hair, and another child’s smiling face is graffiti-ed over with blue barf. Edgy. The mural also has many smiley rotund mushrooms and a ship labeled “BTS ARMY” in red lettering.

4. Cafe Nho

Address: 115/30 Le Van Sy, Phu Nhuan

Full disclosure: This trip is inspired in part by a previous failed attempt at exploring Cafe Nho, so when we finally set foot inside this hallowed ground of Instagram fame, it feels like our life is coming in full circle. Cafe Nho, despite its name, is more personal museum than coffee shop, and is best enjoyed as the former.

The collection includes cameras, cuckoo clocks, framed piastre and Vietnam dong bills in their many iterations, and a wall of old televisions carefully stacked on top of one another. The space straddles the fine line between museum exhibition and a hoarder’s storage, but the owner deserves credit for keeping their loot fairly well-organized.

The taxidermy animals, meanwhile, include terrifying goat heads, similarly eerie rodents, and two sea turtles. The multitude of the dead and old is offset by glimmers of whimsy here and there, like the mural of a 50s-style pin-up climbing a coconut tree and a wall-spanning screen-shaped window facing the train track

Phuong, part of the pair who owns Cafe Nho, started the coffee shop 14 years ago, but began his antique collection many years earlier. The comprehensive archival work screams to be photographed, but at Cafe Nho, any form of photo-taking beyond smartphones is actively discouraged, as the owners find the activity noisy.

5. Den Da Coffee

Address: 110 Le Van Sy, Phu Nhuan

About 400 meters from the canal, the short hẻm meets Le Van Sy Street at a busy intersection, where a Den Da Coffee location conveniently sits. Den Da is a casual industrial-themed coffee shop chain with affordable drinks and unctuous salted egg yolk toast. Fans have dubbed this particular location “railroad Den Da,” and it does live up to the nickname. The blaring siren and subsequent rumbles of a passing train can be felt in their full glory sitting here, and if one dares to brave the Saigon heat for a seat on the cafe’s rooftop, they can catch the tail end of the train in the distance.

Leaving Den Da after our devices are sufficiently charged and our bladders comfortably emptied, we continue our search for an ideal train-street hang. As we hurry to the last stop in the journey, the sky darkens, and the atmosphere becomes saturated with that chilling touch of water vapor. A summer shower awaits us.

6. Bu’s Station

Address: 115/114A Le Van Sy, Phu Nhuan

Luckily, we make it to Bu's Station before getting caught in a downpour. Covered by a lovely canopy of verdant vines, the cafe sits directly opposite the track, with an open hang-out area, making it the most ideal location for train-watching. Admittedly, everything else — from beverages to amenities — is mediocre, though the drinks are very reasonably priced.

The Romanticism of the Railway

At one point in the middle of our stroll, a tell-tale screech in the distance prompts Govi to shout, “the train!” With childlike excitement we hustle to capture the brief moments the train blesses us with its whoosh as it speeds by. A locomotive bearing the name “Doi Moi” leads a string of blue carriages across the hẻm. Overcome with giddiness and a strange sense of accomplishment, we probably look ridiculous in the eyes of passersby, to whom these snaking metal "creatures" are nothing novel.

Along the track inside the railings, some locals create tiny vegetable gardens and place their chicken coops. Others treat the space as their backyard, a repository of decaying sofas and rusty bicycles. It gets worse as we venture farther from the cleanliness of Phu Nhuan into Binh Thanh and Thu Duc, where trash fills the track. The section we explore is lined with shrubs of yellow huỳnh liên flowers, luring crowds of Instagram enthusiasts here to conduct impromptu photo shoots.

According to Loan, the owner of Train Coffee, it’s not all romantic and vibrant in the neighborhood, as accidents are not unheard of. Older citizens who opt to cross the track instead of taking a long u-turn sometimes get maimed by passing trains, while drunk expats are also attracted to the winding railway at night, she explains. Loan, however, seems a bit ambivalent about the train. She found it noisy when she first moved to the area, but now she is used to it and shrugs when we ask if it poses problems to her daily life.

In her personal essay on Saigon’s train-track neighborhoods in the past, writer Nguyen Thi Hau paints a picture of a community just as closely interwoven with trains as today, though previous decades saw a much more squalid version of the neighborhood.

“In the 80s and 90s, coal-fired trains emitted water vapor and pitch-black coal dust, rumbling across the city past train-track neighborhoods, which, at the time, existed without the iron bars separating the track with rows of houses,” she writes in Vietnamese. “Every time the siren gave out its deafening shriek, people tidied up their shopfront; the veggies and seafood vendors scurried to move their trays and baskets, all while ringing up customers and giving back change.”

It’s hard to put into words what prompted us to dedicate an entire morning and afternoon to chase those 15 seconds of seeing the train zip past us. It certainly wasn’t an inherited appreciation for trains passed down generations, judging by the dust-filled glimpse that Hau presents.

Ruth Levy Guyer, in a segment for NPR, muses on the romance of train travel, something that continues to engross her now from childhood.

“Trains go where cars can and cannot: into canyons, along rivers, through mountains, sidling up to back yards and into town centers. So much about trains is visionary,” Guyer says. “So much past is present in railroads. Their graceful, gorge-spanning wooden bridges and trestles come straight out of Leonardo da Vinci's sketchbooks.”

Growing up as millennials, a significant portion of our pop culture psyche has imprints of trains. Most famously, the 1995 romantic fever dream Before Sunrise is constructed from lingering glances, layered half-questions, and the rhythms of pan-European trains. An ethereal train track that crosses the ocean is featured in Spirited Away, as well as the many fight scenes in and on top of trains in Studio Ghibli’s repertoire. Vintage film buffs might know the 1895 documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat by the Lumière brothers.

Vietnamese filmmakers are not immune to the enchanting grips of train carriages either. In 2005, the indie romance 1735km also put its two leads on a train in hopes that they would fall deeply in love and — quelle surprise — they do.

Adding to this cultural programming is the unique perspectives trains provide their riders as they pass through natural environments, be it hovering above cities or slicing through neighborhoods. Whereas there’s always some degree of subconscious disbelief in sitting inside a flying aircraft, there is something that feels organic about a train as it lumbers its way across landscapes.

For its passengers, a place inside a train is ideal for delicious introspection. It feels right to ponder your own existence as life disappears behind you with an ever-shifting view on the horizon. Vietnam's Reunification Express can give you all of the pleasures associated with trains and this hẻm it passes through can provide you with a tiny dosage of that, plus coffee.

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