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Hẻm Gems: Spice up Your Study Session With a Warm Ginger Coffee

”The flower was never meant to survive the fruit's triumph.”

Ever since I read these lines in a Li-Young Lee poem, my perspectives on the ephemeral nature of flowers and their relationship to the sweetness of the fruit they make way for has changed, subtly. I always think about the poem on the occasions when I find myself in Phu Nhuan, navigating the neighborhood where all the streets are named after flowers. With the that in mind, it seems especially fitting that the area contains a wealth of delicious foods, from fancy chains to humble streetside carts and stalls to fruit vendors.

Most recently I traveled to the area to visit An Miên Coffee. Always on the hunt for a new nook to read in or meet with friends, I’d been tipped off to this shop and the photos online depicting old tape recorders beset by rustic brick walls and an abundance of warm wood seemed to strike a unique balance between nostalgic comfort and modern minimalism. Both trends are exceedingly popular in Saigon cafes but rarely do I see them combined.

This simultaneous blend of bygone days, as hinted to by the stencil image of Marilyn Monroe on the wall, and contemporary thought is obvious the moment one steps up to the counter. All of the drinks come with two prices — regular and “zero waste.” If one brings their own tumbler they get a few thousand VND back in an effort to reward attempts to preserve the planet. In line with that philosophy, the cafe doesn’t use any plastic straws, instead it serves coffee, shakes, and juices with the biodegradable variety. I suspect they are made from rice, yet foolishly I did not take a bite. Next time…

On the day Saigoneer visited, the moderately crowded cafe was filled with Vietnamese youths. Many of them were busy on their laptops as the sparsely decorated interior seems conducive to eliminating distractions and getting work done. The two stories’ soft light and comfortable chairs make it a fine place for conversations as well, be they personal or professional. A few people seemed to simply be lost in thought, staring ahead as if contemplating some far-off place where "the wind's numerous hands in the orchard unfastening first the petals from the buds, then the perfume from the flesh."

Some of Saigoneer’s favorite coffee shops are beloved completely independent of the drinks. Often an ambiance, aesthetic or abundance of cats is more important than what’s in the cup. Eschewing anything but the most conventional local coffee helps keep the prices down but also forces some coffee enthusiasts to look elsewhere. An Miên, however, has both audiences in mind it seems as they serve familiar cà phê đá, cà phê sữa and bạc xỉu for VND29,000–39,000 as well as much more expensive (VND90,000–120,000) drip versions made with beans imported from South and Central America and Africa that they roast in house. The large menu also features espresso drinks as well as various juices and blended beverages. And if a guest finds a coffee they particularly like, they can purchase the beans to take home.

What caught my attention, however, was the cà phê sữa gừng. I’d never seen ginger coffee before and was eager to try the spice in drinkable, caffeinated form. The ginger flavor is quite prominent though not overpowering. While not labeled as such, the base of the drink is not plain black coffee but milk coffee, making it quite rich. Unfortunately, I am biased against cà phê sữa. I find seeking refreshment in a glass of thick, rich cà phê sữa akin to looking for a fresh breath of air at end of a thuốc lào pipe. The ginger coffee is quite good, just not for me.

As I choked through the last of my drink, it started to rain. But unlike the frequent downpours experienced this time of year, this was the rare variety where the sun remains shining and a mere smattering of drops falls. It was as if Hoa Mai Street was receiving a shower from a gracefully tilted watering can. There may actually be no flowers inside An Miên, and yet a visit had me looking forward to whatever triumphant fruit I would find later in the day. Perhaps it was the rainbow that stretched overhead as we drove home.

An Miên Coffee is open from 7am to 11pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 3.5/5

Friendliness: 4.5/5

Location: 4.5/5

Paul Christiansen only writes and edits because he can't afford a durian farm; yet. Read more at his website.

An Miên Coffee

29 Hoa Mai, Ward 2, Phú Nhuận

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