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Hẻm Gems: A Home for Live Music and Quietude Inside an Old French Villa

If Vừng Ơi Mở Ra Cafe were a person, it would be your older, more sophisticated and welcoming friend.

Many of District 3’s old French villas have long since fallen into disrepair or been bulldozed to make way for modern office buildings, hotels, restaurants and homes. Some remainhowever, providing a variety of private and public functions. One decades-old building, in particular, now serves as a peaceful and stylish spot for fans of live acoustic music and a sense of solitude.

"Vừng ơi mở ra" translates to “Open Sesame” — the famous phrase needed to unlock a treasure-filled cave in the story 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.' This cafe needs no secret password, but you will have to navigate a winding hẻm off Tran Quoc Thao Street to reach its inconspicuous entrance. The ground floor lobby with its collection of paintings hung above sparse furnishings resembles a private foyer, and if it weren’t for the sign pointing one up the stairs, one would have little impetus to enter. 

When Saigoneer first visited Vừng Ơi Mở Ra Cafe several years ago, it contained an eclectic, almost cluttered assemblage of nostalgia-inducing elements: wooden chairs with velvet pillows, heavy cloth table covers and drapes, surfaces filled with old appliances and electronics, a variety of books, photos, and knick-knacks beset by colorful walls. It thus resembled many of the retro cafes that have become popular, especially amongst the city’s youths, in recent years. 

But the way a person matures as they age, the cafe has changed over the years, becoming more simple and understated. Soft leather chairs and couches and plain, bare wood tables have replaced the busy furniture. And much like how one tends to become more confident as they get older, thanks to a partial wall being torn down, the area has a newfound, self-assured openness. 

That’s not to say the cafe has lost its sense of personality, though. A few tasteful decorations remain, including a vintage typewriter, phone and radio. Framed collages of newspaper clippings from the 1970s give the now-white walls an interesting texture. Taking a closer look at them is akin to asking a person to share some stories of their past: tatters of pulp-fiction, old advertisements and comics are each pieces of anecdotes half-remembered and retold. Several old photographs and drawings with no context serve as similarly satisfying narratives lacking context. Fresh flowers and a variety of lush plants around the room add a nice natural element to the graceful room.

Having a meeting with business partners to discuss how to implement blockchain at your bún chả stall; arguing with your friends about why you always hear about the death of celebrities, but not their birth; or getting to second base with your crush: because Vừng Ơi Mở Ra Cafe was completely empty on the afternoon we visited, it would have been perfect for any of these activities. But while we sat chatting, a few more people came in. The guests worked on laptops, chit-chatted with one another, and in one case, staged an extended Instagram-selfie photoshoot. 

Vừng Ơi Mở Ra Cafe isn’t always so quiet, however. Every night from 8:45pm until late it hosts live acoustic music performances. Local artists play a variety of piano-accompanied songs. The seating all faces the stage, which makes sense, because the music is far from background noise, but rather a show to behold which can get more raucous than the lack of electric instruments would imply.

Considering the appealing ambiance and the live entertainment, the cafe could probably serve nothing but tap water and Twizzlers and still warrant a visit. Thankfully, that’s not the case. While it doesn’t offer anything too lavish, the menu consists of basic coffee and juice drinks, beer and wine, ice cream and a small smattering of snacks. The prices are a little high (VND65,000 for a 333 beer, VND50,000-ish for a coffee) and there is an additional cost during performances, but it’s worth it considering how long one is likely to want to stay. 

Saigon has plenty of cafes, but Vừng Ơi Mở Ra Cafe goes against the trends. Its evolution into a sophisticated yet homey hangout contrasts with indulgently nostalgic independent cafes or sterile chains. The convenient location and serenity make it worth a visit. 

Vừng Ơi Mở Ra Cafe is open from 7:30am to 10:30pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 3/5

Price: 3/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 4/5

Location: 5/5

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

Vừng Ơi Mở Ra Cafe

61 Trần Quốc Thảo, Ward 7, D3

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