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Hẻm Gems: Da Lat's Ngàn Cafe Is as Comforting as an Embrace

Walking down Da Lat’s Robin Hill amid emerald pine trees and languid fluffs of cloud, one’s eyes will inevitably encounter a visual disturbance in the form of bright orange plastic maple trees. They are not the heroes of this story, but reluctant antagonists that nonetheless serve as hurdles on the journey to discover a hidden treasure.

As far as Vietnam’s cable car projects go, the Da Lat Cable Car is neither the longest nor most exciting, but its existence does provide a decently priced, reasonable way to enjoy a slice of the city’s mountainous beauty. It also serves as a link between the intercity bus station and more secluded lodgings dotted in the vicinity of Tuyen Lam Lake.

On my recent trip to Da Lat, we didn’t ride the cable car, but visited the station anyway to sample a delectable vegetarian hotpot that also nestles in the same complex. It is true that concretization has claimed large swaths of the town’s heartland, but for a moment there, as we exited the building to amble downhill, nature prevailed. There before my eyes, a breathtaking vista of tree-covered hilltops that ebbed and flowed like contours on an origami art, below a sky filled with cotton clouds. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of the Central Highlands' topography.

The view from Robin Hill. Just out of frame on the left is the garden of plastic maples.

A few more steps in our descent and this harmonious canvas of natural elegance is brought to a halt by splotches of a gaudy, almost vulgar, flare of artificial orange. A hillside coffee shop decided to install on their premise numerous fake maple trees on a bed of plastic lawn. It felt like a crime against nature to defile such a scenic sight with something so senselessly synthetic. As it turned out, the maple was only the appetizer, because the venue is much less a café than strategically constructed Instagram fodder with many other photographic props. On the menu: a swimming pool with ankle-deep water just enough to add a reflection to photos, a fake torii gate, and, for the pièce de résistance, a replica of Bali’s famed Gates of Heaven. The operation stood out in the landscape like an inflamed boil on an otherwise unblemished face.

The steep hill that one can walk (or roll) down to Ngàn Cafe.

Ocular fatigue eventually got the best of us, replacing the initial curiosity with a swelling urge to escape. That was also the precise moment a tiny wooden sign bearing the name Ngàn Cafe came to our attention. It stood on the street level of the incline, overlooking a steep alley heading to what seemed like nowhere. Hidden at the end of the hẻm is a spacious coffee shop perched on the side of the hill among towering trees, a haven that somehow was the exact salve needed to soothe our souls after that visual atrocity.

Left: the coffee shop's entrance. Right: the forested area just behind the cafe.

The café was opened in November last year by a pair of Da Lat residents working in the creative industry. With a background in architecture, they created an open space that blends rustic materials with tastefully curated decorations. A hammock hangs beneath the canopy, fresh flowers in vases, expressionist paintings on the wall, guitars, vintage album covers line neatly on a shelf — the attention to detail is apparent. The coffee shop is divided into three main areas: a main building with an upper floor for a design office, the first floor that houses the mixing area, toilet and a living room set. Outside, a wooden deck protrudes into the space among treetops. There’s a staircase leading to a “basement” that’s also open to nature.

The main sitting areas, all open to nature, though that, unfortunately, includes mosquitoes.

Just looking at the retro knick-knacks, one can mistake the place for any of Saigon’s similarly themed drinking establishments, but Ngàn Cafe has something that Saigon coffee shops can only dream of: access to nature and fresh air that’s just an arm’s reach away. With a cursory glance from the deck, I spotted a mulberry tree bearing ripening berries, a blossoming peach tree, and a citrus tree with plump green fruits.

Mè (left) and Củ Lạc (right) are resident cats.

In addition to the owners and a waiter, Ngàn Cafe is a home for three furry friends that I am eternally grateful to have met: Lửng is a mutt who was heavily pregnant during the visit; Mè, a rotund and somewhat shy feline that was very selective regarding who can receive his affection; and Củ Lạc, a gangly kitten who’s the physical embodiment of energy. Over the course of an hour, we sat in awe as Tiên, one of the owners, relayed one story after another of their shenanigans — Lửng managed to get knocked up right before they could spay her; she had a coterie of paramours waiting outside the gate every morning; Mè has been going on adventures for “me time” since Củ Lạc joined the family.

Tiên and Lửng during a play session.

I could go on and on, for my memories of Ngàn Cafe are still as vivid as the day they were etched into my brain, but as is the case with many of Da Lat’s spectacles, they should be experienced rather than read about.

The cozy interior of Ngàn Cafe.

There have been many discussions surrounding the effects of unchecked tourism on Da Lat, brought about by both tourists and tourism administrators. The rising number of tourists boosts demand for accommodation, hence turning downtown Da Lat into a labyrinth of concrete. Chronic congestion, waste management, and conservation are also pressing issues. In August, a plan put forth by the Lam Dong construction department sparked furor as it sought to transform Đồi Dinh, the lone green spot in central Da Lat, into a hotel complex.

Strolling the city as tourists, sampling its bánh căn and snapping shots of people bundling up in winter wear, we were conscious how our actions could impact the town, even though at times it was challenging to gauge these implications. Supporting local businesses might be a good way to start, and to me, Ngàn Cafe is a shining example of an ideal Da Lat tourism experience. Like the way the sitting area molds its physical structure along the hillside, it shows a respect for the landscape instead of dogged determination to cater to tourist taste without consideration for the ambient environs.

I bear no ill will towards the patrons of the maple café; after all, if you sprinkle syrup on the floor, the ants will come. However, I can’t help but wonder what drove these particular ants to lap up artificial sweetener while right next to them are bountiful fruits. What drives us to abandon our city burdens to seek out Da Lat but a desire to once again be among the therapeutic enigmas of nature? If so, why come all the way here in the middle of the forest to pose next to plastic trees while majestic pines beckon right within reach?

Ngàn Cafe is open daily from 8am to 6pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 6/5 

Friendliness: 6/5

Location: 5/5

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

Ngàn Cafe

2A Đống Đa, Ward 3, Đà Lạt

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