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Vignette: For Cafe 81 and the '404 Not Found' Places of Our Lives

We all have them.

A favorite shop, stall, or restaurant that we frequented for years until one day, maybe a Tuesday, it closed. No going-away party, no teary-eyed owner handing out momentos and thank-you’s beside a locked gate. Maybe a social media announcement. Maybe not.

Some memories of these cherished haunts remain vivid in our minds: the stiff crink left in our back by its wooden chairs and the awkwardly low table we had to crouch over to type on; the warped reflection off the tube television’s concave screen when walking back from the bathroom; the shelf of decrepit paperbacks we were certain no person would ever read again, if they ever had. But over time, other details become hazy: the painted plaster walls were peeling, but what color? What music played in the background? Did we always go alone or ever invite a friend?

We all have such places, each is special to us but insignificant to the city as a whole. For what it's worth, mine was Cafe 81. I got to know it when it was located at 216B Nguyễn Văn Nguyễn, just a few blocks from my apartment at the time. It seems pointless to describe it now that you cannot visit it, though a Hẻm Gems feature we wrote about it serves as a time capsule of sorts.

Sometime in 2019, after I took up residence elsewhere in the city, Cafe 81 moved across the neighborhood. That location closed recently, too. It then opened at another address that closed as well late last year. I don’t know why. I could play Big J Journalist and make some calls, chase some leads, beat down some doors and get some answers. But what’s the point? You can’t ungrind a coffee bean, let alone return it to the plant it’s been picked from.

If you live in Saigon long enough, the addresses start to read like broken web addresses. 404: Page Not Found. The only response available is to start a new search and remind yourself that the city wouldn't be the vibrant place you love if it didn't change, and that applies to your personal favorites as well. 

[Top photo of Cafe 81 in April 2018 by Kevin Lee.]

Vignettes are little stories from our writers.

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