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Hẻm Gems: The Dream of the 2010s Is Alive at Pacey Cupcakes

Pick your favorite cupcake flavor; perhaps a pitcher of hot fragrant tea too. Ascend the dizzyingly steep flight of stairs. Mind your head. Tread gently on the wooden attic floor. There your friends are. They’re giggling over a joke. Their faces light up in the warm golden ambiance. Let’s have a blast.

For years, those were the exact steps I took every time I paid Pacey Cupcakes a visit at their former location, a sleepy two-story colonial house shaded by rows of tamarind trees. At 53G Nguyễn Du Street right next to our high school, the cupcakery had played host to many hangouts of our friend group since we were still on the brink of young adulthood. Nearly everything about it was tiny, from the ordering counter, the staircase, to the cupcakes. We would huddle at a corner table and chat at length while traffic zipped by outside the store’s ebony arch window.

A corner of Pacey Cupcakes at 53G Nguyễn Du in 2014. Photo via Facebook page Pacey Cupcakes.

In 2017, after six years in operation, Pacey Cupcakes gave notice about the closure of their Nguyễn Du store and the move to the current location on Đặng Dung Street. Now an aging adult, I found myself rarely setting foot under the tamarind trees on Nguyễn Du anymore, but the announcement still felt like the end of a bygone era I wasn’t aware I was leaving behind. While the arch window remains untouched by the current tenant, any remnants of those early-2010s days have vanished, but perhaps it’s high time to make new memories.

A modernist oasis

Pacey Cupcakes at 14 Đặng Dung.

Unlike the cramped nook of Pacey’s first iteration, the store on Đặng Dung calls a three-story modernist house its home. The shopfront rejects any gratuitous glamorization, flashy neon light or Instagram-friendly corner, instead opting for a đá rửa (washed stone) surface with a criss-cross of teal margins. This facade, coupled with the curvy bars of the front window, is reminiscent of houses found across rural regions of southern Vietnam, perhaps something one might spot while languishing on a bus to Cần Thơ, or a close uncle’s cottage along a national highway, swallowed by coconut fronds. Nothing about it is particularly ripe for a social media check-in, but immediately one feels a calming sense of familiarity. It could well be any house in your own neighborhood.

Children's toys and cutesy figurines cover the surfaces of Pacey.

The entrance is sparsely but tastefully decorated. Traditional children’s toys and figurines are strewn across shelves. On the wall, a parody painting of Tô Ngọc Vân’s iconic artwork ‘Thiếu Nữ Bên Hoa Huệ’ (Lady With Lilies) sits prominently; instead of caressing the white flowers, she coyly clutches a baby cupcake. Art purists would probably bristle at this irreverent pastiche, but this was my favorite piece of decor from the olden days of Pacey, and I am overjoyed it survived the move. Trần Quốc Khôi Nguyên, one of Pacey’s co-founders and now sole owner, tells me that the painting was a gift from an architect friend for the store’s opening back in 2011. Nguyên is also an architect by trade, whose fondness for modernism bore a major influence on how the cupcake shop looks today.

On the wall, a parody painting of Tô Ngọc Vân’s iconic artwork ‘Thiếu Nữ Bên Hoa Huệ’ (Lady With Lilies) sits prominently.

“Its [the house] core is modernist, but after many, many rounds of ownership, it was changed a lot. It had grown very dilapidated before we renovated it,” he recalls. “The washed-stone facade downstairs, for example, was all us, because they [past owners] tiled granite over it. We peeled it off and redid it.” Nguyên points to a ventilation brick in the far corner: “They used to put a toilet there.”

Washed stone also embellishes the accent wall of the second floor, ending with a curved corner covered from floor to ceiling with glass blocks. On the other side, a narrow balcony hugs the exterior wall, forming a cozy home for a miniature ecosystem of tropical plants, from banana and starfruit to various types of sprawling pothos and philodendrons.

Pacey's owner, Trần Quốc Khôi Nguyên (far left), and staff members in front of Pacey. Photo via Facebook page Pacey Cupcakes.

As we talk, a retro three-blade ceiling fan hovers above us, the kind one might have gone to elementary school with, where it creaked menacingly as one tried to conjugate irregular verbs during an English test. According to Nguyên, it used to live at his parents’ home, and he “kidnapped” it for Pacey, because they prefer the ease of new fans. Across the sitting area at Pacey, relics like this are in abundance: the walls are lined with rows of ceramic insulators that link black-and-white electric cables, yet another thing that throws back to a not-too-distant Saigon past.

A modernist sideboard and wall in the dining area.

Before Pacey, the three-story structure hosted a nhậu restaurant on the first floor and a karaoke-cum-open-mic venue on the second floor. Today, the dearth of throaty ‘Duyên Phận’ covers might render the neighborhood less lively, but it’s certainly more delicious thanks to the presence of freshly baked cupcakes every morning.

Many decorative elements at Pacey evoke a vintage feel.

Durian, red wine, and everything nice

I have to admit now that, in general, I am not a cupcake aficionado, as past experience tends to err on the cloying and exhaustingly decadent side. It’s not something that Vietnam does well, and it’s okay. But according to Nguyên, that’s not an uncommon perception here. “Well, even now, cupcakes carry this stigma that it’s not a tasty cake,” he explains. “People have in their head an image of the cupcake that’s equivalent to a block of sugar, something not intended to be eaten, but beheld.”

Strawberry parfait (left) and an assortment of cupcake flavors (right).

I have not sampled enough of Saigon’s cupcake repertoire to declare that Pacey’s cupcakes are the best anything, but they are well-balanced, appropriately sized, and for sure would add to your afternoon should you ever feel in need of a sweet pick-me-up. In 2011, after thorough testing, Nguyên and the then-cofounder opened Pacey with 12 flavors; flash forward to today and over 40 flavors have come and gone. These range from classic fare like cookies and cream, red velvet, and matcha to Vietnam-centric tropical specialties like avocado and durian, mulberry cheesecake, and passionfruit.

Tea options on offer.

Each has a butter cake base that’s sweetened with restraint, spotting an airy texture that serves as the ideal stage for the frosting to shine. There are two types of frosting depending on the flavor: buttercream and cream cheese. The latter is hands-down my personal favorite as the subtle sourness brings every bite together neatly. Must-try flavors include Earl Grey and peach, mulberry cheesecake, red wine berry, and tiramisu. To cater to Vietnamese palates, Pacey has been constantly finetuning their recipe over the years. Make the cake smaller; make the base less sweet; make the frosting thicker to withstand the punishing Saigon heat during deliveries — the latter is a fight Nguyên admits he has mostly given up on, but let’s be honest, even humans melt in the April afternoon sun in this city.

Even now, cupcakes carry this stigma that it’s not a tasty cake.

“My inspiration mostly comes from Vietnamese cuisine and general international classics. The durian and avocado flavor was something I copied from sinh tố carts,” he laughs. “Whichever flavors perform well stick around for longer, though some don’t sell much but because I personally like them, they stay, like banana chocolate.”

What we owe to each other

A rustic poster on the wall.

Though Nguyên now delegates the cupcake-baking to his staff to focus on architecture, Pacey Cupcakes was born in a reverse situation. He was taking a break from his main trade in 2011 when an old friend from school expressed interest in opening a dessert cafe. Nguyên’s relatives on the maternal side ran a bakery when he was little. Even though he didn’t participate then, he wasn’t a stranger to this ambiance. Cupcakes were a timely treat during the nascent years of the 2010s, so Pacey officially started baking.

When asked what Pacey means to him, Nguyên says: “It’s just a personal passion. Every year when I look back and count the shop’s age I can’t believe that we’ve been at it for 10 years. Many times I’ve felt daunted, exhausted, I’ve wanted to give it up, but I’ve also felt the affection from generations of customers.”

Family-run eateries that run for decades in Saigon are not unheard of, but for small F&B businesses, making ends meet in this treacherous era of rising costs and real estate instability is a harsh survival-of-the-fittest race. Pacey itself fell victim to this hurdle in 2017 when a bloated rent hike forced it out of the original location. Still, Nguyên feels fortunate to have a second revenue stream in architecture to help tide him over.

“Two years of the pandemic were really tough, especially when we couldn’t have dine-in guests. I have another career, so I can use the income to make up for some loss, it’s how I sustain the shop [Pacey],” he explains. “I try my best to keep it going simply because I really want to maintain something for Saigon, where I was born, grew up in, and am fond of.”

Pacey Cupcakes is open from 9am to 9pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5
Price: 4/5
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 5/5 — Motorbike parking is at 23 Trần Khắc Chân.

Khôi loves curry, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Pacey Cupcakes

14 Đặng Dung, Tân Định Ward, D1


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