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Hẻm Gems: The Secret Realm of Good Vibes Behind the Doors of Passengers Cafe

Like any person born after the year 1990, I am chronically affected by the condition of dawdling at a coffee shop for a supposed boost in productivity and “the vibes” when the clock strikes close to a due date.

There is something about the temptation of well-crafted drinks, the humdrum pleasure of people-watching, and a monotonous ambiance disrupted only by clanking glasswares that promise to speak creation into existence. Though procrastination is more likely to be why a cafe visit is warranted, a cafe hopper can’t help but come back for more.

Situated in a small hẻm in District 3, Passengers doesn’t deviate far from what a standard indie coffee shop offers at first glance. I was instantly drawn to it the way the children of Narnia were drawn to their magic wardrobe; the sight of a single wooden door waiting amidst a verdant garden front was too charming to ignore, the shop’s name itself hints at the allure of an escape.

My visualization was accurate as this doorway led to another realm, albeit not as unearthly as Narnia, but just as magical as Lewis’s dreamscape. Devoid of the sounds of nearby traffic, the interiors of the shop are capsules of coziness, decked in what I like to call “garage-sale-aesthetics,” including a hodgepodge of mismatched wood and bamboo furniture, a Friends-style yellow couch, plus random thingamabobs that act as keepsakes for the owners’ memories. And true to my Narnia comparison, the shop’s saturation of quirks was amplified by the presence of many furry companions.

Founded in 2018, the shop is run by two young people in their twenties, whom I learned both share an existential philosophy that we are, after all, “mere passengers on this big planet,” and thus we should “strive to leave it as we receive it” by doing as little harm to our mothership as possible. This culminates in the shop specializing in vegan-only drinks and being a safe haven for stray cats and dogs the owners adopted over the years.

Passengers has never claimed to be a pet cafe, but the animals have become somewhat of a permanent fixture to the shop’s identity and can be found in any corner, either idling aloofly in a patch of sunlight or greeting walk-in customers with a friendly bark (or in the cats' case, a side-eye). The human guests and the four-legged residents share a silent camaraderie — one provides aptly delivered petting and one provides a snuggly distraction from worldly troubles outside the wooden door.

Lu, adopted in 2019, has tasked herself with greeting guests upon entrance.

The first time I visited the place, I had originally planned on taking advantage of its atmosphere to power through a writing piece that I’ve put off finishing forever. I assumed from the good reviews that a neatly decorated interior and god-tier indie playlists would give me the needed morale boost.

But I couldn’t have been more naive. The shop’s music curation was indeed excellent with a few counts of Clairo and Honne. But on the six occasions that I’ve visited, I always failed to type up more than a page worth of words, as my fingers were rather busy mollycoddling any feline that graced me with its attention. My fellow "passengers" were in the same boat, often dividing their concentration between a screen and the floof that had grounded itself in their lap.

Do they scratch? No. They only judge your poor decisions. 

Cute fluffy creatures aside, one of the things that keep customers coming back is its drink menu. The recipes are in accordance with the shop’s refreshing and cozy theme, half of which are fruity drinks such as sweet teas and mojitos, and the other half is made of plant-based milk or coffee. As a person with mild lactose intolerance who dislikes dairy-free options for how plain-tasting they often are, I was genuinely delighted by the flavors that the barista concocted.

From left to right: matcha coconut ice-blended; basil mojito with longan and aloe vera jelly, and lotus seed milk with grass jelly.

The glass of lotus seed and rice milk served with chewy grass jelly has a beautiful nutty aftertaste, while my personal favorite, the matcha coconut blend offers creamy sips of almond-infused soymilk. For rainy days though, I’d recommend getting the "Choc 'n nuty," the cafe’s dairy-free version of the classic chocolate milk, but put in a request for a hot serve instead of iced.

Sipping on its honey-like drops while looking out at the shop’s garden can instantly make one feel as if they were transported to a cabin amidst Đà Lạt’s woods.

The irony isn’t lost on me that my quest to seek a quaint corner to write has led me to a spot where squeals at adorable things are more likely to be cranked out than any written work. The cafe, thus, has been repurposed in my address book; it's no longer a productivity camp despite some promising qualities, but a place to rest, read, and heal oneself, or better yet, tend to a blossoming relationship through small talks over your favorite cat.

After all, everything in this little shop is a voyage, so why not enjoy it with another passenger?

Passengers Coffee is open from 9:30am to 9:30pm every day except Wednesday.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 5/5
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 5/5 — My best girl Lu gets 10/5 for being on her tippy toes when I come in.
Location: 4/5

Passengers - Fruity & Nutty Drink

46/9 Trần Quang Diệu, Ward 13, D3, HCMC

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