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Hẻm Gems: A Cafe-Snack Bar Hybrid in Bình Thạnh Offers Portals to Japanese Nostalgia

Bình Thạnh’s Ward 19 is snuggled between Xô Viết Nghệ Tĩnh and Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh, creating a surprisingly quiet area just across from District 1. As a neighborhood, it offers an eclectic mix of local and foreign.

There’s Chợ Thị Nghè, a typical Vietnamese wet market selling everything from fabric to fresh chicken. There’s a sinh tố place that is so packed at night the seating spills onto the sidewalk across the street. There’s Mad Roosta, a Nashville hot chicken restaurant, and Legato, a jazz bar with live music a few times a week. Unsurprisingly, the cultural diversity of Ward 19 has made it a location for a few Hẻm Gem’s already, like this Osaka-style okonomiyaki place. Ward 19 manages to fit so many worlds into a tight space, and one of the biggest presences in the area is the Japanese community.

Ward 19’s "Japan Town" is low-key compared to the one in District 1. A quick walk around the area and you’ll see apartment after apartment with for-rent signs written in Japanese, but many of the Japanese restaurants have sparse signage. If you wander into them after work, you find groups of Japanese men drinking and eating.

Koga Momoko, who goes by Momo, is one of Ho Chi Minh City's Japanese residents. Hailing from Kyushu, she now runs sister establishments in Ward 19. She first visited the city with her friend Nammy six years ago and fell in love with it, moving the next year and staying ever since.

Danshaku Cafe and Snack Bar Momoko sit across from each other on top of a Japanese restaurant. After walking through a functioning restaurant and climbing a set of stairs you will suddenly be faced with two doors, portals to another world.

My favorite establishments here in Vietnam offer what I consider transportive experiences. The effects can be spatial or temporal, and they are at their absolute best when managing both. These sister establishments in Phạm Viết Chánh do just that. They transport customers to an imagined vintage Japan full of whimsy.

Old-school cafes and their vintage world

I first went to Danshaku Cafe on an unassuming Sunday. I’ve been a resident of Ward 19 for close to a year, and I felt like I had a good grasp of the neighborhood. That Sunday morning, I was looking around on Google Maps to decide what cafe to go to when I saw a place I’d never heard of. I scrolled through the images and thought, “this place must be new.” I promptly left to check it out.

Danshaku Cafe is not, in fact, new. It’s been open for about a year and a half, longer than I’ve been in the neighborhood. This type of experience is also something I love about living in Ho Chi Minh City. The city is full of cafés to discover, even in an area that feels incredibly familiar.

Danshaku Cafe is a jun-kissa, which, Momo told me, is designed to make the customer feel like they’re in Japan around 50 years ago. Jun-kissa are different than traditional cafés because they also serve food. Momo painted this image of what a jun-kissa would look like in Japan for me. She told me that you’d see groups of uncles sitting around, chatting, reading the newspaper and smoking the day away.

Danshaku Cafe doesn’t have groups of uncles smoking, but it is still steeped in nostalgia. To describe the space as intimate would be an understatement. There are eight chairs, six of which are wrapped around a bar. If a conversation starts, and I guarantee you one will start, everyone suddenly becomes involved. It’s maybe not the best place to work, but it’s perfect for a moment of connection.

Despite the cafe’s size, the eye never gets bored. The wallpaper itself is mesmerizing. There’s a working cuckoo clock hanging on the wall and a lot of beautifully crafted Hario coffee-making apparatus to admire. If someone orders coffee made with the siphon (if you don’t, someone will), there’s a whole chemistry experiment to watch. When I took a friend there, she described the brewing method as an “event.” And she was correct. Watching the whole process, from waiting for the water in the bulb to boil, to watching it rise up into the upper chamber, and then eventually pull down back into the bulb: It is an event!

Huyền, the manager, is a graduate of the Japan Studies program at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities-HCMC. When I interviewed Momo for this article, Huyền did an incredible job interpreting for us. In addition to running the café, Huyền teaches Vietnamese to Japanese people here. There are posters around the café for events where Japanese residents of the city can come to practice Vietnamese. She’s very welcoming and learns the name of every guest. The other staff members are young Vietnamese people who also study Japanese.

Momo was careful in designing the menu at Danshaku Cafe. She wanted to pick foods and drinks that would be seen in normal jun-kissas. Of these, she told me the Naporitan spaghetti and the ice cream float are absolute classics. One of my favorite things about the ice cream float is the glassware choice. It looks like something out of an American diner. There are other delights on the menu as well, like the matcha affogato and honey toast. When I go, I usually get the cafe ore. The first time I went to Danshaku, Huyền patiently explained to me what a cafe ore was. It was only later that I realized cafe ore is the Japanese way of saying cafe au lait!

Just across from Danshaku’s wooden door is an all-red door covered in tufted upholstery. Open it, and you’ll be greeted with an all-red interior. This is the world of Snack Bar Momoko.

The snack bars for the quirky

Just like Danshaku, Momo wants guests to feel like they’re in a Japan of fifty years prior. She told me that ever since she was a child, she was fascinated with anything vintage. She created Snack Bar Momoko with that in mind. It’s only open on weekdays, and available for bookings on other days of the week.

Japanese snack bars have been around for about fifty years. They traditionally have an older woman, known as a mama, who looks after the guests. Momo acts as the bar’s mama, and wants the bar to feel like a family establishment. Drinks aren’t mixed. Momo serves them on the rocks or with some soda water. Customers get little snacks as well. My favorite is the red bean with flaky salt. It is the perfect combination of sweet and savory, and it satisfies that craving I get for salty foods when drinking.

She was very clear to me that it is not a cocktail bar. Behind the bar is a cabinet filled mostly with Japanese sochu and whiskey. Regulars pay for a bottle upfront to keep at the bar, and when they visit they drink from their bottle. I love this idea of having real estate in the bar, and I’m really considering investing in a good bottle of sochu so I too can have a bottle on the shelf.

There’s so much to look at in the bar. There are the ashtrays, which are ceramic and have creepy eyes poking out of them. There are the coasters, which look like they were crocheted by hand. There are all sorts of toys and even a tiny Nintendo gaming device with classics loaded on it like the original Mario. And there’s a Kumamon plushy.

The menu is only in Japanese, but if you don’t speak Japanese there’s no need to worry. Momo will happily pull bottles from her massive alcohol collection to show you. A small note, the bar does follow the custom of some Japanese bars where you pay a fee for your seat. For the size of the place, it only seems fair that you pay a bit for the privilege.

Best of all, four nights a week, Momo’s friend Nammy, another Japanese resident of the city and member of Saigon-based Japanese band Urban Snail, performs. She stands behind the bar singing old Japanese songs. I visited Snack Bar Momoko with a friend from Minnesota, and when he introduced himself, Nammy reconfirmed he was from Minnesota and launched into this Japanese song with Minnesota in the title. It was magical. Nammy only performs when the customers ask, and since the space is small, they try to keep the noise to a minimum.

Snack Bar Momoko is also a space for theater. Prior to last year’s big lockdown, there were performances about two times a month. There’s a video of one of them on YouTube. It’s amazing.

Like the café, the space’s size leads to group conversations among strangers. I don’t speak Japanese, so I can’t always participate, but you really do get a sense of camaraderie and community sitting in the bar. But when Nammy starts singing, the conversation quiets and everyone in the bar is suddenly transfixed.

Ward 19 is a great neighborhood for an afternoon of exploration. It’s worth a walk around to see a self-contained, unique area of the city with a surprising amount of diversity. If you need a break, climb on up to Danshaku Cafe for a brief journey to an imagined vision of Japanese nostalgia. If you’re around at night, pop over to Snack Bar Momoko for a drink. Take a trip. Be transported.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 4/5
Atmosphere: 6/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 5/5

Brendan hails from the state of Mississippi and is working on eating so many dumplings he turns into one. He also loves ice cream and is constantly on the lookout for new coffee shops to waste away an afternoon in.

Danshaku Cafe / Momoko Snack Bar

40/19 Phạm Viết Chánh, Ward 19, Bình Thạnh, HCMC

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