From the photo of The first café in Saigon

Written: Cuong Nguyen


15:07 13/09/2022

CFRR-  Have you ever wondered where is the first coffee shop in Saigon, in Hanoi, in Ban Me… after 165 years of coffee being nurtured on this stretch?

The story begins with an acrylic engraved painting in an old book which I found by chance when searching documentation for work leisurely.

Iconographie Historique de l’Indochine Francaise (in English:The photography history of Indochina in French domination)

Cover of Iconographie Historique de l’Indochine Francaise.
Photo: Manhhai – Flickr, Gallica

The principal author is Paul Boudget, who followed the footsteps of the French expedition to Indochina but he was not the one holding the gun but the pen. He was a member of the Institute of the Far Eastern Institute and was the Director of the Archeology and Library of Indochina for 28 years from 1917 to 1945.

The co-author of this book is André Masson, an artist who creates paintings with cultural and geopolitical perspectives.

The book Iconographie Historique de l’Indochine Francaise (in English: The photography history of Indochina in French domination)

written by two authors, Paul Doubet and André Masson. Rummaging further, I found out that the two authors were well-known figures, associated with the Indochina Archeology and Library industry at the time.

To return to the painting, It depicts a solid tiled house, with many lovely curtained windows belonging to native architecture, set in the middle of a garden with low shrubs and raised canopy of areca trees to highlight the solid house outstandingly.

At first glance, the picture has nothing special for the tedious house of Vietnamese. But the thing being the most special here precisely is its French caption, which means: “…The first coffee shop and the first residence of the Governors, in Saigon.”

Indeed, without the above caption, I think both the painting and the depicted scene in it have anything attractive and unique. That house as well as a lot of memorized houses in this tropical country. Three (five) compartments house of Vietnamese are always low being made in traditional style with the ironwood frame with clay roof tiles, nestling among its garden to be protected from the severe hot of the tropical sun.

If there is anything that makes it different from all the other houses then because it’s a café. The first café… in Saigon. 

Was it also the first café to be built up in this country or not?

“…The first coffee shop and the first residence of the Governors, in Saigon.” from book Iconographie Historique de l’Indochine Francaise. Photo: Manhhai – Flickr

I behold the monochrome painting that implied an antique architectural style but a new lifestyle a new drink following the French steps when dominating Indochina.

When it was built up then who would think that imported drink will eventually be ingrained in every corner along this stretch of Vietnam and will become a daily inherent part of the natives?

We often perceive everywhere the repeat of our easy-to-integrate culture, integration without assimilation.

As giving the best example, there is nothing that can be more suitable than our coffee culture. Nowadays people can be easy to find all the coffee shops in anywhere the city or countryside.

People sometimes forget the origin, the true origin of coffee, people may not know who was the first to bring this drink to Vietnam. They just only recognize that at the same time that coffee shop opens every early morning and so they only know which is the best shop for their coffee hobby.

caf saigon
The exterior of the ironwood frame Place of Governor
 in the year 1863. Photo: Manhhai – Flickr

Two centuries ago, since the French arrived in Vietnam, it was the same drink made from local seeds of castration plant belonging to the Rubiaceae family. Up to now, the recent cup of coffee maybe not only quite different from that Indochina one in the past but also the coffee in “the first café’’ in that painting from André Masson’s book.

The ‘’café au lait’’ cups in luxury shops blended the scent of a cigar, toast, and cheese with the gentle people – “the monsieur et madame de Paris”, after more than two centuries of sea traveling from Marseille to Saigon, have descended on the sidewalk, the food or drink stall (sidewalk diner). It is also coffee with milk, but bitter from the burnt taste of very dark roasted coffee. The burnt taste mixed with the sweet is sometimes harsh because of the slightly over-mixed taste of “Ong Tho milk”.

That bitter coffee crept between the alleys of Saigon, mixed with the sound of noisy traffic, the sound of rattling, chattering … Perhaps the coffee cup has made a spectacular incarnation to bring the whole Vietnamese mood and sentiment more popular, simpler, and warmer.

Where is the first café in Saigon located? The first café of Hanoi, of Hue, of Da Nang,… where are these located? Maybe no one else can answer that exactly. But if you go to any place in this country in another morning, wake up then go out and ask any strangers you meet by chance ‘’Is there a fine coffee shop here? Surely, you will receive an answer and have a fantastic seat immediately.

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