Born in England and raised in Australia, Zoe was taught how to travel from a young age. At barely 19 she left for India and a year later she left again, finding herself in Vietnam with a bit of cash and a plan to make a plan. Now a staff writer for Word Vietnam, Zoe counts her blessings every day as she wakes up to another fascinating story and another bowl of hu tieu. You can find her on Facebook at @zoeosborne.journalist.
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Anyone who has visited Thao Dien knows about Dolphy Thao Dien. It sits right on the corner of two central streets, bright blue and open to the traffic, catering to a steady stream of District 2 coffee lovers from first light to late evening. Dolphy Thao Dien is a Saigon favourite.
But if you continue along Nguyen Van Huong, winding around the backside of the Thao Dien peninsular and left onto Nguyen Cu, you will find a very different version of the Dolphy brand. A second Dolphy cafe sits a little back from the street behind bright blue walls and a garden gate. A gangly tree spits out its leaves above the café’s main sign, covering it slightly. You can leave your motorbike just inside the gates. This café is not built for massive turnovers and city-wide fame — it’s a hideout. Number two of three Dolphy cafes in Thao Dien, this little nook is meant to be hidden.
A Little Bit Aqua
The front room in Dolphy Nguyen Cu is a wide, open space with a wood-topped bench and display boxes bordering the staff area. There is a big, heavy table by the window. Smaller tables line the walls, and everything seems slightly aquatic, from the arched, submarine-esque doors to the navy, grey and white tiling. It feels like a cross between a library and a living room, and while no-one is talking, no one is shushing either. The perfect place to get some work done or relax with a creamy cappuccino.
Continue on into the back room and past the long, gnarled bench of rough-cut tree next to the wall. It is shiny on top and just wide enough for a laptop. To your left is the big, clean bathroom and rounded sink, and in front of you is a tree that seems perfectly comfortable with being inside. It matches the many other smaller plants that hang in glass vials and vases around the café. You can order from your seat or at the coffee bar, and the staff seem warm and relaxed. Time is not important here.
A Deep Sea Soda, Please
This café has only one food item on its menu — a serving of yoghurt, muesli and fresh fruit. They cooperate with a nearby restaurant to provide snacks like croissants and meals if required, but the café itself serves only a long list of inventive, tasty drinks. Coffee, juices, smoothies, sodas, yoghurt drinks and naughty concoctions of chocolate, cookies or matcha. The coffee is arranged into three main categories — Italian, Vietnamese and coffee ice-blended. Both Italian and Vietnamese coffees come in small or medium sizes, and prices range from VND20,000 for a small ca phe den to VND50,000 for a large latte.
The ca phe den is a thick, powerful liquid, slightly frothed and served in a tall glass. Without sugar, it is bitter, and as you sip you can feel it go straight to your head and whirl around your ears. If you’re looking for a pick-me-up then this is the brew to buy. The coffee ice-blended range has three main varieties, all priced between VND35,000 and VND39,000, and while they are technically made with the same rocket-fuel coffee as the ca phe den, they taste significantly less fierce. The Mocha Iced Blended is a satisfying mix of espresso, chocolate, low-fat milk, sugar, ice and optional whipped cream. Like a cocktail, it disappears quickly, and although it is a large drink, it doesn’t feel heavy at all. You could probably drink another one, or five.
With three outlets around Thao Dien so far, the Dolphy brand seems to be constantly evolving. It has become a clear favourite in the expat community and a staple for District 2 Vietnamese coffee lovers, with its chilled ambience, well-made drinks and smiling staff members.
According to café owner Linh: “Dolphy [Nguyen Cu] is just a little café with the simple aim of bringing happiness to our customers through serving good coffee, especially to those in the Thao Dien community.”
Dolphy Nguyen Cu is at 25 Nguyen Cu, Thao Dien, Q2, HCMC. For more info visit facebook.com/dolphycafé.25nguyencu
Photos by Mike Palumbo