New city cafe showcases the history of the old city

(No.5, Vol.8,Oct-Nov Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Photos provided by Cafe Lua

All of us carry a lot from our pasts as we journey forwards in our lives. I was reminded of this the other day on a visit to a cafe themed around artefacts of Ho Chi MInh City from the last century and no matter how much or how little we liked history at school, human beings are fond of doing this collectively. I received an invitation to a soiree from a Franco-Vietnamese friendship society to an exhibition featuring the wonderful collection of postcards of Old Saigon.
Although I have passed through District Two where the Cafe Lua is located on many occasions, it was to be only the second time I had ever set foot.
As the taxi emerged from the umbilical chord that now links District Two to the mother a replacement modernisitic town came into view. From Google maps it appears yet to have a proper name-just being called after the name of its main street - Do Thi Nguyen Sala.
The taxi driver had not a clue about the cafe so I had him put me at the beginning of the main street. Normally you have to travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to experience culture shock. Would you believe you can get it just by crossing a river? There were no narrow streets on this side of the water. Do Thi Nguyen Sala is a huge canyon of high rise blocks of flats flanked at its base by stylish cafes and restaurants and stores selling luxury goods. There was very little traffic and I could freely walk the pavement without as in district one having to ward off motorcyclists with my umbrella.
I did not have to look for the Cafe Lua. Breaking the eerie silence I heard the sounds of a merry party. I crossed the street and entered the Cafe Lua. The largest exhibits were at or near the entrance- an early cyclo, old motorbikes and mopeds, and a wooden mobile street food stall but for the material like you still see today. Inside, there was everything to remind one of the recently disappeared past. There were pictures of long past French and Vietnamese film stars, ancient newspapers and advertisements for quaint old products on the walls. Dotted around the expansive room were old cine projectors, a black and white poster for Dai Nam, Cho Lon, worn-out cameras, old bank notes, record players and tin toy cars of yesteryear. There were even window frames you no longer see. To add to the atmosphere the floor tilings and furniture were from way back in the twentieth century. You could ensconce yourself in an old armchair and really go back in time alongside a radio that must once have been a much-prized family possession.
Then I bumped into Philippe Chaplain the co-organiser. ‘I have not seen your postcards of old Saigon’, I said. He explained they were on the tables under glass where cafe goers would not miss at least one or two of them. ‘They would remain on loan to the exhibition until well into October’, he informed me. He introduced me to the young owner of the cafe and fellow organiser, film maker, Ong Hiep Minh Huynh. As we were chatting a fashion show got underway lauding that quintessentially Vietnamese garment - the Ao Dai. Models looking tall on their platform shoes and displaying a collection of red and beige cloth Ao Dais swanned past us.
I decided before returning to District One to have a walk around the area. District Two is largely swampland. I wondered if the new urbanisations would last as long as Venice as I walked past the reed beds to the sounds of the night-the chirping of insects and croaking of amphibians. I came to the water front where young people were out in droves, chatting and snacking on the fare of food vendors. The river is wide here and the night view of District One with its skyscrapers illuminated with colours changing by the minute is spectacular.
I looked back at the modern township. It has the need to link with its past which has now wafted across the river and lodged itself at the Cafe Lua. I looked at the river eternally rolling by. I looked at the swamp sucking life into itself. Do we human beings really progress? Aptly, a French saying came to mind – ‘Plus a change, plus c'est la meme chose’. Roughly translated that means, ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’ History!

Cafe Lua is at the Do Thi Nguyen Sala Area,
28-30-32 Nugyen Co Thach Street, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City.

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