Rising above it all

(No.8, Vol.2, August 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine,Advertorial)

Fried prawn with young rice
Photo: S and H Corn Vieet snd Coffee Lounge

When things are getting on top of you, one solution might be to get on top of things. Chilling out at a rooftop cafe looking down on the world is a great way to put life into the right perspective. One of Saigon’s little secrets is right above your eyes rather than in front of them, on the fourth floor of the block occupying a corner of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue Streets. Almost everyone who visits the city will pass this way. It could be regarded as the very centre of the city with the iconic Rex Hotel and People’s Committee Hall just across the square, but without it being pointed out few would notice this haven. Actually, if you pass by on ground level, members of staff, clad in traditional Northern garb around a stand with a menu on display, may try to attract your attention. As anyone who has been in the country more than five minutes will know all manner of folk interject their verbal advertisements at you in the street and I routinely ignore them. I had done so with these people for around six months when curiosity got the better of me and I allowed myself to be led into the doorway.
Within seconds I found myself in front of a real treasure of an antique lift. I know of only two other lifts of this ilk in Ho Chi Minh City and in case you are an aficionado I can let you know they are in The Majestic Hotel and The Municipal Art Museum. This one, with its well varnished wood and black iron concertina doors, is manually operated by a member of the café’s staff, acting as a kind of novel receptionist. Once inside you will notice three brass plates. The first announces in an Alice in Wonderland way ‘Wait for Chime Before Opening Door’, a second has a translation of this in Vietnamese and the third informs that this antik (sic) was restored by a Japanese company. The man behind the restoration was Mr Hung. He is a man with such a love for his country’s culture and history that he paid $15,000 to resurrect this princely box. ‘You can add another $5,000 if you take into account the loss of cafe revenue for the six weeks it cost to get the job done,’ he told me. Now, in many countries you can get a government grant for such an act of cultural mercy. If you went with cap in hand to the relevant Ministry in Vietnam to ask for money to fix up a decrepit piece of outdated technology, I have the feeling all you would receive is a certificate of insanity.
I came out of the lift and walked up a short flight of steps lit with candles in glass holdings to enter the cafe itself. Another stunning surprise, as the scene of colonial era relaxation looks straight out of a Joseph Conrad or Somerset Maugham novel. If you walked in wearing a white shirt and shorts with matching pith helmet, you would certainly not look out of place here. All that is missing is a tiger skin rug on the floor. Mind if you had one of those, you would not win many foreign friends in these days of the near-extinction of the species. There are wooden beams and rafters with light green French woodwork on the ceiling and a fan hanging down in lieu of a a candelabra. Most of the furniture is wickerwork, the chairs inviting you to take your siesta in them. There are huge Vietnamese ceramic jars and a large statue of a Buddha with bunches of toddy palm fruit (thot not) alongside it. Something of the jungle has been brought to this rooftop with green bamboo and banana trees planted at its edges. The floor is made of parquet and there is even a little serving area with antique teapots on it, which is made of rattan. On the walls is a series of black and white photographs of street scenes from the American War period and there is water colour painting of elegant ladies of a bygone era walking near a pool in a park. If it is not too windy, there is also an outdoor area at the back to conduct business in or to have a natter with friends.
I was lucky enough to be invited to dinner with both Mr Son and Mr Hung, the partners behind this venture who met while working for Vietnamese Airlines together. Both of them have impeccable artistic taste. Mr Hung showed pictures of his house on his Ipad. He has bought a number of old wood and brick tile buildings from Hue and had them reassembled in a large garden. The bed he sleeps in is an old four-poster concubine’s bed from the Imperial Court. Mr Son has a track record of running cafes evocative of old Vietnam. Before joining Mr Hung he ran ‘Bamboo Garden’ in District Three.
I certainly sampled Vietnamese food at its best that evening and I think you will agree, given the luxury of the surroundings and the location itself, it came at reasonable prices. Along with the centrepiece of the plain white rice came a dish of ‘Hen’ (VND148,000). (Remember now, we are speaking Vietnamese and I do not mean chicken but something for which I can never find a satisfactory translation. Some websites call it mussel and others clam). I think it is actually sui generis but I like the definition of the dictionary on my library shelf. It reads: ‘Corbicular (kind of little bivalve fluvial mollusk)’. Anyhow, it is served with rice crackers and fresh mint and is one of the must-eat dishes of Central Vietnam, especially Hue. Another great appetiser was the spring rolls (VND148,000). There were three pieces from each of the three regions. Vietnamese are often fiercely loyal to their own region’s cuisine. As a foreigner with this order I could enjoy it all on one plate and I can tell you it is all delicious. There was also lamprey deep fried in batter. This is seasonal and the day’s price was VND900,000 a kilo. It is like salmon in that it spends part of its life at sea and part in rivers. In appearance it is like an eel, but perhaps owing to the fact that it is jawless and feeds by attaching itself to other fish and sucking their blood, it has a distinctive taste. The final morsels were grilled and skewered king prawns served on a bamboo platter (VND195,000).
If you just come in the afternoon, there is a finger food menu available at VND75,000 per item which includes such exotica as pumpkin flowers. To give you an indication of the price of beverages, beer can be had in the form of a bottle of Saigon Export or a glass of draught Tiger for VND45,000.
In sum, S and H with its superior setting is an ideal place for the afternoon pipe dreamer or the evening romantic. It is an equally suitable setting for business talk or for a chat with friends and family. Or if you seek sweet solitude what better place to sink into a rattan chair and browse through the pages of the latest edition of Vietnam Heritage magazine!

S and H Com Viet and Coffee Lounge
Fourth floor 98 Nguyen Hue Street
District 1 HCMC.
Tel: (08) 6680-0188

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