Small Shop's small layout, with old-school stereo system and CDs in the background. Photo by Josh Tribe
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to
Bob Dylan, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"
I know it's really not much to worry about: Ho Chi Minh City will always be weird. For better or ill, living in this city is like taking LSD on a daily basis. But with Starbucks here and McDonald's coming terribly soon, the trip is getting weirder in the wrong ways. World culture has become a monolithic ode to gadgetry typified by an unfettered fetish for modernity for modernity's sake. Unquestioningly, that which is newest is deemed best, registering amongst the masses of metropolitans as inherent evidence of progress. Saigon certainly suffers from this syndrome as sorrowfully as any city. Luckily for me, a new, trend-bucking, absolutely beat, resolutely atavistic coffee shop recently opened in the funky little neighborhood in District 3 I'm lucky enough to call home.
I was taking my first stroll to the local Mini-Stop, of all places, after a six-week sojourn in the Thai isles. I thought I was hallucinating - beyond normal levels - when I saw Bob Dylan blowing the harp. It was only a picture, of course, but no less significant! - this framed black and white shot of the American Trinh Cong Son, circa 1964, hanging from the wall of this unfamiliar hole-in-the wall.
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Mr. Huu, the handsome gentleman who owns and operates 117 Small Shop (117 Street No. 3, Cu Xa Do Thanh, District 3), greeted me cordially, handing me the most amazingly bizarre business card in this country rich with ridiculously absurd business cards. Again, the picture of Dylan, his gaunt cheeks hollowed out from inhaling through that hallowed harmonica. Aside from the address, all it said was: "6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Coffee 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Heineken."
"All you serve is coffee and Heineken?!" I exclaimed, doing my best to impart my approval, as I swallowed in the scene in one long gulp of pleasant disbelief.
117 Small Shop has eight small tables and maybe twice as many mini-stools. Its décor is minimal: about 100 empty cigarette boxes stacked in a catawampus pile on a wall-bound bookshelf beneath an eclectic array of CD jewel cases. On a navel-level piece of furniture in front of the bar sits an old-fashioned stereo in between two old-fashioned speakers encased in wood. Stacks of CDs abound. Standing there gave me the feeling of being transported back to 1999. "CD sound better than MP3," Huu said to me. He's right.
Throughout this mad, fair city, the worst aspects of corporate American materialist culture can be seen encroaching like a Biblical plague of bad mojo. But something worthwhile did emerge from North America - the United States specifically - over the past 100 or so years. Art. Blues, jazz, rock n' roll. Divine weirdness. It's weird stuff, the indefinable ingredients which give the human spirit its indomitable quality and bestow ineradicable uniqueness to each and every human soul unafraid to be called weird. For those who understand his significance, Bob Dylan is a minstrel prince of nonconformist weirdness.
And it's become weird for a coffee shop to specialize in coffee. Small Shop doesn't offer lattes, cappuccinos, frappachinos, bubble teas or scones, just hot or cold Robusta, Traditional or Culi, which is fancier and stronger than the other two for reasons I haven't the slightest hope of ever comprehending. All three varieties hail from Da Lat and make for some of the best-tasting, most potent tumblers in this city - already well-established as a veritable nirvana for coffee-heads.
Huu, and his best buddy, Small Shop benefactor Mr. Loc, share a passion for simplicity, simpler times, more human, less mechanistic living. They know time. They love American roots music not because it comes from USA #1, but because it finds affinity within their souls.
In Small Shop, one is more likely to witness patrons reading books than fiddling with iPads. It has no Facebook page. Huu prefers pedestrian customers, as there isn't much room out front for motorbikes.
Mr. Huu (R) and a customer-friend enjoy Heinekens after a day of drinking coffee at Small Shop.
Beside and across from the image of Dylan are equally large black and white portraits of John Fogerty (front man of Creedence Clearwater Revival); Nils Lofgren (most famous for playing guitar alongside Bruce Springsteen); and Don Williams (a country singer nearly nobody in America has ever heard of). This quadrupling demonstrates the shop's cultural authenticity and spiritual autonomy as well as anything. It's Fogerty, by the way, who's Huu and Loc's far and away favorite. Not Creedence mind you, but Fogerty by his lonesome. All their favorite rockers - Neil Young, Van Morrison, Tom Petty, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, Trinh Cong Son - are the types of characters who're less and less in vogue amidst this plastic age of overproduced, superficial claptrap.
So while the Musical Industrial Complex churns out gangster rap from every corner of the globe, K-Pop scorches the Asian charts, and coffee shops, as well as businesses in general, emulate Starbucks' game plan of Total Domination, Huu and Loc reach for a different kind of rising star altogether. Empirically good coffee; the music they happen to enjoy; Heineken. Take it or leave it. Bring your guitar, bring your book of poetry, and walk there. Or don't, see if they care.
But if you feel like patronizing a coffee shop that Bob Dylan - a dude who welds together giant iron gates in his spare time - would dig, then check out the rare and different tune near the end of Street. No 3, Do Thanh Realm, HCMC, Planet Earth.
*Josh Tribe is an American expat in Ho Chi Minh City