A little Italy in Saigon

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Vecchio Café hides itself in a quiet alley off busy and crowded Pham Ngoc Thach Street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

Open for three months now, the coffee shop makes a striking impression with its Italian appearance and antique decor.

From outside, Vecchio Café looks like a house in Italy with brick walls and small vases of roses placed under large windows.

Hurricane lamps hanging under the eaves add to the warmth and the welcoming air.

It's quite small inside, a cozy nook that's been designed and arranged with care. Patrons sit where they like to enjoy the romantic atmosphere created by the dim lighting, the ornate décor and the Italian music that can be heard in every corner.

The tables are converted sewing-machine frames, without the machines of course, with square wooden tops. The treadles are still in place and make excellent footrests.

An artificial rose in a metal tube rather than a ceramic or glass vase decorates each table along one side of the room, while other flowers in green glass bottles sit atop the rest of the tables.

For drinks, Vecchio serves up smoothies, fresh fruit juice, tea and much besides for VND50,000-65,000.

For food, the menu lists the usual Italian dishes such as spaghetti, other pasta, soup, grilled chicken and salad along with beef and potato dishes, priced between VND30,000 and VND75,000. And of course there's gelato and such sweets to choose from.

We went there last weekend to have a pot of Vecchio tea, a Valentino smoothie and a dish of fried beef with bell peppers and fried potato.

The tea, which was fragrant and tasted of herbs, was served with a small jar of honey. It was not bitter but left a sweet taste on my tongue after each sip.

ADDRESS

39/3 Pham Ngoc Thach Street, District 3, HCMC

The brown Valentino smoothie was too good to be true and is highly recommended. What combination of fruit it was I cannot say as the waitress refused to tell me but I could detect mango and cocoa in the slightly sweet and sour mixture. I can say for certain that it was delicious. I wolfed down my glass and still wanted more.

The beef was tender and the potato acceptable, and the dish is definitely worth a try. They seem to cook it better than anywhere else I've eaten in the city.

Sitting on a couch, enjoying the food, the drink and the Italian music, we felt relaxed and comfortable. As I sat there and looked around, I felt like I was escaping from Saigon and immersing myself in an elegant and gorgeous Italy.

Vecchio's interior walls are not plastered or painted but are bare brick like the outside.

All the furniture is antique. On one wall is a wooden shelf on which are displayed different kinds of paraffin lamp, coal iron, old radio, loud-speaker and dial phone

On another wall hang four clocks of different style and size, while a third has several paintings. The ceiling, from which dangle old metal chandeliers, is made of timber, and even the air-conditioners are encased in wood.

A piano stands next to an old television set, and beside them are a guitar, microphones and a loud-speaker. They are for the band that plays every night from nine o'clock until late in the evening.

After 8:30 p.m., drinks cost VND75,000 a pop. For those who only want to enjoy music without imbibing beverages, there's a cover charge of VND35,000.

Compared to other coffee shops that offer live music nightly, Vecchio's prices are quite reasonable. Not only that, its decoration and ambience are original and cannot easily be found elsewhere, so it deserves to have me and my friends back sometime soon.

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