Le Thi Tuyet, owner of Cheo Leo Café in Ho Chi"ˆMinh City, brews coffee with clay pots and cloth strainers / PHOTO: TUAN ANH
Cheo Leo was founded by Vinh Ngo in 1938. The café opened at 4 a.m. every day, and could be spotted by the flickering of oil lamps among vast fields.
The fact that the coffeehouse stood on an isolated spot far from people and houses prompted to the owner to give it its name, which means "High and Dangerous."
Seventy-five years later, the coffeehouse is no longer surrounded by deserted fields but by houses and buildings, as its location is now in the central District 3.
But the café has stuck to some of its basics through the passage of time: it has a simple design with no fancy equipment like air-conditioners or music; it has no holidays; and, most importantly, it has not changed the way it brews its coffee.
The current owner, Le Thi Tuyet, Ngo's eldest daughter, still does what her father did: buying coffee beans directly from farms, roasting and grounding them, and brewing them in a traditional way with an old-fashioned cloth strainer and a clay pot.
Tuyet, 64, said the old method always gives coffee the best smell and strong flavor.
109/36 Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, Ward 2, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
After brewing, coffee is kept in big clay pots that Chinese people often use to cook medicinal herbs. Placed on a giant charcoal oven, the pots can retain the beverage's distinct fragrance, Tuyet said.
Cheo Leo, therefore, stands out among the new, sophisticated cafés that have recently been springing up across HCMC.
It is an ideal place for one to take a look at a part of the history of Vietnamese coffee culture, where cloth filters and clay pots were commonly used to brew coffee before they were replaced by aluminum or stainless steel filter sets.
For many middle-aged and older residents of Ho Chi Minh City, cafés or coffeehouses were never fancy places. They were simple, down-to-earth establishments with low wooden furniture. They opened very early, around 4-5 a.m., and then the seller started burning charcoal ovens to boil water in big clay pots.
After sterilizing a strainer that had a long and thin cloth netting, finely ground coffee was placed in it and boiling water poured over it. Through this filter, coffee ran into another, smaller pot that was placed right beneath.
Depending on the price they charged for a cup, the café owners adjusted the amount of coffee in the netting to make it thick or thin.
Along with the old way of brewing coffee, there were also some habits of serving and consuming coffee that have all but disappeared.
Many people, for example, loved drinking coffee that overflowed into the saucer. The café owners or employees would oblige by pouring extra coffee into their customers' cups.
The opening up of the world's most famous coffee shop chain, Starbucks, has triggered a debate over the development of Vietnam's coffee culture, but no discussion would be complete without the mention of shops like Cheo Leo, which now stands sentinel to a disappearing past.