For decades, a Saigon coffee shop has kept brewing the right way

By Giang Vu, Thanh Nien News

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 Photos: GIang Vu
Hidden in an alley in District 3, Cheo Leo is overshadowed by surrounding houses and stores.
Unlike many trendy coffee shops around the city, it looks quite plain, with stainless steel tables and plastic stools. There's a wooden sign with the name of the shop and a timid coffee cup. 
But who needs a fancy sign for a coffee shop that has stood for 77 years anyway.  
In the past, the place was popular among students of Saigon's elite high schools such as Pétrus Ky, now Le Hong Phong, and Chu Van An. These days it is a favorite venue among people who are nostalgic and want a reminder of what Saigon coffee used to taste like.
The essence of Cheo Leo's lasting charm lies in its old-fashioned, almost extinct, way of brewing coffee with a clay pot and a cloth strainer. There is just a handful of shops that are still using the method around the city.
Cheo Leo's owners are known for having been meticulously carrying out the whole brewing process for decades, treating it like a ritual.
The current owner, Nguyen Thi Suong, says she uses tap water to brew coffee, but before it can be used, the water must sit still in a tank for three days.
The practice was dated to the days when her father, Vinh Ngo, still ran Cheo Leo and wanted to get rid of all the unwanted smell of disinfectants in the water.
Suong still uses an old stove that her father made specifically just for boiling water on. 
Suong then pours the hot water into a cloth strainer containing finely ground coffee. The strainer is placed in a clay pot that Chinese people often use to cook medicinal herbs.
The coffee sits in the strainer for a while before being poured into another pot, which she then places near the stove to keep the coffee always warm and maintain its perfect flavor. 
It is important to keep the stove at a right temperature, because if it is too high it will spoil the coffee, she says. But when the temperature is too low, it will fail to draw out the coffee's fragrance.
Every cup is also washed in boiled water before use to make sure the coffee stays warm. 
Cheo Leo is best known for bac xiu -- Chinese-styled milk coffee with more milk than coffee. Many people love Cheo Leo's bac xiu recipes, saying its proportions of coffee and milk are just right.
Cheo Leo Café
109/36 Nguyen Thien Thuat, Ward 2, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Open: 5:15 a.m. - 6:45 p.m.
The father, Ngo, opened the coffee shop in 1938 when the rural neighborhood was nearly uninhabited.
Ngo named his shop Cheo Leo, which means "high and dangerous" in Vietnamese, being inspired by the fact that it stood on an isolated spot quite far from the nearest houses.
Even though Ngo passed away more than 22 years ago, people who have patronized it for a long time had many stories about the late owner.
A regular customer describes Ngo as a stylish person who often rode his Vespa to Ben Thanh Market to buy French-branded coffee.
He says the late owner was so loyal to the straining method that he refused to follow the now ubiquitous drip brewing, even when many of other shops had already adopted the new way.
"He said the filter brewer did not make coffee any better, while the straining method was dearly beloved by Saigonese. And we loved him for that," the customer says. 

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