In the garden

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 A customer waiting for morning coffee at Le Jardin in Ho Chi Minh City

Trendy Ho Chi Minh City with its skyscrapers and shopping malls has always had a café culture, and no city dweller can complain of its garden café world. Life seems richer with a cup of true coffee under a shady tree on a summer's Sunday morning.

After a week working in an air-conditioned office, a cup or two of Vietnamese, Italian or French coffee and a plate of tasty morsels at an outdoor café make a welcome change.

One such place to enjoy this simplest of life's simple pleasures is Le Jardin in the grounds of Idecaf at 28 Le Thanh Ton Street in District 1. Though located in the heart of Vietnam's largest city, the café is permeated by the French culture for which Idecaf exists.

After watching a play or film at Idecaf, many members of the audience make their way from the theater straight to Le Jardin for dinner or coffee.

As the name suggests, this well-known haunt of Saigon's French community as well as young Vietnamese with a Gallic bent has a dining area in the middle of Idecaf's lush garden.

There is also a normal dining room for those so inclined or for when the weather is inclement.

In the morning, bees buzz around the grand tamarind tree next to the restaurant. At night, the fragrance of bonsai lotus, jasmine and orchids fills the air.

Le Jardin serves generous portions of authentic French cooking at reasonable prices. For a light lunch or even brunch on Sunday, there's nothing like salmon with optional pesto sauce and French fries followed by chocolate dessert.

There are plenty of other garden eateries in the middle of Saigon, for example the one behind the Reunification Palace. It's located just inside the gate of the palace grounds on Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street and is impossible to miss.

While the cafe only serves fruit juice, soft drink and beer along with simple snacks such as pho sao, its setting is magnificent. The palace grounds are full of grand trees, shrubs, flower beds and manicured lawns.

Birds flitter from tree to tree and hop from branch to branch, and the squirrels in the larger trees are always busy collecting and eating the copious food that visitors throw to them, though they are cautious and shun close contact with humans.

The view from the café goes all the way to Le Duan Street, making it an excellent vantage point for city watching. The best time to go there is the afternoon, when it's not too crowded.

For authentic Italian food in an outdoor setting, Pendolasco at 87 Nguyen Hue Boulevard can be recommended.

The restaurant's beautiful garden with its flower-laden trellis is reached via a terrace laid with red brick and is ideal for relaxing with a cappuccino a tiny distance yet a world away from the crowded streets of the city center.

Pendolasco's squid ink pasta and tiramisu are a must, and the pizza is excellent too. Cinema buffs will be pleased to know that the restaurant screens classic and modern Italian films at regular intervals.

For a meal or coffee in the leafy grounds of a French colonial villa, two cafés in classy Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street get the stamp of approval.

Hideaway with its Spanish décor specializes in Mediterranean food with the emphasis on French, Italian and Spanish recipes.

The other is Serenade, which boasts a Vietnamese menu and a long drinks' list.

With a bowl of hu tieu (noodle soup with pork, squid and shrimp) and a glass of passion fruit juice under the big tamarind tree, and the gentle breeze causing tamarind flowers to alight on the table, it makes one realize what is special about this city.

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