Saigon’s oldest café survives pandemic after longest halt in eight decades
tranthuy02 22-11-2021, 17:34

In early November, a group of customers visited Cheo Leo Cafe on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, eager for their first sip of the shop’s famous hot milk coffee since citywide restrictions forced it to close its doors earlier this year.

Cheo Leo Cafe brews its coffee using traditional cloth filters and clay pots – a method most coffee shops in the city have abandoned in favor of metal filters, fancy machines, and other modern techniques.




Coffee is brewed using cloth filters and clay pots at Cheo Leo Cafe in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

Its most popular beverage is hot coffee mixed with condensed milk and Bretel butter served in a small glass cup.

Though cafes had been officially allowed to reopen, the group of customers was asked to enjoy their coffee at a small plastic table in front of the shop, rather than inside.

“Although Ho Chi Minh City allowed dine-in services to resume in late October, we’re still hesitant to fully reopen because we are all in our 70s," explained Nguyen Thi Suong, owner of Cheo Leo.

"We need to be careful."

Suong, 69, inherited the shop from her father and currently runs it alongside her two sisters. 

In mid-October, Cheo Leo reopened for takeout after nearly three months without business due to the citywide closure of cafes and eateries.

Those three months were the longest halt to service in the shop’s history, according to Suong. 

Despite their fears of COVID-19, Suong and her sisters made the decision to reopen for takeout in order to serve the loyal customers who have kept them in business for so many decades.




Nguyen Thi Suong, owner of Cheo Leo Cafe, gives a cup of coffee to a customer at her shop in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, October 27, 2021. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

“I told [my younger sister] Sau to serve coffee carefully as our customers have waited for so long to come and enjoy our coffee, we have to treat them right,” Suong told Tuoi Tre News.

“We learned how to put our hearts into what we do from our parents.

"They were very strict and serious about running the cafe.  

“It’s not just about making ends meet, it’s also about our family’s reputation.”




Nguyen Thi Suong, owner of Cheo Leo Cafe, makes coffee using a cloth filter and clay pot at her shop in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

A normal day at Cheo Leo starts at 4:00 am, when Suong’s sister Le Thi Tuyet, now 71, begins boiling the water to brew their coffee before opening the cafe’s doors about an hour later.

Suong and Sau then spend the rest of the day running the cafe until it is time to close up. 

In the late 1930s, their father Vinh Ngo moved from Hue to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, to look for a job.

After seeing how successful many Chinese people in the city were at running beverage shops, he decided to open his own. 

Unfortunately, the cafe did not do very well for the first several years and Suong’s father had to work several jobs to make ends meet.

It was not until the early 1970s, when students from nearby schools and young people throughout the city turned the cafe into their regular hangout, that Suong began considering the business a success.

“It used to take ten members of our family all working at the same time to meet the demand,” Suong revealed.




A framed photo of Nguyen Thi Suong (right) and her sisters, who have run their family’s coffee shop together for decades, hangs on the wall at Cheo Leo Cafe in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

Classic charm

After over eight decades of serving coffee from early morning till night, Cheo Leo has become a daily treat for many of Saigon’s residents.

No longer just a familiar place for elderly people in the neighborhood to enjoy a cup of coffee while reading the newspaper like before, Cheo Leo now also receives a large number of young locals and foreigners who adore the cafe for its traditional style.

The shop offers visitors a classic cafe experience with a big wooden divan placed in the middle of the house, surrounded by blue and white chairs and tables with classic Vietnamese and international music broadcast from speakers hung on the walls.




Tables and chairs are placed at Cheo Leo Cafe in a picture taken by Canadian travel blogger Alyshia Turchyn

Each wall of Cheo Leo is decorated with framed newspaper stories written about it over the years and a big board which displays the cafe’s brewing coffee method.

Cheo Leo has been brewing its coffee the same way for 80 years, a process that involves filtering ground coffee beans through hot water and cloth twice before storing them in clay pots in order to preserve their taste and aroma throughout the day.




Clay pots are used to brew coffee at Cheo Leo Cafe in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre



A glass of hot coffee poured from clay pots put over a charcoal brazier which Nguyen Thi Suong’s father built over 80 years ago at Cheo Leo Cafe in District 3 in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

While there are dozens of reasons for customers to love Cheo Leo, Canadian travel blogger Alyshia Turchyn was not shy about explaining why she is such a big fan of the cafe.

“Of course, it’s because of their coffee!” she told Tuoi Tre News.

“Tucked away in a little alley with vintage seating and traditional ways of making coffee, I could feel how authentically Saigon it was.

“It felt like I was on the set of an old school Saigon movie.

"That’s what made me fall in love with it!”




A picture of its brewing process hangs on a wall at Cheo Leo Cafe in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

Bui Vinh The, a local resident who has been a loyal Cheo Leo customer for the past seven years, said he is most attracted to the cafe because it offers a ‘sense of family.’ 

“I was so happy to hear that Cheo Leo had reopened,” he shared.

“It was the same happiness as seeing your relatives and knowing that they're doing well.

“If people come to Cheo Leo and look for professional service like they might at a franchised cafe, they’ll be disappointed.

“On the other hand, if they come and consider themselves a family member, and see the cafe as a place to nurture their love for people, they will surely feel like me.

“To me, Cheo Leo has always been the start of a happy new day."




Nguyen Thi Suong (left) and her younger sister make drinks in the kitchen of Cheo Leo Cafe in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

Cheo Leo owners clearly feel the same sentiment. Suong knows all of her regulars and warmly welcomes them each time they visit.

Due to the cafe’s small size, coffee drinkers at Cheo Leo often have to share their table with strangers, though few are dismayed at it.

“In an age when people like to keep distance from each other, Cheo Leo is a space where people who don't even know each other, or people from different generations, can connect,” Tran Quynh, a long-time Cheo Leo customer, explained.

At 69 and with no children of her own, Suong hopes to see a nephew become the third-generation owner of Cheo Leo.

For her, it is not only a coffee shop, but a family treasure she plans to cherish the rest of her life.

“My parents worked hard to build and maintain the shop," she said.

"This is the biggest inheritance they left for us.”




Coffee is brewed using cloth filters and clay pots at Cheo Leo Cafe in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre



Coffee is kept in clay pots at Cheo Leo Cafe in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre



A photo shows a cup of hot coffee mixed with condensed milk and Bretel butter at Cheo Leo Cafe in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News



Cheo Leo Cafe is located down a small alley on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

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