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06/05/2021

Come to Racket Coffee, Remember Old Saigon

Saigon is a rare place where coffee has been woven into the fabric of “urban lifestyle” through countless shops of all varieties, frequented by people from all walks of life, full of nostalgia or breakthrough contemporary features. Amidst this bustling city portrait is the surprise of a familiar sight connecting old Saigon’s web of memories through a small alleyway, among strangers acquainted by a cup of coffee.
By doing so, Racket Coffee has persisted for nearly seven decades to preserve the rare ancient drinking culture of a bygone Saigon.

A Familiar but Unique Tasting Coffee
In the old days of Saigon, before the popularity of filtered coffee, people only knew the taste of coffee made with a racket from the Chinese community in District 5. Today, there are only a handful of places that continue to preserve this unique way of brewing coffee. Coffee is placed in a tin racket and steeped in boiling water, creating an aroma that entices patrons with its characteristic fragrance that is hard to find in other forms of brewing. That first cup of racket coffee has captivated many Saigonese, initiating their life-long love of this coffee.
Racket Café in the alley at 330 Phan Dinh Phung Street, Phu Nhuan District is such a special place. Regardless of whether its day or night, rain or shine, the charcoal stove in this tiny 10 square meter spot is always brightly lit, ready to serve this simple looking but painstakingly prepared coffee that never disappoints.
Regardless of whether its day or night, rain or shine, the charcoal stove in this tiny10 square meter spot is always brightly lit, ready to serve this simple looking but painstakingly prepared coffee that never disappoints.

Learning how to brew coffee from her parents, Mrs. Pham Ngoc Tuyet (73 years old) and her husband, Mr. Dang Ngoc Con (80 years old), have been following the family tradition since the 1950s until now. In turn, the grandparents have continued to pass down this profession to family members right in this alley for nearly 70 years.

Revealing the Know-How
To build the brand of Phan Dinh Phung’s racket coffee, the seller uses boiling water to clean the 20-25 cm long racket, then places in a set amount of ground coffee, pours boiling water through the tin racket, dips repeatedly several times and finally pours it into a cup, creating a one of a kind cup of coffee.
According to Mrs. Tuyet, for the best cup of coffee she combines all four types of coffee beans including Culi, Moka, Arabica and Robusta, which are home-roasted together with delicious Dutch butter. Large-bean Moka coffee should be roasted first and then the remaining beans are added sequentially, roasting under moderate heat. For iced milk coffee, she uses Ong Tho condensed milk, but milk containers must be stored for 5 to 6 months before use to achieve the necessary texture for the perfect coffee.
The racket that is the soul of this coffee has also been improved a bit over time. From the old thick fabric (vai tam) that is no longer manufactured, the seller has switched to the current rackets on the market but had to pair two rackets together to create the best filter to achieve coffee clarity. The fire that boils the water must also be regulated to keep the charcoals red hot, maintaining a flame that is neither too high nor too low.
Thanks to these special brewing secrets, Mrs. Tuyet and Mr. Con Dinh’s racket coffee shop on Phan Dinh Phung Street is always busy with every kind of guest, from tech workers, motorbike taxi drivers to retired public servants, office workers and especially students. Guests only need to pay the very affordable price of 10,000 –15,000 VND for any variety of drink such as hot black coffee, iced black coffee, iced milk coffee, bac xiu (Saigon style coffee with condensed milk)...

Racket Coffee Culture
While taking a short rest and assigning some tasks to her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Tuyet rewarded herself with a cup of iced black coffee, smiled and shared with us her love for Racket Coffee over the years. She shows a lot of affection to students who don’t have much money. “Even if you have two or three thousand dong or you come to the shop when you don't have enough money, I am still ready to serve. Because that’s the joy of sharing. I also always teach my children and grandchildren to forever keep this spirit.”
The owner of the Racket Café suddenly made me realize the passion of Saigoners, their generosity, warmth and enthusiasm. Since she began working from the age of 7-8 as a waitress to help her parents, Mrs. Tuyet has never thought her life would continue in the coffee industry over the decades. Saigon has seen so many changes, but the Racket Café is still here after all. Customers have come and stayed with this café for three generations, from father to son to grandson. “Everyone loves the coffee I make, and gives me affection. And this is truly the happiness of my life,” reflected Mrs. Tuyet.
Saigon has seen so many changes, but the Racket Café is still here after all. Customers have come and stayed with this café for three generations, from father to son to grandson.
Saigon is always full of interesting surprises and brings us these little joys in the hustle and bustle of daily life. In this small alley, the Racket Café has no wi-fi, no air conditioning, a few simple plastic chairs and a crackling fire stove, but the warm smoke always seems to be wafting over endless stories with a strong coffee aroma in the background. This little café is like a compartment of memory where nostalgia and peacefulness are enshrined as time slowly ticks by.

Text: Kieu Giang -- Photos: Pierre Semere

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