The Boat Cafe, Saigon
Floating on the murky, milk tea-coloured waters of the Kenh Te Canal, separating districts 4 and 7, The Boat Cafe is one of those special places in Saigon that offer respite from the noise and chaos of the city without actually leaving it. Opened 5 years ago, The Boat Cafe (or La Ngon, to give it its real name) consists of two wooden river boats moored at right angles to the canal bank so that they protrude out into the water. The boats are furnished with tables and chairs on their upper and lower decks, with the sides open to the breeze off the canal. In a city obsessed with cafes, this one is pretty unique.
Tran Xuan Soan Street follows the south bank of the Kenh Te Canal, lined with squat Copper Pod trees. This road runs along the edge of Saigon’s District 7, looking back over the canal to District 4. Almost directly opposite the Hoang Anh Gia Lai 2 apartment block, The Boat Cafe (La Ngon) is at number 22/8. Nothing more than a clapboard and corrugated iron shack from the road, the signage clearly reads ‘La Ngon’, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it. A beautiful Golden Shower tree (yes, I know, it’s a funny name) droops over the shack. This is the main bar, where you order your drinks and snacks before boarding one of the boats.
Behind the shack, the two boats are moored to the canal bank, one on either side on the bar. Both vessels appear to be something between a rice barge and a river junk. They’re registered to Ben Tre, a province in the Delta famous for its coconuts, and maybe this gives a clue as to their former use: coconut barges on the Mekong River perhaps? Nowadays, however, these two wooden crafts are floating cafes. Long and slender, with the traditional painted eyes on the bow, the boats’ upper and lower decks have been converted into attractive wooden spaces where young Vietnamese come to socialize and work.
Of the two, the boat on the right, as you come in, is the nicer. Accessed at the bow via a steep wooden gangway over the (horribly polluted) water, both decks are lined with comfy chairs and sofas. The sturdy hardwood floors and ceilings are very impressive, and the upper deck (which I assume was added to the boat when it became a cafe) is decorated with palmwood pillars and walls. It’s bright, breezy, spacious and cool. Given the choice, always sit on the upper deck, because it catches the breeze and avoids the ‘river odour’ that sometimes spoils the atmosphere on the lower deck (this is only really a problem at low tide). At dusk and in the evenings, grab a table outside on the back deck, where there are sunset views downriver.
Inside, the space is adorned with potted plants and spotlights; outside, with hanging plants and lanterns illuminating the hull. When the rains sweep in over the canal (which they often do between May and October), bamboo screens are rolled down over the the sides to keep the decks (and the customers) dry. During these tropical downpours, it’s easy to imagine you’re at sea on an old Vietnamese junk. The cabins at the stern of the boat have been converted into very clean toilets on both the upper and lower decks.
Of course, one of the best things about The Boat Cafe is that it’s not (technically) on a road. Yes, you can still hear the traffic from Tran Xuan Soan Street roaring past, and you can still see the endless stream of vehicles rolling over the Kenh Te Canal Bridge; but when you’re on the boat, in the breeze, feeling the gentle tilt and drift of the the hull as it rides the soft swell created by a passing barge, you feel far removed from the rush and clamour of the city.
The light and space is a relief too: from the decks there’s a clear view along the waterway due west to District 5, and due east towards the Saigon River. Watching the river traffic pass by is also fun, and looking across the canal to the melange of rough-looking shanties, middle-class townhouses, and apartment blocks of District 4, offers a fascinating cross-section of urban living in Saigon, and the contrasting fortunes of its inhabitants.
The drinks menu is beautifully presented and offers a good range of reasonably priced beverages: 25,000-50,000vnd ($1-$2) is the average cost per drink. The coffee is pretty good, as are the fruit smoothies and fresh juices. The house speciality is nước mía (sugar cane juice), which is very refreshing on a hot and sweaty Saigon afternoon. Some snacks, such as noodles, bread and eggs, are available, too (try the bánh mì bò kho - beef stew with baguette). In general, the quality is above average for the price, which is more than can be said for some of Saigon’s other trendy cafes, where style takes precedence over quality.
One glaring flaw, however, is the absence of any alcoholic drinks. Oh, what I would give for a good gin & tonic, ice-cold beer, or glass of wine to take out onto the back deck at dusk at the end of a long day in the Big Smoke. I think there may be some licensing issue to explain this huge oversight, so perhaps things will change in the future. Music is sometimes played on board the boats, but it’s kept at a reasonable volume. And none of these issues can really distract from the qualities of The Boat Cafe. This is a great place for meeting friends or bringing a date. It would also be good for working too, were it not for the predictably unstable WiFi. However, providing you have a good 3G/4G data plan, there’s no reason you can’t ‘digital nomad’ on the decks of the Boat Cafe; I did, and do.