Plastic stools, low tables, and iced coffee. These cafes offer convenience and a relaxed environment right at the doorsteps of the skyscrapers that employ thousands of Vietnamese office professionals.
The cafe culture in Vietnam is renowned. For the longest time, when asked about Vietnamese coffee, most imagine plastic or wooden stools, low tables, and robusta iced coffee and ca phe phin. But the scene has evolved a lot over the past decade, from local players to international chains and now the growth of the third wave coffee scene, where there is an even bigger emphasis on education and quality of coffee. It’s against this growing business backdrop that Tam Nguyen Cao launched Vietcetera Cafe, a boutique third wave coffee shop. The cafe, sitting at 290 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, is a new sister project along with Vietcetera.com, the website. And it follows the ethos of Vietcetera: highlighting and finding the unique stories of Vietnam.
As a cofounder of Vietcetera myself, I figured it’d be great to sit down with Tam and talk about how and why he ended up building the cafe, and why he believes in it.
But first, a little background on Tam. Tam, whom is of Vietnamese and Chinese heritage, grew up in Seattle, Washington. Tam decided to relocate to Vietnam in 2008, with the intent to stay here for a few years to be closer to his ill grandmother.
“After the passing of my grandmother, I had plans to return to the States for law school, but by this time, I was really enjoying my corporate work and all the exciting changes happening in Ho Chi Minh City so I decided to stay.”
In the span of a few years, Tam built his career at Nielsen, one of the top market intelligence companies and, on his off hours, co-founded a few food & beverage projects.
“My first stint in Vietnam was an amazing experience. I was fortunate enough to build my career and also have enough time to work on personal projects within the food & beverage space. Our biggest success was The Bean Store, a Japanese and Singaporean inspired dessert cafe, which I co-founded with Phung, a very creative and passionate F&B professional. The first few years were awesome as we were establishing a new category, customers really caught on and loved what we had to offer. We had many fans early on, but then the space became very competitive, and along with many life commitments, the brand didn’t fare as well years later.”
Around that time it was over 5 years he had spent in Vietnam, and unexpectedly, he had an offer to relocate to Singapore, to progress his career in a regional capacity. He spent close to three years there before returning mid last year.
After his regional stint in Singapore, Tam felt Vietnam’s exciting environment calling him back once more, but the bigger reason was being able to be closer to his siblings after 14 years apart. And it just so happened around the time Guy, Tuan, Hao, and myself were ratcheting up the pace on Vietcetera. As Tam says:
“It’s quite a serendipitous story as to how Vietcetera Cafe came to be. I had just finished a 2.5 year stint in Singapore and was planning to relocate to Saigon again to be closer to my siblings.”
I knew a few of the guys [that’s us!] from the previous time I was living in Ho Chi Minh. I loved what they were were working on to bring more positive stories to the global and local audience. I wanted to be a part of that so we decided to collaborate.”
We had history with Tam. Tam immediately grokked our ethos and mission, and we felt that his vision for Vietcetera fit into that.
“We’ve got a strategic place as our first location right on the border of District 1 and 3, but still very central. I’d like to describe the venue as a cozy and intimate space, but what adds to this space is that we’ve partnered with local artisans, designers, and artists to showcase their work. We’re still curating, but we’ve good a good start with brands like Three Dots, Marou Chocolate and Saigon Siblings and artists like Nguyen Xuan Nam and Simon Pham. We’re able to get a lot of international exposure as well with the homestay right above us.
Of course, being a part of the third wave scene, we’re serious about the quality of our drinks so we’re working with a very passionate local roaster, and we’re looking to roast more often in our cafe as well. We’re also offering some of my favorites from Singapore, including 1872 Clipper Tea, and customer favorites like our Kaya Butter Toast and mini cheese tarts.
Ultimately, we felt that Tam’s vision for the cafe and our vision for the media platform were aligned and went for it. We’re friends and business partners. But it doesn’t end there. Vietcetera as a brand has a long way to go. When I asked him what’s next for the cafe, he waxed poetically:
“Things change so fast here so I try not to look too far ahead anymore. I see a lot of opportunity where Vietcetera and the people behind the brand can go. There’s so much white space to enter when you talk about media content and also physical extensions of brands…the possibilities are unlimited.”
For Tam, it’s already extended.
“I’m excited for what’s happening right now. Aside from the cafe, we’re growing Sunday Studios, an awesome social accommodation, catering to many regional travelers. Along with that, I’ve partnered with my siblings, to offer homemade pastries, jams and even locally roasted coffee under our Saigon Siblings name.”
We’re excited. On one side, Tam handles the atoms of Vietcetera, and for the online team, we handle the bits.
Vietcetera Cafe is now open at 290 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Daily from 08:00 – 22:00.