Da Lat has long been known as a highlands retreat where people from the lowlands and the cities escape the tropical swelter for the misty, pine-scented air.
The city with its dramatic vistas has also gained a reputation as a romance capital and Instagram backdrop ornamented with the kitschiest of spectacles, from the surrealistic Crazy House with its treehouse lodgings, to the Clay Tunnel gorge of giant sculpted animals, to the Valley of Love with its mini icons of world capitals like Big Ben and the Petronas Twin Towers.
Amid these natural and artificial wonders a new cool, hip vibe is spreading. And the most emblematic spots for this eclectic and inclusive aesthetic are Cu Ru, an artists collective in a towering greenhouse, and Coi Kissa and Bossa Jazz Spot, a pioneer in the jazz club scene in Vietnam.
After months of being shuttered by COVID-19, both spots are in full swing this holiday season, with events that featured a drag show and avante-garde water puppet performance at Cu Ru, and jazz singers and musicians crooning Christmas songs at Bossa Jazz Spot.
Each has intriguing plans and high hopes for 2022. Here’s a look at each of these unique venues:
Find this artist collective at the bottom of the hill on Pham Hung Thai and walk into an enchanted space where tropical greenhouse meets circus tent meets antique store meets modern art gallery.
The greenhouse rises three stories and is draped in fabric canopies and curtains of tinsel. Mismatched couches and chairs are set under trees and tall plants and next to fireplaces. The walls are crowded with shelves of books and paintings and photography.
The centerpiece is the bar, and the dozens of large, teardrop-shaped glass vases glowing with homemade wines and liquors from Hanoi. There are no craft beers or Singapore Slings on offer. Just delicious drinks made from roots and fruits like peaches, white grapes, Da Lat tomatoes, mushrooms, cinnamon and orange blossom. The Old Fashioned with orange, apricot and kumquat liqueur and pepper wine is fabulous.
Cu Ru started out as an art space and bar in Saigon before the founders, including Dat Nguyen and Lan Nguyen, moved the collective to Da Lat in 2019. Lan, a multimedia artist, said Cu Ru is one of the organizers of No Cai Bum arts festival — a weeklong schedule of performing and visual arts held periodically in different cities around Vietnam — at Cu Ru and other venues in Da Lat after Tet, in late March or early April.
The ambiance is a reflection of the clientele, a mix of everyone from NGO workers to expats to LGBTQ+ champions, from families with small children to visual artists to electronic music makers. The year-round calendar of performances depends on which artists and musicians are visiting town, while the daily soundtrack is a funky mix of the likes of Rejjie Snow, Hoang Anh, Donny Hathaway and Ran Cap Duoi.
“I think there’s nothing mysterious about the appeal of Cu Ru apart from it being friendly,” said Jack Nguyen, who performed an original song in the Christmas night drag show and goes by the stage name of JACK! “I think it’s all about being very open to new ideas and new people. Anybody can come here and have a good time.”
JACK!, who is 21 and lives in Saigon, danced and sang onstage with his original song “Nhà Hoang” with four other performers associated with Gender Funk, a queer creatives collective in Saigon. His parents attended the show, the first time they saw him perform live “in drag.”
He grew up in Da Lat, singing and performing for the patrons at his parents music cafe. He went on to compete as a boy in Vietnam’s Got Talent and The Voice Kids. He said he found his true voice in drag at age 19 when he saw his first Gender Funk show at Arcan in Saigon. His first visit to Cu Ru was to plan his debut show as a drag queen, at Hard Rock Cafe in Saigon in 2020. That performance and his videos on social media led to the gig at Cu Ru on Christmas night.
In between the drag show sets, the crowd was ushered over to a spookily lit fish pond festooned with a gauzy curtain and a naked Barbie doll hanging from a string over water cluttered with toys and debris. Fuzzy ominous sounds came from the speakers as Dương Thanh Quang, an artist in residence at Cu Ru, intoned out warnings about environmental destruction and jumped into the chilly water, sloshing around with the objects and reading from a soggy book.
JACK!’s mother told him she’d never seen anything like it. “She was telling me, ‘It’s so strange; I don’t get it,’” he said. “Then I told her, ‘You don’t have to get it. Just see and feel whatever you need to feel.’”
Details: Cu Ru is at 2 Duong Pham Hong Thai and opens around 9 or 10 and closes late, often after midnight. No food menu, but occasional specials like cakes or a buffet are offered. Drinks cost around 100,000 VND.
Coi Kissa and Bossa Jazz Spot
From the front of the two-story heritage building on Truong Cong Dinh street, you’d likely have no idea of the treasure that lies within. Past the front room that houses Coi Kissa cafe, in the back of the building, step up into Bossa Jazz Spot and its surprisingly large, classically handsome space with burgundy carpet, brass chandeliers with softball-size colored glass orbs, plush couches and intimate tables, wainscoting on the walls, and a dark-wood, 8-meter long bar with carved panels and decorative corners.
On chilly Christmas Eve, the room was warm and inviting, the alternating cast of jazz singers and musicians drawing applause for their sultry renditions of Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” and Christmas tunes “Oh, Holy Night” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” The crowd was a diverse mix of expats and locals with dyed hair, sequinned sports coats, leather pants, jeans and cocktail dresses.
The staff in vintage eyeglasses and outfits moved expertly behind the bar and through the crowd serving up cocktails. Presiding over it all was the founder, Bush Lam, a 33-year-old who grew up in Da Lat and returned in 2014 with a vision for creating the kind of jazz clubs he was mesmerized by in Europe.
“We wanted to go to a bar to drink a classic cocktail and listen to good jazz music on a good sound system — emphasizing the sound system — and there was nowhere,” Bush said at the bar this week. “So we said let’s build something for us, first, and if people respond to it well, good for them, too.”
He started with Coi Kissa, named after the Japanese cafes that double as high-fi and jazz music bars, in small spaces like a room above a flower shop on Truong Cong Dinh where visiting singers and musicians performed and friends hung out. They soon started mixing cocktails in the Japanese style, with meticulous attention to detail, and in February he and his compatriots opened the jazz club.
Their biggest night was April 30, when Tuan Ngoc, one of Vietnam’s most recognized singers, performed for a packed house of 170 people, Bush said. Covid closed the spot for five months and businesses started to pick up in November and was brimming again in December.
Live jazz is on Saturday nights, with hopes of resuming performances on Sunday nights. The rest of the week, the club is enveloped by the rich sounds of the 1960s JBL sound system with its turntable and large cabinet speakers, and Bush’s collection of some 700 albums.
The menu features a variety of classic cocktails and several signature drinks including the most popular, Miles Smiles, named after the Miles Davis album and made with Caribbean black rum and honey syrup and then infused with oak wood smoke. The dinner menu includes carbonara pasta, Australian steak and orange glazed roasted goose breast.
The preferred clientele, Bush said, is anyone who has “a strong appreciation for the good things in life, enjoyment in life.”
“Not just jazz. You come here, you have all your senses pleased. You have good drink, you eat good food, you listen to good music, you open your eyes, you see a nice space,” Bush said. “We burn sandalwood in here to please the nose; comfortable chairs to please your ass.”
Bush opened a Coi Kissa in Saigon in November at 77-79 Ly Tu Trong in District 1.
“It’s a test for the market,” he said. “If it does well Bossa will go there.”
Details: Coi Kissa, 60 Truong Cong Dinh, 8 am-10 p.m., in the style of a classic European cafe with mosaic tile floors, dark leather armchairs and a menu featuring cocktails, waffles, salmon and steak salads and cheese plates, and coffees from Italy, Austria and Yemen. Bossa Jazz Spot opens at 6 p.m. for dinner and stays open late; cocktails range from 140,000 to 200,000 VND. The upstairs holds the Ming Mang Tonsorium, a five-chair barber shop that Bush and partners opened in November.