Ut Lanh is small. The space consists of a 20-square-metre ground floor and a tiny mezzanine, furnished with ageless tables, chairs and a cupboard — a typical southern wooden flat. Small details including floral plastic tablecloths, vases made from tin cans, framed posters, old-fashioned electric fans, an old cassette player which the background music is played through, an old box-style TV and floor tiles, which were selectively collected and arranged. Everything is designed to bring the feel of old Saigon alive.
I grew up enjoying tiny packs of pickled fruits, finger-shaped tubes of candies, pocket-sized boxes of dried beef and other favourite snacks. And now I can find them at Ut Lanh. I bought three packs of xi muoi hoa mai (sweet and sour candies) for VND10,000 and slowly enjoyed them.
Don’t come here if you are looking for modern drinks like you would get at Phuc Long or Starbucks. What you can find here are traditional Saigonese coffee and drinks. You can go for either an iced black coffee without sugar or a beautifully green pandan juice with milk. Or a salt-pickled lime is also a good choice.
What’s special about this place is that all of the traditional drinks are homemade, and priced from VND35,000. And if you’re in the mood for a beer, they also serve green and red Saigon beer for VND30,000 a bottle.
The charm of Ut Lanh doesn’t lie only in the decoration, snacks and drinks, but also in the way they take care of their clients, with a 10 percent discount for any take-away. They also pay your VND5,000 bike parking fee.
But perhaps Ut Lanh's greatest service is the ability to enjoy the slow life when you stow your phone out of sight while at the cafe.
Ut Lanh is at 283/37 Pham Ngu Lao, Q1, HCMC. Photos by Mike Palumbo