Part 3 of 5
Saturday, 04 October 2014
I read about this cafeteria from The Gypsy Gals blog and was so intrigued by the raves of one of the bloggers that I included it in my itinerary. After my Central Post Office walk-through, I navigated my way to the L’Usine Cafeteria for lunch. The discomfort of walking under the late morning sun had started to get to me.
Et La Cafeteria de L’Usine is located along Dong Khoi, a commercially crowded street in Saigon’s financial hub, District 1, where all the upscale hotels and restaurants are located. On my way to lunch, just as I was looking up in awe at the Caravelle Hotel, I saw, really by accident, another HCMC tourist gem—the Saigon Opera House.
Now known as Municipal Theater of Ho Chi Minh City, the Saigon Opera House is another French legacy built in the early 20th century, later renovated to cater other performances such as ballet, plays and traditional Vietnamese dances. It also served as South Vietnam’s National Assembly building during the mid-1900s.
The Opera House wasn’t one of my must-see places in Saigon so after taking a few photos of it, I resumed my quest for L’Usine.
My Google map showed that after Caravelle Hotel I should be able to see L’Usine in about 200 meters, right across the Sheraton Saigon. But when I got to the supposed location of the café, not one establishment resembled a café. Shops were all over the place. I walked further down Dong Khoi almost reaching the end of the street but still no sign of L’Usine. I think I went back and forth the vicinity of the café no less than four times and still no trace of that stupid cafe. Disappointed with my navigating skills, I gave up the search and decided to have lunch in one of the restaurants across the road instead.
So crossed the road I did and when I looked back to where I came from, there it was, on the second floor of the building I was fixated in front of just moments ago. The modest gold and black L’Usine sign could be easily missed especially if you were expecting a rather eye-catching one and actually walking underneath it.
Back again on the other side of the street, I hesitantly entered the old building, passing stalls selling paintings and antique wares. The path leading to the stairwell was dark and dirty; its walls could use a major paint job. It was hard to believe there was a ‘hip café-boutique’ upstairs. The Gypsy Gals’ description of L’Usine just didn’t match the state of the building where I was. They must be mistaken.
Thou shall not judge a cafe by the building it is located in. Nor the signage that point you to its location. Not even the stairwell that leads to it.
L’Usine was chic. Hip indeed. When I went in, it was like stepping out of the decrepit Ho Chi Minh City and into this fine café/boutique/art gallery/yuppie place. There were antique pieces (telephones, clocks, eyeglasses, etc), black and white portraits all over and most important of all, high-speed wi-fi internet.
I was avidly surveying the place as the hostess sat me at a corner table-for-two, totally forgetting I was hungry and thirsty from all the walking around Saigon. A few moments later, I was handed the menu with a predominantly western offering. Of all the fancy dishes and sandwiches on the menu, I settled for a meatball spaghetti and iced lime juice.
While I almost ordered another glass of lime juice, nothing about the meatball spaghetti was noteworthy, well, except that it had bigger spaghetti strands. The taste was the same as in any restaurant that serve spaghetti, generic, microwave-heated sauce with huge meatballs and topped with parmesan cheese and herbs.
Ambiance is the best thing about L’Usine. It kind of overturned my disappointment earlier, made me feel a little accomplished that I found this vintage nook. I cannot say much about its food because I only ordered, what, the day’s lunch special and didn’t even taste their specialty. Surely they have yummier choices than my meatball spaghetti and coffee is, of course, a different story altogether. Let us not forget L’Usine also has a boutique. (Un)fortunately for me, I cannot afford a single item from their shop, not even a small notepad. For the average traveler, it is enough to window-shop at L’Usine.