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Little Saigon's Café Queen

With hot drinks and even hotter girls, Natalie Nguyen is trying to uncloak the area's most enduring mystery: Vietnamese coffee shops

Little Saigon's Café Queen
Photo: Riley Kern | Model: Charlene Barnum | Photo Assistant: Genevieve Davis | H/MUA: Christine Barnum | Design: Dustin Ames

Michelle and her girls should be shivering. It just rained, and the temperature is still snugly below 60 degrees even though it's 3 in the afternoon. She, Yari, Diamy and their half-dozen or so co-workers are half-naked, wearing dark lace teddies, brightly colored lingerie with bottoms two sizes too small or flesh-colored swimsuits as they wait on customers at Café Lu in Santa Ana. Even the heater can't keep out blasts of cold every time someone enters. But there's no time to be freezing—the Vietnamese coffeehouse is buzzing.

The Café Lu girls seem to be doing what you'd expect half-naked, beautiful women to be doing on the clock: little to nothing. They play cards with customers, gossip about fashion (as well as themselves and their patrons) and check their phones, all while occasionally taking drags off e-cigarettes. But these ladies are also working their asses off, stirring cups of cà phê sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) and topping off tall glasses of frosty jasmine tea in between hands of 13, a popular Vietnamese card game in which four players take turns trying to get rid of their cards as fast as they can.

"It can be a little cold sometimes," Diamy says, sitting down momentarily to banter and top off a glass of tea. "But it's good work. I get paid twice what I normally would, and to do what? Make coffee? Pour tea?"

And with that, she's up again, checking on the other tables.

Cà phê mát me, lingerie cafés, Vietnamese coffee shops, cà phê bikini—whatever you call them, they remain the most mysterious, misunderstood feature of Little Saigon, subject of urban legends, constant police surveillance and embarrassment for assimilated Vietnamese Americans. Until recently the storefronts catered almost exclusively to older, male, mostly Vietnamese clientele. Drive down Euclid Street, the Champs-Élysées of this scene, and commuters can see at least half a dozen nestled in plazas and strip malls, bordering bakeries, Catholic churches and Buddhist temples in Santa Ana and Garden Grove.

It's a phenomenon almost exclusive to Orange County in the Vietnamese diaspora. Other major enclaves in the United States—San Jose, Seattle, Houston, San Diego, New Orleans—have only a couple, nowhere near the offerings of Little Saigon's arsenal: open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. (officially), with an army of girls fresh from high school and local colleges offering perky service and strong drinks while wearing a thong, bra and 7-inch stilettos.

Due to the nature of the uniforms and patrons, the coffee shops have been an easy target for controversy, both in the United States and abroad. But they continue to persist. In the past decade, the uniforms have gone skimpier, the waitresses have diversified, and the entrepreneurs have used the powers of social media to showcase their girls and draw in new crowds, just as traditional American bars have long done with their bartenders.

And if Café Lu owner Natalie Nguyen has it her way, the Vietnamese coffee shop is about to go national.

*    *    *

From the outside, Vietnamese coffee shops look as universally rote as Starbucks. Nearly every one features similarly large, sort-of-but-not-really tinted windows that take up the width of the property. The tint is not completely opaque, revealing a small hint of the staff inside to comply with new laws. Large, backlit marquees (usually in red, lucky and better to pierce through the night) hang over doorways. "No loitering" signs guard both the front and back of the stores, as required by law. Inside, most shops are wallpapered in flat-screen TVs showing sports and lottery numbers.

From there, though, Little Saigon offers a strata of experiences, all reflecting aspects of the Vietnamese community based on how fresh off the boat its patrons are.

On one level are places such as Café Di Vang 2 in Garden Grove, which cater to a mostly middle-aged clientele. During the early evening, customers smoke indoors, ashing their cigarettes on the ground and discarding the butts on the floor. The ceiling-mounted speakers playing tinny, underproduced Vietnamese pop music, punctuated by the occasional cover of an American classic-rock or '70s-pop song, pierce the smoke screen. As the night passes, the crowds get slightly younger, but no more American. Thumpy EDM replaces the outdated pop music. The clientele keep mainly to themselves, for the most part only interacting with waitresses when ordering. Running contrary to stereotype, the regulars here often seem more interested in homework, business deals, sports and newspapers than the girls.

During a recent night at Café Di Vang 2, patrons consoled one another over not winning the lottery. "I'm so poor right now," one man in his mid-40s said. "What I would do if I won the lottery. I'd never have to worry about anything again. I'd be set for life."

"Someone has to win," an older man replied.

Across the room, a guy in his early 30s speaks loudly into his phone: "My girlfriend hasn't gotten back to me all day."

A block down Euclid is Café M. Cutie, which caters to a slightly more American crowd. The people who go there are much younger, barely breaking their 30s, and non-Vietnamese patrons are a more common site. The place is less smoky, thanks in part to the doors that open to an outside patio and partly thanks to the fact that many patrons are using e-cigarettes. Vietnamese pop music is nearly nonexistent, replaced by R&B, EDM, and Top 40.

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My Voice Nation Help
24 comments
Noe.
Noe.

If you look below the neck, you can forget you're in Little Saigon.

thaithai
thaithai

I  like  the  Girls  but  I  dont  like  the  smell  of those cigarettes  ...

neaato
neaato

story was okay, wish went a little deeper. not bad job by writer. only critique was natalie story seemed to start too late and ended too quickly. also ending is kinda meh quote about tourists 'didn't expect this' which is probably exactly what tourists expect, a viet hooters that sells coffee lol. what did they really 'expect'? lol. i find these things novelties, i've gone w/ friends, even family/cousins once in blue moon manly as joke. i really am surprised how crazy it got from bikini to also naked and i just keep thinking, that doesn't seem too sanitary lol. like if people really wanted to see nudity, just go to a strip club lol. viets are classy and sometimes if too little or 'body paint' makes it double as tacky. hooters is tacky but family tacky, if viet coffee shops want to upgrade, they should add food and basically be like a hooters, there's enough money for everyone. coffee i guess is good idea because you can come and go and chill but until they have food and family, it will always be like an older viet man club which is fine because that's like a nice retirement home like how chinese play majong on thursdays at some chinese cultural center. if anything an outlet for older asian men w/ nothing to do. maybe the story could have been a bit more about that. the woman stories seemed kinda meh. would be interesting to see how much they made too.

JBinOC
JBinOC topcommenter

Very well-written feature by Mr. Charles Lam, who I'm sure felt like he got a kick in the head when he drew this assignment.  



Btw, Cafe M. Cutie is less smoky, but still smoky.....so I've heard 


JBinOC
JBinOC topcommenter

"...Euclid Street, the Champs-Élysées of this scene." 



LOL


dbo90275
dbo90275

I love these V girls, but they don't love me!  ;  )

sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

Womens "Sexuality" is given all positive backing



from cougars to teachers who molest middle schoolers to 50 shades of grey


but anything for the males is seen as wrong trashy etc



f the left


and thank you to ALL THE FEMALES who like men and show it 

impacfunder
impacfunder

Totally opposite as what this "pay article" say cafe lu is dead boring & empty thanks to the waitresses with no services . Most of viet cafes in OC open at 7 am-11pm. Lu is open at 11 am & sometime closed around 10 pm because the place is empty. Kinda waste times.

TheRefriedMexican
TheRefriedMexican

These skanks have zero personality. I walked in with 3 buddies and these hoes acted like they didn't want to be bothered. At least at Hooters they pretend they're interested in what we have to say, take a compliment well and laugh along. Yeah I know, you go for the visuals, I get that. Still these Cafe Lu bitches need to learn to crack at least a fake smile. No doubt pretty chinitas but terrible demeanor. Hence the $2 tip on the $50+ tab.

RAPman
RAPman

@neaatoYou should familiarize yourself with the shift key, you know -- the one that allows you to make capital letters.

FishWithoutBicycle
FishWithoutBicycle

@sweetliberty17761776 

Interesting comment considering some folks are still incredulous about the fact that women actually enjoy sex at all. And, no, I don't think it's ever ok for a teacher (male or female) to have a sexual relationship with a student...but cougars and the "50 Shades of Grey" crowd are consenting adults so that's a different animal, no?

sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

@neaato @sweetliberty17761776 


mizzzunderstood your ?


please read my response to fish orrrrr


ok what the heck:


@FishWithoutBicycle @sweetliberty17761776  



If we/ I were talking about underage then we'd have a problem


So of course we're only talking about consenting 


so my statement stands as uncontested and correct as is



AS far as "enemies" of female enjoyment


who??



boyfriends ? girlfriends? husbands?


no, they would all enjoy females enjoying themselves



IF you are talking about some religious people then why would you do that


that has little to do with it 


except in a Cosmopolitan run world meant to act like women are victims when that is not even close to the truth

sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

@FishWithoutBicycle @sweetliberty17761776 



If we/ I were talking about underage then we'd have a problem


So of course we're only talking about consenting 


so my statement stands as uncontested and correct as is



AS far as "enemies" of female enjoyment


who??



boyfriends ? girlfriends? husbands?


no, they would all enjoy females enjoying themselves



IF you are talking about some religious people then why would you do that


that has little to do with it 


except in a Cosmopolitan run world meant to act like women are victims when that is not even close to the truth

neaato
neaato

@CharlesLam@impacfundermy friends and cousins say its too packed at cafe lu since so popular and lots of mixed yellow fever crowd so they stay away. also they check on instagram and see how full it is so yea, guess you can check in real time proof or not lol

impacfunder
impacfunder

@ Charles lam, see for yrself, dude, have u check out cafe 168 yet? In case for yr lack of researches or just don't want to list new popular Cafes, cafe 168 harbor /.Westminster

FishWithoutBicycle
FishWithoutBicycle

@sweetliberty17761776@FishWithoutBicycle  

This is a complex issue...hard to sum up in a few sentences. I can only glean from my own personal experience as a woman...and it seems to me the vilification of female sexuality comes from many sources. Even now in the 21st century there are people who would consider a man who likes sex as "normal" and a woman who enjoys sex as a "nympho" or a "slut". There are still other people who cling to the ridiculous belief that no woman actually likes sex and that we all do it just to please our male partners...and, therefore, are only using our sexuality as a tool of manipulation...

neaato
neaato

@CharlesLam@impacfunder also y would anyone pay for story like this? lol they mentioned a lot of cafes not just one, if anything complaint i had was story on natalie at end seemed to late and kinda short. if she did 'pay' she got ripped off lolllll. kidding

 
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