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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

Down another block, Café Dien Anh, which exclusively attracts old Vietnamese men, doesn't even attempt to be hip or assimilatory. There's no moody, club-like lighting; the fluorescents are on full, illuminating every speck of ash. Cai luong, Vietnamese folk opera, plays quietly in the background. The café is like a pho restaurant without a kitchen, complete with spartan flooring and rows of small, two-person tables arranged in a rough grid.

Café Lu sits on the outskirts of both Little Saigon and the Vietnamese café galaxy. It attracts a much younger, less Vietnamese crowd. The windows are mirrored, not tinted, and there's no smoking allowed, by order of the owner. Unlike other such cafés, it also sells actual food—snacks that you'd expect to find at Cha for Tea or Tastea. Though the clientele is still heavily male, the occasional woman or two can be found inside. Even the music is different, a little moodier, sultrier—Lana Del Rey takes the place of Paris By Night.

If there's one thing all of these shops have in common, it's that the girls working there are attractive and know exactly what they're doing: acting as eye candy for men who could be their uncles, fathers or even grandfathers.

Prepping the coffee
Austen Risolvato
Prepping the coffee
Natalie (in a Green shirt), the girls and a lucky raffle winner
Austen Risolvato
Natalie (in a Green shirt), the girls and a lucky raffle winner

Diamy, a slim, buxom Vietnamese-American in her early 20s, has been working in coffee shops for five years, her time split between half a dozen different operations across Little Saigon. At Café Lu, she's wearing a matching pair of bra and panties, their dark blue contrasting against her light skin. She's a consummate professional, playing cards and batting eyelashes. She moves between tables effortlessly, joining and leaving conversations with a smile and a pitcher of tea in hand.

But it hasn't always been this way. Growing up in the United States after leaving Saigon in fourth grade, she couldn't even imagine working in a coffee shop until the pay—and a tiny bit of curiosity—drew her in.

"A normal girl wouldn't want to work here," Diamy admits. "A lot of people think really bad things about us, and I used to be one of those people, too. But I was looking for something to do, and my brother mentioned that it wasn't that bad. I found out how much I could make, and from then on, I looked at it a little differently.

"I like working here," she continues. "It's easy, and I get along with my boss well. She's more like a friend than a boss."

Working only 15 hours per week spread over five shifts, Diamy spends the rest of her time the way any other American girl would: going out with friends, having fun . . . and doing the rare photo shoot. Despite her five years in the business, she plans to one day leave the coffee shops. "I'm going to sponsor my mom to come here soon," says Diamy, whose mom still lives near Saigon. "She's going to sell a few of her houses over there and open a nail salon here. I'm going to help her out with that."

Yari, a two-year veteran of the business, has been at Café Lu for a month. One of several non-Vietnamese girls (she's Latina), she occasionally greets Mexican guests in Spanish. She says she enjoys the relationships that come out of her work. "A lot of the girls are really close," she says, gesturing to a white coffee girl in the kitchen. "I've stayed at her house.

"Talking with the customers is nice," she continues. "You get to know people. You develop a following. The regulars follow you on Instagram; they're almost more like friends than customers."

Michelle, a slim Vietnamese American server with tattoos inked in Gothic font over her shoulder and ribs, has been working at coffee shops for five months—shorter than the longest-serving girls, but longer than many others. She started at Café Lu only two weeks ago, upset at the nonexistent shifts she received at other shops.

"At my old place, they'd only give me one shift a week, and sometimes they'd dock my pay if I was too late," Michelle says. "I came here, and they gave me a bunch of shifts right away. I'm thinking about leaving [the others] and working here exclusively."

Today, she's wearing a two-tone outfit consisting of a black bottom with a flesh-colored top. "Soon, I'm going to start my own clothing line," she says, getting up to fill someone else's tea.

"Street wear?" someone asks.

She smiles. "How'd you know?"

Michelle checks on her tables before sitting back down between a reporter and a group of four young, well-dressed Asian men playing 13. They all perk up as she joins them.

"Where are you from?" one of them asks cloyingly. "Are you from down here? You look familiar. Have I seen you in LA before?"

The guy sitting directly between the two shows Michelle his hand and asks, "What should I play next?"

Michelle takes a look at the cards.

"I look familiar?" Michelle asks.

The friends joke, each trying to one-up the masculinity of the others in front of her.

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