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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.

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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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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