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Ngõ Nooks: Cu Xa, the Cafe That Awakens Your Childhood Self

“Where is home?” is a question that at some point has probably nagged everyone who feels caught between worlds. To the owner of a retro cafe in Hanoi’s southern Dong Da District, it’s Cu Xa.

Cu Xa Cafe takes its name from the now largely forgotten word for subsidy period apartment blocks, better known as khu tập thể. Situated on the second floor of one built in the 1970s to house the families of government clerks, the place felt immediately familiar to my friend, who had just returned home from studying in Australia. 

It was the staircase with a ramp in the middle for residents to wheel their bikes down, and the living room set-up, that looked just like her family’s in the 1990s. Then add the wooden sofas and a cabinet full of gifts and gadgets sent from relatives working or studying in the Soviet Union. The Russian doll? Tick. That red cassette player? Tick! A flowery thermos ready to treat guests to a hot cup of tea? Bingo!

Cu Xa welcomes guests with complimentary popcorn and lid eugenia tea (nước vối), a popular summer drink among Hanoians that’s brewed from the leaves and buds of vối trees that grow in and around the city. 

But the biggest surprise was yet to come. The gói tuổi thơ, or childhood combo, arrived wrapped in, to quote my friend, “this too!” — by which she meant the paper once used to decorate everything from notebooks to walls. Inside, we found what my strict mom would call a load of junk: instant noodles, jellies, gummy bears, candies, chips…all in super small sizes that would fit in a child’s hand. To my friend, they represented her long-lost guilty pleasures – snacks small enough to hide under the table and finish in time before the teacher could find out. 

Then, my friend pulled out a tiny tube and squeezed some gel that smelled like plastic onto one end of a tiny straw. As she blew into the other end, a transparent ball started to grow — like soap bubbles, but better, because these balls can be as big as your face and they don’t burst or deflate; well, unless you go into battle with them against a friend, as we did.

And we laughed, just like kids, and it didn’t feel weird or inappropriate because, depending on when you visit, there’s often plenty of noise in Cu Xa. On weekends, it’s packed with chatter and camera clicks, like any other cafe. But on weekdays, it’s a whole new world that forces even loners to take off their headphones and locate a new sound by venturing onto the terrace overlooking a busy street and two schools. In the yard of one, a group of students is rehearsing for Teacher’s Day celebrations, their choral chants pouring out of the school’s loudspeakers!

As I sit inside Cu Xa trying to get some work done, sipping cóc, or ambarella, juice from one of Hanoi teenagers’ favorite fruit snacks, the noise, activity and even dust from the street somehow feels comforting rather than disturbing. 

It’s not just the cafe, it’s the vibe of Dong Da, the cramped district far from fancy shops or the reach of an average tourist. It’s precisely because it’s so ordinary here, verging on being a bit quê, or provincial, in Hanoi’s class hierarchy of districts, that it feels like home.

And when that familiar school drum beats its final round of the day, I know it’s 5pm, and I join a sea of parents lining up outside the school gates. It’s time to go home for supper.

Cu Xa Cafe is open from 9am to 10:30pm. Find them on the second floor of Block A11, Khuong Thuong Apartments, Dong Da.

 

To sum up:

Taste: 3/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5

Lam Le strongly believes everything goes well with fish sauce and she’s learning to enjoy spicy food.

Cu Xa Cafe

Block A11, Khuong Thuong Apartments, Dong Da.

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