First published May 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
This post was last updated 5 years ago. Please check the comments section for possible updates, or read more on my Updates & Accuracy page.
INTRODUCTION | REVIEW | MAP | RELATED POSTS
Floating on the murky, milk tea-coloured waters of the Kenh Te Canal, separating districts 4 and 7, The Boat Cafe is one of those special places in Saigon that offer respite from the noise and chaos of the city without actually leaving it. Opened 5 years ago, The Boat Cafe (or La Ngon, to give it its real name) consists of two wooden river boats moored at right angles to the canal bank so that they protrude out into the water. The boats are furnished with tables and chairs on their upper and lower decks, with the sides open to the breeze off the canal. In a city obsessed with cafes, this one is pretty unique. (Update, July 2017: Sadly, one of the two boats mysteriously burned down, but the other is still operating as usual).
REVIEW: THE BOAT CAFE, SAIGON
Address: 22/8 Tran Xuan Soan Street, District 7, Ho Chi Minh City [MAP]
Price: 25,000-50,000vnd per drink | Open: 8am-12pm daily
View in a LARGER MAP
Tran Xuan Soan Street follows the south bank of the Kenh Te Canal, lined with squat Copper Pod trees. This road runs along the edge of Saigon’s District 7, looking back over the canal to District 4. Almost directly opposite the Hoang Anh Gia Lai 2 apartment block, The Boat Cafe (La Ngon) is at number 22/8. Nothing more than a clapboard and corrugated iron shack from the road, the signage clearly reads ‘La Ngon’, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it. A beautiful Golden Shower tree (yes, I know, it’s a funny name) droops over the shack. This is the main bar, where you order your drinks and snacks before boarding one of the boats.
Behind the shack, the two boats are moored to the canal bank, one on either side on the bar. Both vessels appear to be something between a rice barge and a river junk. They’re registered to Ben Tre, a province in the Delta famous for its coconuts, and maybe this gives a clue as to their former use: coconut barges on the Mekong River perhaps? Nowadays, however, these two wooden crafts are floating cafes. Long and slender, with the traditional painted eyes on the bow, the boats’ upper and lower decks have been converted into attractive wooden spaces where young Vietnamese come to socialize and work.
Of the two, the boat on the right, as you come in, is the nicer. Accessed at the bow via a steep wooden gangway over the (horribly polluted) water, both decks are lined with comfy chairs and sofas. The sturdy hardwood floors and ceilings are very impressive, and the upper deck (which I assume was added to the boat when it became a cafe) is decorated with palmwood pillars and walls. It’s bright, breezy, spacious and cool. Given the choice, always sit on the upper deck, because it catches the breeze and avoids the ‘river odour’ that sometimes spoils the atmosphere on the lower deck (this is only really a problem at low tide). At dusk and in the evenings, grab a table outside on the back deck, where there are sunset views downriver.
Inside, the space is adorned with potted plants and spotlights; outside, with hanging plants and lanterns illuminating the hull. When the rains sweep in over the canal (which they often do between May and October), bamboo screens are rolled down over the the sides to keep the decks (and the customers) dry. During these tropical downpours, it’s easy to imagine you’re at sea on an old Vietnamese junk. The cabins at the stern of the boat have been converted into very clean toilets on both the upper and lower decks.
Of course, one of the best things about The Boat Cafe is that it’s not (technically) on a road. Yes, you can still hear the traffic from Tran Xuan Soan Street roaring past, and you can still see the endless stream of vehicles rolling over the Kenh Te Canal Bridge; but when you’re on the boat, in the breeze, feeling the gentle tilt and drift of the the hull as it rides the soft swell created by a passing barge, you feel far removed from the rush and clamour of the city.
The light and space is a relief too: from the decks there’s a clear view along the waterway due west to District 5, and due east towards the Saigon River. Watching the river traffic pass by is also fun, and looking across the canal to the melange of rough-looking shanties, middle-class townhouses, and apartment blocks of District 4, offers a fascinating cross-section of urban living in Saigon, and the contrasting fortunes of its inhabitants.
The drinks menu is beautifully presented and offers a good range of reasonably priced beverages: 25,000-50,000vnd ($1-$2) is the average cost per drink. The coffee is pretty good, as are the fruit smoothies and fresh juices. The house speciality is nước mía (sugar cane juice), which is very refreshing on a hot and sweaty Saigon afternoon. Some snacks, such as noodles, bread and eggs, are available, too (try the bánh mì bò kho – beef stew with baguette). In general, the quality is above average for the price, which is more than can be said for some of Saigon’s other trendy cafes, where style takes precedence over quality.
One glaring flaw, however, is the absence of any alcoholic drinks. Oh, what I would give for a good gin & tonic, ice-cold beer, or glass of wine to take out onto the back deck at dusk at the end of a long day in the Big Smoke. I think there may be some licensing issue to explain this huge oversight, so perhaps things will change in the future. Music is sometimes played on board the boats, but it’s kept at a reasonable volume. And none of these issues can really distract from the qualities of The Boat Cafe. This is a great place for meeting friends or bringing a date. It would also be good for working too, were it not for the predictably unstable WiFi. However, providing you have a good 3G/4G data plan, there’s no reason you can’t ‘digital nomad’ on the decks of the Boat Cafe; I did, and do.
Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: all my content is free and all my reviews are independent. I’ve written this review because I want to: I like this cafe and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here
I’ve loved reading your insights into Saigon .. I’m 60 and travelling solo female. I’ve travelled a lot and prefer to experience authenticity not tourist traps . Love the trendy cafe etc in old apartments.. ideas of accommodation in small boutique hotel in This area? Lee
If you’re looking for cafe apartments take a look at this guide and this guide.
For hotels, there’s so much accommodation in Saigon that it’s difficult to make a specific recommendation. I would suggest using this search link and modifying the filters for area and price-range to suit your needs then browsing through the results.
Hi, I only find your post about it, google show the name like “Quan Nuoc Mia Langon” , kind of selling sugar cane, is it right?
Yes, that’s right.
Been past a couple of times lately. The ‘shack’ serving area has also gone and the area (including the remaining boat) is fenced off. The first time I went past the boat was empty and there was a random table and chair on the sidewalk next to the fence.
The second time I went past there were people drinking on the boat, and the table and chair were still there…. because they’re the steps to get over the fence!
Think I’ve mentioned elsewhere but the nuoc mia is Indeed very good – and sizeable – especially the flavoured ones.
Thanks for the update. I saw the boat from the bridge last week but couldn’t see what was going on down there. I hope it stays open a bit longer.
Thank u for ur blog! Im going to Vietnam at the end of the week and all of ur articles will Be helpfull.
I like how u write, morevorer your posts are complete: all we have to know is written, there are pictures, map, ect.
I read u since six months, and i love it !
Continue like this ! Im sur that So much people agree with me.
Thank you very much, it’s great to hear that you’re enjoying my site. I hope you enjoy your stay in Vietnam and visit lots of interesting places.
Tom I just have to congratulate you on your always insightful stories. I life part-time in Hanoi and enjoy tremendously your suggestions. Thank you for putting them up . Next time you are in Hanoi checkout Lộc Vàng Cafe – Đường Ven Hồ…
As far as I could gather with my limited communication skills Lộc Vàng is the Vietnamese Bohemian , Singer . With a huge following . At my visit the performance was canceled do to rain, but my friend who took me there was addemant about the importance of this gentlemen. Thanks again Jurgen
Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll definitely try to check it out next time I’m in Hanoi, which will probably be in the autumn. Sounds very interesting.
Thought i’s add a few extra bits of info. First they do have Beer. It’s not on the menu but you can get tigers. Secondly the nicer boat is a new acquisition in January I believe. Before it was just one. Be prepared to order at the counter on the street and get there early in the evening if you want a back terrace table.
Yes, thanks. Great that you got a beer – some friends of mine were also served beer, but when I asked the owner, the answer was categorically no, so it’s good to hear they are, in fact, available, at least in some cases.
The new boat has been there at least since August but I don’t know when exactly it was opened. I do mention ordering at the counter in my review, and yes you’re right, those tables outside at the back are popular.
How are you doing?
Just went to check out this place. Great discovery. Love it now it rains. Makes it extra atmospheric. Sitting on the right boat. Probably the best one indeed. Coffee is good. Thanks for the tip and keep up the good work!!
Have a great Sunday!
Thanks. I’m glad you like the cafe. Yes, it’s very atmospheric on the boat when it’s raining 🙂