Stepping into Carambola Café is like walking straight into a time machine; one is transported to a blissful era before selfie stick-toting maniacs roamed the streets, a time before the Biebs tainted our ear canals and the only thing akin to Netflix was an al fresco cinema screening in a 1950s Chevrolet.
Owned by a couple as charismatic as the venue’s décor, Do Thu Hien and Vu Huy opened Carambola Café eight years ago with no intention of operating a run-of-the-mill café – the space is in fact a direct reflection of their life’s work, passions and personalities. Both members of the pair have proud and discernible backgrounds in the world of film: Do worked for years as a costume designer on film sets and Vu is a well-known Vietnamese art director with an impressive array of films under his belt. He worked on the set of King Kong (famously filmed in the stunning area of Ninh Binh), the adaptation of iconic Graham Greene thriller, The Quiet American and also contributed to over sixty Vietnamese movies – his knowledge of the film industry is extensive to say the least.
While on film sets throughout the years, Vũ began collecting unique antique items from all over Vietnam and other countries he visited during his career. From radios to vintage film cameras and unusual props, the artefacts grew in numbers and were stored in his private studio until he and his wife decided they deserved a space to be displayed in their own right. Carambola Café became that place and the idea of having a showroom inspired them to create a mini-hub for film enthusiasts that lives and breathes the aesthetics, atmosphere and essence of romantic times long since past.
Vu has a loving penchant for francophone culture – his memories pertaining to Vietnam’s French colonial period are ones that older generations of the country can likely relate to. “20 years ago in Vietnam everyone spoke French: you would hear it in the streets and you would often hear French music in bars and restaurants too – it’s something that has gotten lost now.” Both Vu and his parents (who also come from illustrious literary and artistic backgrounds) speak French fluently, and he recalls being sung French nursery rhymes as a child. In an attempt to recover something formative to both his own history and a rather grim part of his country’s history, customers will almost exclusively hear French music from the fifties and sixties softly playing in the background of the café. Vu explains that they wanted the space to encourage people to slow down, especially the younger generations that perhaps didn’t experience film like he did growing up. “We want to salvage the romanticism of that era and encourage an appreciation for high art.”
During a time where everyone is glued to their phones and fast entertainment is wolfed down at lightning speed – the average Vietnamese person will use a smartphone or tablet for up to seven hours a day, according to a 2014 study by Common Sense Media – as such, the tranquil environment at Carambola Café is one that is very much welcomed and truly fosters creativity. Pianos and guitars are dotted around the café for anyone to pick up as they please, the numerous interior rooms of the café are homely and private enough to read or write in serendipitous peace, and often film students from the city’s universities are invited for movie screenings.
If walls could talk Carambola’s would quote movie lines from Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind – film is incorporated into every inch of the space and vintage movie posters are an integral part of both the furnishings and the menus. One of most awe-striking items on display is an old-school Ariflex camera that Vu himself used to shoot movies with from 1975 to 1995. Although the equipment is now too old to survive in a modern digital world, its legacy lives on in Carambola Café in a state of timeless glory for other film lovers to appreciate.
Vu’s father named the café after the Carambola tree that stands proudly in the middle of the outdoor area. Carambola Café is actually adjoined to Vu’s parents’ house and the tree has been a feature of the garden long before the venue came to be. The fruit from the carambola tree is one native to Vietnam and bears star-shaped fruits when in season – it’s also the key ingredient in the café’s signature cocktail. According to Do, the tree is the soul of the space, and seems to be a tribute to the country’s history of blossoming artistic ventures. With the venue a popular haunt for Vietnamese film directors, actors and producers, if you’re lucky you may even get to rub shoulders with the more artistic souls of the city during your visit.
Carambola Café is open from 7am to 11pm every day at 103 Vạn Phúc, Liễu Giai, Ba Đình, Hà Nội.