When you travel with a broken compass, it may no longer work but instead leads you somewhere unexpected when you meet Duong Dang, a child of the Doi Moi.

This is the first sentiment Duong Dang, a child of the Doi Moi (economic renovation) Generation, shares as she sits down, welcoming guests who enter her aptly named coffee shop, the Old Compass Cafe. Tucked away inside a 1960s apartment block, down a narrow alley of District 1, Old Compass Cafe is a hidden gem among the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City, where motorbikes zip by and the aroma of street food fills the air. A quaint establishment with well-preserved architecture of Vietnam’s with old glazed tiles, wrought-iron rickety windows, and even some of the original furniture from the 60s, mixed in with reclaimed and refurbished pieces, all thoughtfully wrapped around the coffee shop. This eclectic mix of decor is a nod to Duong’s later-background in furniture design and architecture studies, but that is not the predominant reason to visit.

At the heart of this quaint establishment lies Duong Dang, the passionate co-owner with a colorful past who has experienced first-hand the ever-changing life of what was Saigon and now calls itself Ho Chi Minh City. Duong’s journey to becoming a co-owner of one of Ho Chi Minh City’s favorite cafes is one marked by resilience, creativity, and an unwavering love for her community.

Born in the central province of Nghe An, one of Vietnam’s poorest provinces, Duong developed a deep appreciation for her city’s rich culture and heritage from a young age. Despite facing numerous challenges growing up, including financial struggles and societal expectations, and moving to Saigon as a child after facing the hardship of war, she remained determined to find the beauty and art in the nation’s history.

Her experience led Duong to be deeply involved in various community initiatives aimed at preserving Vietnam’s cultural legacy and supporting local artisans. Whether it’s organizing charity events or collaborating with grassroots organizations, she is dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of those around her and is committed to showcasing the beauty of Vietnam to travelers. Through Old Compass Café, she offers visitors a taste of authentic Vietnamese cuisine, provides a cozy, quiet place of respite amid the chaos of the city and has created a thriving hub of cultural exchange and exploration for travelers seeking an authentic experience of Vietnam.

Tucked away a quiet corner of the cafe, Duong tells her story over a cup of cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee),  bánh mì (traditional Vietnamese baguette sandwich), and with the aid of a handcrafted book that maps out not only her journey but the history of the Vietnamese people all the way back to 2800 BC.

She begins her story with what may be most well known among modern-day travelers and war veterans revisiting the country – the second Indochina War, which was initiated by conflict between Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1955 and led to the final “fall of Saigon” twenty years later in 1975. She describes the hardships of growing up in the military zone with limited food and water, digging bullets out of her garden with her two sisters, and discovering her love for reading and writing through all Russian books given to her by her father from his time in the Soviet Union.

But unlike most other tours and talks on Vietnam, she clarifies that this is merely a drop in the ocean of the complicated history of Vietnam, and turns back to the first page of her scrapbook showcasing  2879 BC, the start of the Period of Hung Kings, the founders of the nation and first monarch. She continues on, sharing little known facts and controversial tales of the centuries, from 7th Century An Nam Period – when Vietnamese started to assert their desire to rid themselves of Chinese rule, to the 17th Century of the Nguyen (Anh) Period – where many Vietnamese adopted the sought-after surname of prestige, still predominant today. 

Hearing Duong weave her story through anecdotes of traditional and modern Vietnam creates a sense of personal connection and leaves a lasting impression, as guests venture back onto the busy street and continue on the journey through this rich country, with a new perspective of Vietnam.

Ready to embark on this immersive adventure? Reach out at sales.vietnam@khiri.com

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