Grounded for Life

The rise and fall of arguably the city’s most unique cafe

Cafe Boeing (Café May Bay or Airplane Cafe) on 117 Hong Ha Street closed down permanently three months ago when its lease expired. In a strange turn of events, the reason for its closure was also what made the café so popular. In the last two years, the cafe had been heavily featured in the Vietnamese press because smack dab in the middle of it was the first and only Boeing 707 (also called VN-A394) in Vietnam, the star attraction at this unique cafe for almost three decades. Customers could have a ca phe sua da under the wing of a 145-feet long derelict jetliner. Even the mile high club couldn’t beat that for novelty.

However, the onslaught of social media coverage resulting in a large numbers of visitors did not bode well for Pham Duc, the owner.

Boeing Cafe by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

“I can’t afford her anymore,” says Duc over a phone interview. “We had been selling cups at street price for the past 10 years, but the rent kept rising. We were getting too popular
for our own good.” Cafe Boeing had been a local favorite since its debut in the mid 1980s.

“Most came for the airplane, not the coffee. We didn’t actually make much from it, but it looked like we were raking in cash. So they decided to raise the rent. Many cafes also opened up on this street and sold at half my price. Of course they didn’t have to pay the rent rate I did. Eventually I had to give her up.”

“It’s kind of ironic,” he adds. “I started my cafe with her, and now she’s the one who ended it. Thirty years. Just like that.”

The history of the airplane itself is shrouded in mystery. Few know with complete certainty just where it came from and exactly what happened to it. According to Phan Tuong, former president of Southern Vietnam Air, the VN-A394 was the property of Pan Am before 1975 and was stranded in Hong Kong during the period of the American War. After failed attempts at trying to retrieve the plane in 1975, a three-way agreement between the US, Vietnam and Pan Am was reached. Vietnam was to open its airspace to American civilian flights in return for Pan Am ceasing its recollection attempts on the VN-A394. The plane was then flown from Hong Kong to Hanoi, and then from Hanoi to Saigon. That became its last flight as it quickly became apparent that the maintenance of the VN-A394 was too costly.

Boeing Cafe by Quinn Ryan Mattingly (2)

The VN-A394 eventually fell into disuse and was taken out of operation. It was then gutted for the machinery inside and the chassis towed to the HCMC Flight Training Center yard. To maximize the plane’s usage, the center’s management office decided to rent it out to Duc as a cafeteria and instant photo service.

Other accounts claim that the VN-A394 had been in Vietnam well before 1975, was damaged during the reunification period and was found abandoned halfway out of a flight track in Tan Son Nhat airport where it was then towed to the HCMC Flight Training Center yard.

The airplane’s future is still unknown. There have been talks of restoring it to its original condition and turning it into a tourist attraction. It still sits where it has been for the past 30 years and can now only be seen from outside the fence. But one thing is certain, this bird will never fly again.

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2 thoughts on “Grounded for Life”

  1. The following is the history of this aircraft per our records:
    Rolled out on 6 Jul. 1960, first flew on 9 Aug. 1960 and delivered as ZS-CKD to South African Airways, named “Capetown” on 22 Aug. 1960. Reregistered ZS-SAB in 1968, also to South African Airways. Sold to British Midland Airways 27 Jul. 1977 and to International Air Leases in Nov. 1977.
    Sold to Guinness Peat Aviation EI-BFU on 24 Oct. 1978 with Irish CofA in private category granted on temporary basis for ferry flight only. One of two ex SAA 707-320s acquired by Batch Air of Miami, EI-BFU arrived in Shannon on 24 Oct. 1978, departing again on 27 Oct. 1978. It routed via Bangkok for lease by GPA to Hang Kong Vietnam on five year lease; registered VN-A304. WFU and stored Ho Chi Minh City, Mar. 1980. Letter and photograph in Air International of Jun 1993 (page 319) describe the aircraft as being the home of a cafe owner at Tan Son Nhat Airport, Ho Chi Minh City; author of letter describes first seeing the aircraft there in 1985 bur could have been there earlier.
    Paul Cunniffe, Editor, Irish Air Letter


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