One of the most enduring images of Japanese pop culture in the past few years is that of the maid café, where customers are served by waitresses with personalities to match the careful craftsmanship of their cute, frill-covered outfits. Maid cafes have become something of a cultural export, popping up in the U.S., Canada, and, as RocketNews24 previously showcased, Russia. The phenomenon has also reached Southeast Asia, as showcased by reporters from website Post Seven who recently visited a maid café in Vietnam.
The café is located in Ho Chi Minh City, in an area outside of the main entertainment district that sees few foreign tourists. Up a flight of stairs in a run-down, concrete apartment building, awaiting visitors beyond a cream-colored door, is a bright and flowery maid café.
Opened in March of this year, the name of the café is “The Other Person,” with the equivalent Japanese “Betsu no Hito” also featured prominently in its logo. “We wanted to create a space where Vietnamese fans of Ghibli movies and anime in general could gather,” says the café’s owner, a slender 22-year-old Vietnamese woman with blond hair who goes by the name “Gray.”
▼ The Other Person’s owner, Gray
Ho Chi Minh City also has a Japanese-managed maid café, but The Other Person is the country’s first that is Vietnamese-owned and run. Gray grew up loving the anime videos that her parents bought for her and casually peppered her conversations with terms like “otaku” and “BL” (short for boys’ love, referring to anime and manga comics focusing on male homosexual relationships). She has an especially soft spot for Studio Ghibli’s feature films. “Ghibli’s films are designed as an extension of reality, so I can get into them in a way I can’t with a completely imaginary world,” Gray explains.
The lower floor of the two-storey café takes a girlish approach with waitresses in maid costumes and dessert-themed sofas. Overlooking this is a loft where customers are served by staff members dressed in butler uniforms, which, along with the maids,’ are designed by Gray and produced by local tailors and seamstresses.
Of note is that even the café’s “butlers” are women. “All of our workers are women,” says Grace, who sometimes dons a butler costume herself. “A lot of anime fans in Vietnam are girls, so I thought having an all female staff would make them feel more comfortable when they come.”
The café’s interior decorations are also designed by Gray herself, using the skills she learned at art school. Attesting to her love of Ghibli is the giant stuffed Totoro on the upper floor, which stands near seats modeled after the Cat Bus from the same film.
Post Seven’s reporters visited two months after The Other Person’s opening, and found the café almost completely full with anime fans and high school students. The secret to the café’s success is its unique services that separate it from a standard Japanese maid café. Customers earn points by ordering drinks and food, rising in levels like characters in a video game. There are 10 levels in total, starting somewhat counter-intuitively with “Master” and culminating with the rather fitting “Emperor.” Upon reaching Emperor status, customers unlock special perks such as being allowed to freely take pictures inside the café. What really inspires patrons to climb to the top of the café’s frilly ladder of promotion is having the maid of their choice provide exclusive service to him or her when visiting while wearing a collar with the Emperor’s name printed on a tag hanging from it.
The Other Person puts out no advertisements, instead relying on word of mouth to draw in new customers. It’s been featured in local media and built a strong reputation in the city’s fan community, with a few customers already reaching emperor class. “I really want anime fans to come to our cafe,” says Gray. “I’d be thrilled if we get visitors from Japan someday, too.”