Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Wobbly bicycles laden with wares; fluid stream of overloaded bikes and chatty locals – there’s a buzz in Hanoi that’s distinctly Vietnamese. And it doesn’t take me long to discover the secret to the kinetic energy that has transformed the city into a South East Asian hotspot in the last few decades.
Jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, I stumble into a typical airport outpost of a coffee chain as soon as I land at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport. I order the classic Vietnamese coffee ca phe sua da that literally translates to ‘coffee, milk and ice’. I’ve conquered demitasses of rich, strong Turkish espresso, drunk my way across Italy and even hoarded a packet of single-origin Jamaican Blue Mountain for months. But the brain-joltingly strong brew of ca phe sua da is nothing like anything I’ve had before. It doesn’t take long for the cloying sweetness to transform into an addictive sweet buzz. I am obsessed.
Asia is predominantly a tea-drinking continent, but Vietnam loves its coffee almost as much as Italy. Prior to the Vietnam War (or the American War as the locals refer to the conflict that decimated the country), Vietnam was one of the world’s key players in coffee production. It’s taken the country a few decades after the war to claw back to a world number-two position.
The French introduced coffee to this part of the world in the late 19th century. Plantations flourished in the central highlands that border southern Laos and eastern Cambodia. The lack of fresh milk forced the French to add condensed milk. History books may only remember the disastrous reign of French colonists in Indo-China for 50 years of famine and strife. But Vietnam retains some happy legacies: tree-lined boulevards, baguettes and, of course, great coffee.
Vietnamese coffee is brewed in individual portions using a French drip filter (called a phin). Hot water is poured over coarsely ground beans in a phin and covered with a thin lid. The resulting brew collected in the glass below is then mixed with sweetened condensed milk.
In Hanoi, coffee is also served with curd, coconut milk, eggs and as smoothies, with banana and avocado .
For serious coffee drinkers, the addition of condensed milk might seem like sacrilege, but it’s the only way to enjoy this dark, strong brew. In the north, this drink is called ca phe nau (brown coffee), while down south it’s known as ca phe sua (milk coffee). Coffee then is served on the rocks; the art is to stir fast enough to mix all the milk without any ice melting.
Four standard coffee drinks that all cafés serve are ca phe den nong (hot black coffee), ca phe den da (iced black coffee), ca phe sua nong (hot coffee with milk) and ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk). Besides these, coffee is also served with curd, coconut milk, eggs and as smoothies with banana and avocado. Yogurt coffee even comes with toppings of fresh fruits like mango or fermented rice.
For the truly adventurous, there is the infamous ca phe chon (weasel coffee) that’s similar to the Indonesian Kopi Luwak (civet coffee). The best beans from each crop are fed to weasels. Their digestive enzymes ferment the beans and strip much of their harsh flavours. These beans, then harvested from the faeces, result in a coffee that’s smoother and richer in flavour. I try a cup of ca phe chon at Café Trung Nyuyen, the Vietnamese equivalent of Starbucks, and am left underwhelmed. The brew is definitely smooth and rich but there’s a faint musky aftertaste that isn’t pleasant.
Coffee culture is a well-entrenched part of Vietnamese life. And it comes with its own rules. Coffee shops typically don’t serve food. Some newer and more tourist-friendly ones might have an odd cake or muffin to offer. If you are really hungry, either eat before heading for coffee or nibble on hat huong duong (sunflower seeds). The beverage comes in small portions –– no Tall, Grande or Venti here. Also, coffee is never a takeaway. You sit on a plastic stool so low you are barely hovering over the ground, and watch the coffee brew into your glass. The whole ritual is almost zen-like, a contrast to the frenzied streets.
In the winding streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, there are coffee vendors in all forms and at every corner. While local chains like Trung Nguyen and Highlands are becoming popular with local millennials, homogenous international coffee chains are yet to make a mark on these shores. It’s the quirky independent coffee shops that are the hidden gems of Hanoi.
On a busy stretch of Hang Gai on the edge of the Old Quarter, is Ca Phe Pho Co. Notoriously hard to find, the locals refer to it as the secret café. A long and narrow passageway between a silk shop and a t-shirt stall leads to a charmingly crumbling mansion of a former merchant. In the courtyard, fat cats meander between bonsais, stone Buddha statues and ceramic artefacts. Hanging on the walls are cages of ornamental Japanese pigeons and weathered silk paintings.
I place my order at the counter before climbing up three flights to the terrace that offers spectacular views of Hoan Kiem Lake. Ca Phe Pho Co is best known for its egg coffee or ca phe trung da. Eggs and condensed milk are churned together and the resulting silky-smooth froth floats atop bold and rich Vietnamese coffee.
Art of payment
As with most things in Hanoi, the best places are found on the street. Café Lam on Nguyen Huu Huan Street is an important part of Hanoi’s history. One of the oldest cafés in Old Quarter, the walls of the dingy one-room establishment are lined with paintings, left behind in lieu of payment by impoverished regulars during the American War. Not much seems to have changed since. The room holds about a dozen people. And everyone is smoking. Through the haze of smoke, I admire the oils, watercolours, sketches, and abstracts on the wall before sitting outside on the street to drink my coffee.
With multiple franchises all over the city, Hanoi’s hippest café Cong Caphe is hoping to rival Trung Nguyen. My favourite among the branches is the outpost opposite St Joseph’s Cathedral for its pretty view. With exposed brick walls, reclaimed wood furniture, propaganda posters and other relics from the American War, the café is very Instagram-worthy. Cong Caphe’s menu features everything from coffee to beer, but the stand out is the decadent coconut frozen yogurt coffee smoothie.
In Hanoi, eye-popping cups of dark black chocolatey goodness come in myriad forms, in cafés of all shapes and sizes. If you love coffee, just take your pick – you can’t go wrong.
- For upmarket ice cream in the most original flavours in Hanoi visit the arty Fanny’s Ice Cream. The French-owned ice cream parlour is on 48 Le Thai To (Source: Conde Nast Traveller)
- Those who love to read must check out Thang Long one of the biggest bookshops in town (Source: Lonely Planet)
- Marvel Restaurant is one of the best in Hanoi and recommended for Vietnamese cuisine (Source: TripAdvisor)
From HT Brunch, May 21, 2017
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