Hanoi's cafe culture
The French left more than language and religion behind in Vietnam:
there's also the habit of sitting with a view of the street, sipping strong
coffee - sometimes with croissants.
In a small room, an old woman
grins at me through the set of
blackened teeth she's
acquired through years of
chewing betel nut, and points
to a stool that's about 8
inches square and 10 inches
off the ground. She has got
to be joking. It seems I'm
expected to sit on a piece of
furniture that, if it didn't
come from a doll's house, was
clearly designed for someone
with far less generous
buttocks than mine.
But she looks like she'll stand
for no nonsense, so I follow
her instructions. Once down
there, it's not so bad. I order
a cafe den (black coffee) and
look around. Out on the
pavement, banana fritters
sizzle over a tiny stove, a
group of children spin wooden
tops while mopeds --
Vietnam's favourite form of
transport - rattle past with
the rapidity of machine-gun
fire. A rickety glass cabinet
displaying jars of
multicoloured dried fruit
stands guard at the door
while, inside, miniature chairs
and tables keep company
with a large television set
that doubles as a karaoke
machine. This is a cafe,
Vietnamese-style - chaotic,
cramped, but with coffee that
will blow your head off.
That the Vietnamese drink
the stuff at all can be put
down to the French.
Perched near the top of this
long, thin country and built
around lakes on what was
once marshland, Hanoi is more
like a large village than a
capital city. But within a small
area is a town that has
everything from the grandiose
communist architecture of Ho
Chi Minh's tomb on Ba Dinh
Square to elegant colonial
villas and medieval alleys
bulging with street markets.
It also has a healthy coffee
culture that I'm determined to
explore in all its various forms.
"Eating and Drinking Habits
and Cultural Identity" might
help. I found this
authoritative-looking tome in
bookstore near my hotel. The
chapter on Vietnamese coffee
culture proclaims that "quality
is the referent by which is
justified the market as
mediation between the
territory (of coffee) and its
imaginary or real
Right. Promptly dumping this
worthy tome in the trash can,
I head off to meet someone I
know can talk sense when it
comes to coffee. He's Jeff
Richardson, an American who,
with his Vietnamese partner,
Truong Viet Binh, runs Cafe
Moca, a busy establishment
on Nha Tho near the city
centre. "Coffee's like wine,"
he tells me over a sumptuous
cappuccino. "It's got a body
and a texture." On a mission
to produce the best coffee in
Vietnam, he has enlisted four
farmers in the south at Dalat
- whose plantations date
back to the French colonial
era - to produce beans that
he roasts and grinds back at
Cafe Moca. Seven varietal
and blended coffees are sold
over the counter while on the
menu are 16 types of coffee,
from double espresso and
cafe latte to iced versions
and even Indian spiced
coffee. Tucked behind the
ancient trees that line the
street, Cafe Moca is set in a
building with a spectacular
Sino-French interior, originally
the housing quarters of monks
and nuns. No tiny stools or
benches here, but marble
tables and generous wooden
armchairs which Jeff had
made from the building's
100-year-old teak floor
runners. With vast windows looking out on to the street, it's a good
place from which to survey the activity outside.
And there's plenty of it. We are in Hanoi's old quarter, where narrow
streets packed with fruit and vegetable markets have housed the city's
artisans and tradesmen for five centuries. Each street specialized in a
different trade and its name reflected the business conducted there.
Stumbling outside, I find the noise and movement combine with an
olfactory cocktail of incense smoke and diesel fumes to set my head
spinning. Shops spill out on to the pavement, vying for space with bird
cages and snack sellers. Plastic mannequins stare out from a clothing
store toward a brightly painted Taoist temple. Not far away, a
carpenter sleeps perched on a brick beneath a gnarled tree dripping
with creepers, his chin resting on his saw, oblivious to the chaos around
him. Giddy from the assault on my senses, I arrive at Hang Non St., at
the very heart of the old quarter. And I don't need a translator to tell
me what line of business is conducted here. This is obviously
tin-bashing street, for the noise is deafening and everywhere men and
women with small hammers are thrashing away at pieces of metal to
create everything from mirror frames to cooking pots.
In one shop, among stacks of cake tins and pastry cutters, are filters
used for making traditional Vietnamese "drip" coffee. These contraptions
consist of a saucer that sits on top of the cup and supports the filter (a
primitive piece of tin punched with holes) and a lid to keep the heat and
flavour in. The technique, I am told, is to pour a little boiling water on
the coffee and let it sit for a few minutes before adding the rest. But
whatever the correct method, "drip" is the operative word - this coffee
takes forever to brew, and experienced cafe owners get it on the go
well before their clients arrive. Nguyen Lam knows all about that. He
owns one of Hanoi's oldest cafes; on a shelf by the door sit ranks of
large glass tumblers into which the thick, dark liquid is oozing from filters
Lam is famous for having provided coffee - and often loans - to the
city's impoverished artistic community during the war. These painters
are not lacking funds today. The influences of Picasso and Matisse -
acquired at fine-art academies established by the French - and an
Oriental sense of design have made Vietnamese paintings among the
most collectible in the region.
Works by names such as Bui Xuan Phai, once a regular at Cafe Lam, sell
for thousands of dollars, and rumour has it that below the
terracotta-tiled roof of his modest cafe, Lam has an art collection now
worth a fortune.
Coffee and painting weren't the only legacies of the French. They also
found time to spread a little religion during their tenure of Indochina.
Roughly 10 per cent of Vietnamese are Catholics today and many of
them gather for evening mass at St. Joseph's Cathedral, which looks out
across a square on to Nha Tho. Inside the church, the air being churned
about by rusty ceiling fans is as heavy as the dirge-like chant coming
from the congregation. Watched over from above the altar by a statue
of Jesus painted in lurid colours, the scene could be medieval, if it
weren't for the strip lights casting a greenish glow over the
Down on Ly Thai To St., among the grand colonial buildings of the
French era, I am propelled back into the present day. Riaz Mahmood,
general manager of the Press Club, is showing me around. In spite of its
name, the place is not a club, nor is it associated with journalists. It is,
however, the smartest establishment in Hanoi, and in luxurious
armchairs in "The Library," coffee can be accompanied by one of a
selection of hand-rolled Cuban cigars.
The Press Club, a business centre with restaurants and bars in an
imposing new office building, is part of a recent phenomenon. Hotels,
restaurants and cafes sprang up in the early 1990s when Vietnam
became the hottest investment destination on the global business map.
Economic liberalization and the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on
Vietnam brought the country that fought off Chinese, French and
Americans a new kind of invader - the foreign investor.
Looking for a fast buck in what was seen as a rapidly expanding market
proved thirsty work, so bars and cafes offering soft lighting and Latin
jazz spread across the city. French villas provided the perfect setting
for these places and much of Hanoi's splendid colonial architecture has
been restored as a result. Many of the deals were done in the old
European part of town at the Metropole, the grande dame of Vietnam's
hotels, which welcomed its first guests in 1901. In its Club Bar, heads of
multinational corporations could be found discussing joint-venture
partnerships over cappuccinos brewed with coffee from Italy and
Those heady days are over. Asia's financial crisis and the bureaucratic
hurdles erected by Vietnam's aging communist leadership have seen
many foreign investors pack their bags and head for more profitable
pastures. But the cafe scene thrives. Young and trendy Vietnamese
frequent places such as Au Lac, a delightful al fresco cafe in the
courtyard of an old French villa.
Looking out on to the Metropole hotel, its superb croissants make it a
great breakfast venue. At Brother's Cafe, a Vietnamese buffet can be
eaten in a beautifully restored 19th-century Chinese house that, with a
garden at the back of the building, provides a quiet refuge from the
thousand moped horns dominating Nguyen Thai Hoc, one of Hanoi's
A couple of minutes from Brother's Cafe, is Ho Chi Minh turning in his
grave at such decadence? I visit him to find out. With guards on the
watch to prevent anyone from showing disrespect by putting their
hands in their pockets, we are marched through the vast mausoleum in
which Uncle Ho's embalmed body rests. The man who led his country to
victory over the French is looking a little yellow round the chops. Is it
the gloomy light casting a pall over his serene features or is it time for a
little attention from the embalming experts? But then perhaps all he
really needs is a strong dose of caffeine.
Well, I certainly need one. And to get it, I head off toward Lake Hoan
Kiem where, I am told, I can drink something called coffee with egg, in a
place scarcely bigger than a wardrobe. Here, in a building sandwiched
between the peaceful waters of the lake and the commercial chaos of
Hang Gai, the Giang family has been serving coffee with egg for more
than half a century.
Outside, shops that once served as tailors to locals now do a brisk
tourist trade in raw silk shirts, embroidered table linen and T-shirts
bearing the smiling face of Uncle Ho. But here in the narrow corridor
that is Cafe Giang, little has changed since the family set up shop more
than 50 years ago. A faded picture of the family hangs on one wall and
the only concession to modernity is a handful of tiny plastic tables and
chairs where once wooden tables would have stood.
Filled with trepidation, I order, and alarming visions of lumpy egg white
floating in Nescafe come to mind. But when the coffee arrives -
presented in tiny cups placed within bowls of steaming hot water - I
find my fears are unfounded. To my amazement, this vile-sounding
concoction turns out to be a delicious version of zabaglione with a shot
of Vietnamese-strength espresso at the bottom - yet another hidden
surprise in this remarkable Indochinese town.
Think You'll Try Hanoi's Cafes?
The Coffee Houses
Cafe Moca: 14-16 Nha Tho. Superb range of coffees roasted on site,
with excellent Vietnamese, European and Indian dishes.
Cafe Quyen: 46B Bat Dan. Tiny Vietnamese-style place named after the
famous actress who owns it. Displays the work of local photographer
Nguyen Huu Bao, who is often to be found in the cafe.
Brother's Cafe, 26 Nguyen Thai Hoc. In a beautifully restored Chinese
house. Offers a Vietnamese buffet in addition to great coffee and drinks
from the bar.
Ciao Cafe, 2 Hang Bai. Italian-style coffee house with cakes and
snacks. The Press Club, 59A Ly Thai To. Coffee or spirits, with Cuban
cigars in The Library, superb fusion food in The Restaurant and Italian
snacks from The Deli.
The Club Bar at the Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen. Imported Italian and
French coffees in a grand old colonial hotel.
Cafe Lam, Nguyen Huu Huan. Traditional Vietnamese coffee house
owned by the famous art collector.
Cafe Giang, Hang Gai. Tiny Vietnamese establishment specializing in
coffee with egg.
By Sarah Murray - The Montreal Gazette - December 10, 2000.