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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 the English-language 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 representation."

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 above.

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 proceedings. 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 France. 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 busiest streets.

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.