The little cafe had only plastic stools to sit on; I remember them being quite near to the ground and it felt more like I was squatting than sitting. Hunched in such a way I examined my first cup of Vietnamese coffee. It was brought out with a smile by a young waitress and placed before me in a casual way as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I did not agree with this notion.
There was a bowl full of hot water. In the bowl was a small glass with condensed milk on the bottom; it was wearing a tiny metal hat. I soon observed that the hat, or phin, was actually a filter as there was a dark oil like substance leaking from the bottom of it. I remember thinking that it must be broken, because even after five minutes it still contained some hot water. I kept poking at it and eventually the waitress, giggling to herself, removed it for me. I mixed what now looked like a shot of espresso with the condensed milk and took my first sip of Vietnamese coffee. It was divine: sweet and strong enough to cut through my extreme jet lag and help me get on with my explorations.
Sitting with Lê Xuân Hoàng in his coffee shop near the Red River, watching my coffee slowly filter through the phin. Hoàng's coffee shop is located on a busy street near a committee building (No 3 Bờ Sông Quán Hoa Street). He said he owes much of his successful businesses to it's location.
"I think people have some good reasons for coming to my shop. Some just want to drink coffee. Some find a place to sit. Some have a date with their friends. A lot of reasons for drinking coffee. But I think the main reason is the quality of my coffee," Hoang explained why his shop has become popular.
He said his coffee is a mix of three different brands of coffee: two from Nha Trang with the Trung Nguyên, the most popular in Việt Nam. The Trung Nguyên is strictly for aroma and the other two are to make it strong, which it definitely is.
Hoàng is convinced that not many people can really taste the difference between good and bad coffee, but fancies himself a connoisseur. He limits himself to one cup a day though in order to control his coffee habit.
Vietnamese coffee distinguishes itself from its western counterparts in three ways. It is roasted with butter oil, which coats the beans and protects them from burning during the process. In this way they can produce dark beans similar to a French Roast. Another difference is that they don't use 100% Aribica beans as is the trend in much of the west. They usual do a blend of 70% Aribica and 30% Robusta, which makes the coffee a bit stronger and for many makes it a unique drinking experience--nostalgic almost, like this is how coffee once tasted long ago. The third difference is the unique varietals that can be planted in Việt Nam's diverse landscapes. Among them are Arabica (and an "indigenous" Sparrow, or Se, Arabica), Robusta, Excelsa (sometimes called Chari), Liberica, Catimor and others.
The brewing method itself is also quite unique. Coffee was introduced to Việt Nam in the late 18th century by Dutch and French colonialists. Supposedly, the introduction of condensed milk was due to the difficulty in keeping fresh milk in the tropical climate but has since become a matter of preference. The phin, or metal filter, has disputed origins and though they are seen in other places in South East Asia, no one can quite agree where they come from.
It may come as a surprise but Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee beans coming just after Brazil. Until rather recently they were only producing rather low quality beans for mass consumption, but as more money comes to the country they are specializing in higher quality beans. As the coffee shop owner Hoàn explained to me, twenty years ago there were barely any coffee shop in Hà Nội, now he reckons there are over two thousand.
One of the oldest coffee shops in Hà Nội is Lâm Cafe, located on Nguyễn Hữu Huân street in the Old Quarter. It's the full of old men wearing barrettes and smoking. Through the haze of smoke though, it's hard to ignore the walls covered completely in paintings from various decades. The story is that before the coffee shop became famous many starving artists would come hang out there. They would exchange their latest works for credit and drink coffee for free until it was time to create another one. This exchange did two things for Lâm Cafe: it was able to adorn itself with countless paintings that are now worth quite a bit of money and created an atmosphere where artists and intellectuals could hang out. An atmosphere that still seems to exist to this day. It was hard to ignore a man next to me who was doing a rendering of one of the paintings on his iPad.
Cafe culture here is just as varied as in the west. From old Lâm Cafe to new coffee shops with lavish couches for young couples on a date. Many however are simply done in people’s houses, which they furnish with a few plastic stools and open to the public. In such operations the costs are very low as it's usually family members who work there or employees from the countryside who are paid a pittance. According to Hoàng, though, these operations rarely make much money. "If you want to be a success in your coffee business. You have to have something special. Maybe about quality, maybe about atmosphere. Maybe about you. You are friendly and they want to see you." Surely Hoàng is a friendly man who had to excuse himself several times during the interview to make small talk with his patrons.
One popular cafe in Hà Nội has a rather interesting gimmick. It is Phố Cổ Café, called "The Hidden Cafe" by most Westerners (11Hàng Gai Street). If one hasn't heard about the cafe it would be almost impossible to spot as one needs to go through a souvenir shop to find the cafe. Indeed I had to stop at several such shops before finding the windy path that led to the old cafe with a bonsai garden and winding staircase that leads to one of the best views of Hoàn Kiếm Lake in the centre of the city. Phố Cổ Café is also famous for it's trứng cafe (egg coffee), which is typical Vietnamese drink topped with froth almost like a meringue.
As described in the beginning of this post, Vietnamese coffee does take quite a while to brew and filter and no one at the coffee is in the rush. Indeed, many people hang out there for hours slowly sipping coffee and chatting with friends with the passage of time. It's a distinctive feature of Việt Nam where people like to enjoy themselves rushing from place to place with a large paper cup of coffee.
By Nathan J. Beyerlein