“They have black coffee, yogurt coffee, egg coffee! It’s so delicious, I am staying here forever! “– I wrote to my friend in Bangkok who has a cafe within his home stay.
“Egg coffee? Ewww!”– he replied.
“It’s really delicious and not some new age thing. Locals drink it! “– I tried to convince him.
“OK, can you bring me some?”
As a sworn tea lover, I decided to write a story about the Vietnamese coffee, for which I converted into a coffee worshiper.
“Coffee” street in Hanoi
Back at home everyone drinks coffee in the mornings and during breaks at work. I’d always ordered black or green tea but tea lovers know it takes time for tea to cool so sometimes I drank coffee with my colleagues, though I never enjoyed it as it made me feel nauseous. It’s important to have time to enjoy every sip as drinking tea is a ritual for me. I couldn’t achieve the same with coffee.
Then I came to Hanoi in Vietnam. It was 8 AM and raining. I lifted my backpacks and got distracted by something in the air. What was it? The aroma of fresh coffee. It filled my nostrils and sent me back to my childhood when mom used to take me and my sister to the ground coffee house, where we watched a man milling coffee while being overwhelmed by strong aroma.
Nguyen Huu Huan, on the eastern edge of the Old Quarter, is the street where I stayed for two weeks, and it is lined with cafes. Big coffee shops. Small cafes. Every morning the same routine. Vietnamese pulling chairs on the streets. Locals squeezing side by side while drinking their first morning cup. And so it would be until late evening.
„My“street is even listed as one of the best coffee places in the Lonely Planet Vietnam travel guidebook. Could I have unknowingly choose a better street for my exploration? I don’t think so!
“What do you want?”
“Just coffee. Black – like my soul.”
– Cassandra Clare, The City of Bones
Cup by cup, life continues
Hanoi’s coffee culture is amazing. Traditional and western-style cafes are dotted around the city. From chairs on the sidewalk to prestigious cafes, it was hard to choose where to sit and regardless of time, it was difficult to find a free sit. No wonder! Even locals crave for these sips of heaven. Two weeks I spent drinking coffee in many places, making up for all those bad cups at home.
Every day after lunch 56 –year old Greg and I went to find a new place for drinking coffee. This experienced traveler became my partner in crime in the „Tour de cafe“. Greg took his part seriously and became an „official“ photographer of the „coffee project“. But more than that, cup by cup, he became my best friend and teacher in Hanoi. Despite the age difference, we shared anecdotes and listened to each others concerns. He recalled the days when cities weren’t as touristy. Cup by cup, we laughed, talked about love and our families and took many photos. To sit, to order a coffee and watch the life pass by became our favorite routine.
“Oh we are so decadent!” – Greg joked when the coffee was expensive.
“But sometimes, we need to treat ourselves!” – he continued, making me laugh.
We drank coffee in many beautiful places whose names I don’t remember. But I remember the taste of each coffee. Never in my life have I so enjoyed drinking the most popular drink in the world.
In two weeks we became experts when it comes to Vietnamese black. „Oh, this one needs more hot water“, he’d say. „Less condensed milk would be better“, I would notice…
„Life’s best moments are shared over cups of great coffee“.
Condensed milk is the secret
So what’s so special about traditional Vietnamese coffee? It’s black and bitter, dark roasted and strong, but its intensity is softened with sweetened condensed milk in the bottom. And that’s the secret of success of Vietnamese black coffee (Ca phe da). Whether you drink it hot or iced, don’t drink it straight. Take your time. The classic drip method is where you watch your coffee being brewed in a single cup brewer (phin). That way your coffee is literally made drip by drip.
Coffee was introduced by French colonist and Vietnam is now second largest coffee producer in the world, after Brazil. Trung Nguyen is the largest coffee brand within Vietnam. Why Vietnamese use sweet condensed milk? Because of limitations of fresh milk! It’s sweet and I love it!
You want Robusta? Moca? Or maybe Kopi Luwak or weasel coffee? The streets of Hanoi are full of colorful shops selling coffee and they have all brands. For trying the world’s most expensive brew made of animal dropping, small cup costs 30.000 Vietnamese Dong (around $1,40). Prices of traditional Vietnamese black coffee in cafes vary from 15.000 up to 40.000 VD, depends on where you drink it.
“You need to try Highland’s coffee!” – Greg said and once took me to try one of the most expensive Vietnamese iced black coffee in Hanoi (29.000 VD).
Highlands Coffee is a Vietnamese coffee shop chain at the northern end of the Hoan Kiem Lake. There is roundabout and a giant building. Climb up to the third floor and enjoy the view. Although I thought it would be fancy, it wasn’t. If you’re a coffee lover, risk 29.000 VD. Some compare Highlands with Starbucks, but what’s wrong with having a coffee shop chain? Traditional black iced coffee was delicious and my visit was justified.
Cong Caphe cafe, decorated with Communist memorabilia and unearthly delicious coconut coffee is my number one. Comfortable armchairs and a nice balcony overlooking the bustling streets of Hanoi? What more do you need? If Hanoi was my home, I would be a regular at this cafe. It has six branches in Hanoi so try to pay at least one visit.
Then there is classic Cafe Lam, one of the oldest coffee shops in Vietnam and also in my Nguyen Huu Huan street. It differs from other cafes for paintings left behind by patrons who couldn’t afford to pay their bills during the American War.
“Prison for me is not taking away my freedom, but taking away my coffee.”
– Sotero M Lopez II
I liked Western style Ozone coffee, as well situated in Nguyen Huu Huan street. Girls working there were super sweet and prepared me the yogurt coffee. Drinking it, I think I saw pieces of paradise.
However, each local cafe is nice although not every coffee is a good coffee. If you find yourself in Hanoi and you love coffee, engage yourself in exploration and cup by cup I guarantee – you will fall for it. Not just for the coffee but for the city’s bursting energy. For the first time in my life drinking coffee didn’t make me sick and I could see what all the fuss is about! Finally I can say – I love coffee!
Photos by Ivana Hanjs and Greg from New Zealand