Saturday, January 21, 2012

Coffee Culture in Hanoi

the old and the young at Cafe Lâm 

My first morning in Vietnam I was extremely jet lagged after a twenty hour journey from Chicago.  I stumbled blurry eyed down the streets of the backpacker district and hopped into the first cafe I could find and ordered a coffee.  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 Le Xuan Hoang at his coffee shop near the Red River, watching my coffee slowly filter through the phin,  I'm reminded of that first cup.  Hoang's cafe is located on a busy street near a committee building (No 3 Bo Song Quan Hoa Street).  He says he owes much of his cafe's success to it's location, as many patrons come to his cafe on business.  "I think umm people to drink coffee they have some reason.  Some people they want to drink coffee.  Some people they want a place to sit.  Some young people they want a place to be with their friends.  A lot of reasons for drinking coffee. But for my place, my shop, it's about the quality of the coffee,"  Hoang says explaining the real reason for his shop's popularity.

He uses a blend of three coffees: two types of beans from Nha Trang mixed with Trung Nguyen, the most popular brand of coffee in Vietnam.  He explains that the Trung Nguyen is strictly for aroma and that the other two are to make it strong, which it definitely is.  Hoang 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 Vietnam's diverse landscapes.  Among them are Arabica (and an "indigenous" Sparrow, or Se, Arabica), Robusta, Excelsa (sometimes called Chari), Liberica, Catimor and others.

through the souveir shop, the hidden cafe

The brewing method itself is also quite unique.  Coffee was introduced to Vietnam in the late 18th century by Dutch and French colonizers  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 after Brazil.  Until 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 Hoan explained to me, twenty years ago there were barely any cafes in Hanoi, now he reckons there are over two thousand.

One of the oldest coffee shops in Hanoi is Cafe Lâm, located on Nguyen Huu Huan 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 Cafe Lâm: 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 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 unique cafes like Lâm cafe to expensive cafes with lavish couches where young couples go on dates.  Many however are simply done in peoples 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 Hoang, though, these operations rarely make much money.  "If you want to be a success in your coffee business.  You have to have some special thing.  Make some difference to other.  Maybe about quality, maybe about atmosphere.  Maybe because of you.  You are friendly and they want to see you," and Hoang surely is a friendly man who had to excuse himself several times during the interview to make small talk with his patrons.

cafe trung at Cafe' Pho Co

One popular cafe in Hanoi has a rather interesting gimmick.  It is Café Pho Co, called "The Hidden Cafe" by most Westerners (11Hang Gai Street).  If one hasn't heard about the cafe it would be near 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 Hoan Kiem Lake the city has to offer.  Café Pho Co is also famous for its cafe trung (egg coffee), which is the typical Vietnamese coffee topped with a sweet 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 shops seem particularly rushed.  Indeed, many people hang out at them for hours slowly sipping and chatting with friends as the world passes by.  It's a distinctive feature of Vietnam, this savoring of the joys of life instead of rushing from place to place with a large paper cup.  Like the coffee itself this attitude takes some getting used to, but after you try it you soon find yourself addicted.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Story of Whitehead Camp

Without a good news source it’s easy not to think about many of the darker sides to Vietnam—past and present. Every country has its own dark history, but to ignore it completely is to rob people of their life stories. On a hunt for a story that could widen my view of Vietnam and its people I was led to the protagonist of this week’s blog: a twenty eight year old man who grew up in Whitehead, a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Due to the political nature of this tale, he has expressed a desire to remain nameless and will be referred to in this article as Anh.

With the rise of the new communist government in the late seventies came a troubling period in Vietnam that included reeducation camps for those who had supported the old government in the south and a fearful time for any families who may have aided either the French or Americans in any way during the wars. Many families fled the country to seek refuge. They are commonly referred to as “Boat People”.

Anh comes from a formerly well-to-do family. They lived in what he described as a villa in the seaside town of Hai Phong. Anh’s father is a Christian and, under the new government, was not allowed to pursue his dream of studying music at Hai Phong’s music university. The rising tension of the new government led Anh’s aunt and uncle to leave the country in the early 80’s when they still had some wealth. They headed to England where they remain to this day. For a number of reasons Anh’s family remained in Vietnam hoping the situation would get better. In 1983, however, they were left with no alternative but to embark on a boat journey. The figures vary dramatically from source to source, but it is estimated that there were roughly two million “boat people” and that five hundred thousand of them perished in their attempts at finding asylum. 

Many of these boats, not really sea worthy vessels, headed for major shipping routes hoping to be taken aboard freighters. They risked being attacked by pirates or stranded at sea; those that did make it to other countries were often sent back. Anh’s family made it to Hong Kong, which had declared itself a “port of asylum”. They were immediately sent to Whitehead camp.

Whitehead was located near Tolo Harbour, a remote coastal area in Hong Kong. The camp was, for the most part, a prison that housed around twenty thousand refugees like Anh and his family. It was a colorless mass of two story concrete buildings surrounded by a large metal fence with barbed wire rings curling along the top of it. According to Anh each building housed one hundred and fifty to two hundred people on tri-level bunk beds. When they arrived at Whitehead, Anh was five years old.

There was little to do in the camp, Anh explained to me. There was no work to be done and even the meals they received were precooked. It was a sort of glum existence, Anh played football on the streets and went to a school that was taught by people from the camp with no formal teaching background. He said there were only a handful of times that he was allowed to leave the camp, usually on school field trips. Besides that his existence was limited to life within his specific camp. The only animals he remembers seeing before he was fourteen were rats and police dogs.

As is human nature, the extreme insulation of the camp produced a number of gangsters who, though the resources were pitifully small, wanted to have the best for themselves. The early days were the most dangerous with many people battling it out for power. They sharpened the metal supports their bunk beds and used them as knives. Anh remembers the stories of the many deaths during that time period. If the lights went out in any of the rooms in the building it meant trouble. Since the refugees didn’t have control over the power supply, a lone dark room insinuated that the light had been purposefully sabotaged for ill purposes.

Eventually things settled down as certain gangsters came to control each camp. Anh’s compound had a tall slim gangster named Dhong who was always surrounded by a large crowd of thugs. Anh told me that when Dhong eventually returned to Vietnam he was soon murdered. One can assume the murder to be related to his cruel treatment of many of the families in the compound; revenge.

As time went by many of the inhabitants of the camp were interviewed to see whether Hong Kong would be willing to release them from Whitehead. Anh’s father told them of their struggles as Christians and about their wealth and villa being taken from them. “They (the interviewers) said his story was ‘too true to believe,” Anh said.

Anh’s father failed the interview and the family remained at Whitehead until 1997 when Hong Kong was handed back over to China. At that time they were forcibly removed from the camp and sent back to Vietnam. He told me he was literally brought out by two guards with their hands firmly dug into his shoulders.

The UNHCR’s Refugee Magazine reports that many of those who voluntarily repatriated by 1996 received financial assistance from the Vietnamese government; those who waited were assured only of their safety. August of 1996 saw the 50,000th Vietnamese person voluntarily reentering the country. There was much pomp and circumstance to celebrate the event, which was overshadowed when one of the 310 returnees aboard the aircraft attempted to flee. He tried hopping the fence of the Hong Kong airport, which forced the question: how voluntarily were these people returning?

Anh was fourteen years old when he came back to Vietnam. Luckily his family still had some connections and was spared the degradation of many of the returnees whose daughters were forced into unhappy marriages or whose children were forced into whatever jobs they could get to survive. Anh described that his greatest excitement upon returning was his cousin’s bicycle. “It was just a small metal bicycle but I drove it everywhere,” he said talking of his endless cycling journeys in an unfenced environment.

Anh was also lucky that he was still young enough to attend school when he returned. He remembers studying hard and at one point in High School being faced with an exam that would determine whether he could go to university or if he’d be forced into the military. He passed and studied English in Hai Phong. He lives a happy life now with a beautiful girlfriend and a stable job. His father, on the other hand, no longer plays music. The part of himself, I suppose, that didn’t survive Whitehead.