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.


  1. Great article, Nate! I will share this on my company Facebook page. Thanks.

    Paul Jackson

  2. Useful info, but just fyi Hanoi now has a lot of coffee with different style such as
    - Align Cafe
    - Avalon Cafe
    - Cafe Giang
    - Cafe Vuon Pho Co

    they are all around Old Quarter that you can easily find.
    With special style and qualified drink, you will satisfy with these.