|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|
|cafe trung at Cafe' Pho Co|