The main streets of Hanoi revolve around speed. The large arteries clogged with traffic and action somehow ebb and flow with a dizzying lightness, a blur of motorcycles, rickshaws and pedestrians zooming around in between. The smaller veins are still calm, occasionally a cyclist passes by and in the small park on the corner, men are lifting weights and twisting their bodies around inventive contraptions for all to share. Between the calm and the chaos are the safe havens from where you can watch it all, in the coffeehouses of Hanoi.
Dotted around town, there are the traditional ones with plastered walls and plastic stools with a side of brusque service. The ones where you down your caffeine hit and go, paying the grumpy owner before he grunts at you with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, daring anyone to say a word to him. The one which sort of terrifies you and fascinates you at the same time, the one that you want to come back to, because the coffee is that good.
There are the ones with a view over the rooftops and lakes of Hanoi, the ones which give you a breather and block out the noise below for awhile. The ones which serve up the classics and where you bring your guests to, the ones in the guidebooks that kill two birds with one stone – egg coffee ca phe trung and panorama included.
Then there are the quirky ones, the trendy ones, where Hanoi’s young hipsters go and the fashionistas meet. Where you head in with your laptop and smartphone, the free wifi just as important as the funky new drinks on offer.
If teahouses in Myanmar are an institution, the coffeehouses of Hanoi are their equal. Every city has their drug of choice and in Hanoi, it is coffee. It is strong, dark, dense and unapologetically sweet. While it was the French who introduced it to the country in the 1850s, Vietnamese coffee has definitely become a tradition and an art of its own.
From morning to evening, the coffeehouses of Hanoi provide the caffeine punch needed to keep the city abuzz. Hot and syrupy for breakfast, icy and milky for humid afternoons. Compared to the coffee culture from which it originated, every coffee I have had in Vietnam has been rich and decadent. Apologies to France, but most coffees I have had there tasted more like lukewarm bitter black water. In fact Anna Brones put it perfectly in her article – Why is coffee in France la merde? Yet somehow, the Vietnamese have emerged from this legacy and improved on it. And in the coffeehouses of Hanoi, they have perfected it.
Those in the know, partially blame the bad coffee in France on over-extraction and their reliance on duty-free Robusta beans which mainly came from French colonies. Turns out, the biggest exporter of Robusta beans in the world, is Vietnam. Robusta beans have more caffeine and a harsher flavour than Arabica, which originates from the highlands of Ethiopia. While in France you may try to save your watery espresso or mediocre café crème with extra sugar and some milk, the limited fresh milk in Vietnam’s past, led to the widespread use of condensed milk instead. And condensed milk goes hand in hand with coffee brewed from Robusta beans very well indeed. They need each other, the overly sweet and the overly bitter.
Forget being a snob about coffee purity, the best way to have coffee in Vietnam is to indulge in all the trimmings. Going through the coffeehouses of Hanoi is more like going on a sugar-high frenzy and any cuppa is as satisfying as dessert. From the classic iced coffee of a popular tiny place on Hang Ca street, to the rich cà phê trứng (egg yolks, sugar and coffee blended into a sort of liquid tiramisu) of the Hanoi Social Club, the mixtures will have you longing for a nap and a run at the same time.
At the Cong Caphé where we spent many of our afternoons, they presented flavours I would never think of marrying together and as an Italian would probably have balked at, but yes yes yes they work. Yoghurt and coffee and purple rice? Yup, delicious. Our favourite though, which we kept coming back for and ordering again and again was their coconut coffee. Small, strong and intense, cold or hot, this is a drink that has reached coffee perfection. And Hanoi’s coffee scene is better off for it. Now if only I can convince die-hard Italians to drink it.
COCONUT COFFEE \ˌkokənət kɑfi\
I did not actually watch them prepare it at the Cong Caphé, so this is my take on their delicious blend. It will not replace your oversized comfort latte, it is more like a mini shot of intense flavour, the perfect indulgence for a sweet afternoon wakeup call.
1 tsp cold-pressed coconut oil
1 tbsp condensed milk
3 tbsp vietnamese drip-filtered coffee or strong espresso (preferably a dark roast, Robusta)
2 tbsp coconut milk
Mix the coconut oil and condensed milk in your cup until they are well blended and the oil does not separate from the condensed milk.
Make the Vietnamese drip coffee or espresso as you normally would do. Using Robusta here instead of Arabica produces a fuller-bodied coffee with more bitterness and an earthy punch to hold the sweetness of the condensed milk and coconut better.
While the coffee is dripping/brewing, heat up the coconut milk until just boiling. Once the coffee is ready, pour it hot onto your coconut oil and condensed milk base, stir gently, then slowly pour in the warm coconut milk as a top layer.
If you want to go all out and make it fancy, you could also foam the coconut milk first and play around with your latte art.
Have fun finding your perfect blend, it can be addictive…