Looking for good coffee in Hanoi? Ian Wilson shows us where to get traditional Vietnamese coffee – and the famous “egg coffee”.
I am seated at a noisy, roadside café in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, perched on an impossibly tiny plastic stool by an equally tiny table. The waiter brings my coffee but it’s not yet ready to drink. I watch in suspense as the black brew drips slowly from the small metal filter into the glass below.
I’m travelling through Vietnam and while I expect to encounter reminders of Vietnam’s war-torn history and a delicious array of food, the coffee culture is a delightful surprise. Coffee in Vietnam is not a hurried affair, certainly not to be sipped from a takeaway cup as you head to your next destination. While the Vietnamese traditionally drink tea, coffee is a means to socialise with friends, catch up on Instagram or simply relax and watch the world go by, a refuge from the chaotic traffic of Hanoi’s streets.
The French introduced coffee to Vietnam in the 19th century and the locals have embraced it – especially in Hanoi, where there are cafes on just about every street. In the mid-1980s, the Vietnamese government made a determined effort to increase coffee production, to the extent that the country is now one of the largest exporters in the world, although much of the exported robusta beans are used for cheap instant coffee.
By contrast, Hanoi’s café culture is rich and diverse with countless cafes, ranging from ramshackle coffee shops to modern cafes with interesting themes, design and decor.
The coffee itself is a unique experience. My roadside coffee is served with a small amount of sweetened condensed milk, into which the coffee drips. The thick sugary substance balances the bitter, drip-filter coffee.
If strong Vietnamese coffee is not to your liking, you can find plenty of ca phe (coffee) options at Cong Caphe. I wander into one branch of this small Hanoi coffee chain to find it as hipster as any inner-city café in Australia, with ironic communist propaganda posters and American-Vietnam war memorabilia. I order a coconut coffee smoothie, which looks like a coconut iceberg floating in iced coffee and tastes delicious. With free Wi-Fi as a bonus, I recline in a deckchair and watch the street spectacle as scooters, cars, cyclists, pedestrians and street vendors navigate the narrow roads.
Cong Caphe’s coffee with yoghurt and sticky rice is equally good, while the coffee with coconut and condensed milk is enhanced by coffee art. That these drinks come with a little straw suggests they are for people seeking sweet fun rather than traditional Vietnamese black coffee.
One Hanoi experience not to be missed is the “egg coffee” at Café Giang. An unassuming sign next to a doorway gives no hint of the coffee haven inside. Walk through the drab hallway and up the stairs to a sunlit leafy courtyard and indoor area. Filter coffee is brewed in a small cup before the addition of a well-whisked mixture of ingredients including chicken egg yolk, sweetened condensed milk, butter and cheese. Served in a glass ensconced in a bowl of hot water to keep it warm, the “egg custard” floats above the black coffee, waiting to be stirred together. Like dessert in a cup and simply divine.
Of course, even coffee connoisseurs must take a break from caffeine at times. While in Hanoi you should also try a sugarcane and cumquat juice, drink bia hoi (a cheap local beer) and enjoy a “pho cocktail” at Mojito Bar & Lounge, which uses five herbs found in pho noodles and is created in theatrical fashion (complete with lit alcohol!).
Notwithstanding these temptations, it’s the Hanoi coffee culture that will remain as one of my enduring memories of Vietnam.