Kopi or Ca Phe: Hanoi's Deliciously Vibrant Coffee Scene
When one thinks about coffee, a few keywords come to mind; Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Cold Brew, Extra shot Venti Iced White Chocolate Mocha.
Okay, fine - that’s just me.
Anyway, the point of this exercise is to show how the thought of Vietnam or Vietnamese coffee hardly comes to mind.
Beans of Vietnamese origin are scantly mentioned in coffee circles and aren’t as widely available in ‘artisanal’ coffeehouses despite its large presence in the global coffee industry. More conservations are had about skinny coffee or lattes than Hanoi's unique egg coffee. To get a sense of scale, a quarter of coffee drunk in the UK originates from Vietnam. Vietnam is also the world’s second largest coffee producer.
Is Vietnam’s lack of presence in the coffee world then due to a failure of marketing or does it simply come down to taste? Why is the ubiquity and importance of coffee in Vietnamese culture not as well known? My recent trip to Hanoi opened my eyes to its flourishing coffee scene, one that is hyperlocal and untouched by the aesthetics and polish of the urban coffeehouse.
Coffee Production in Vietnam
Coffee was introduced to Indochina by the French in 1857, and the industry has since grown from strength to strength. Vietnamese coffee (ca phe) however, is an adaptation of this influence, ditching the French press and coffee sock in favour of a simple, stainless steel drip filter.
Vietnam mainly grows Robusta beans, which have a higher caffeine content relative to other beans like Arabica (Starbucks), thus making it more bitter than its other counterparts. This choice is of course, out of pragmatism as the country’s altitude, soil and weather conditions are more suited for the cultivation of the Robusta bean. It is for this reason that Vietnamese coffee is less well known worldwide. Vietnamese beans often end up in instant coffee mixes because it is cheap and the taste more generic. As people who drink instant mixes are doing so for pragmatic reasons more than anything else, you can start to understand why Vietnamese beans aren't well known.
Coffee farming and production are mainly done at large scales in the central highlands of the country after which beans bound for domestic consumption are mainly shipped northwards to Hanoi (HAN) or southwards to Ho Chih Minh City (SGN). It is thus unsurprising that coffee production is big business in Vietnam. For this reason, the industry is heavily protected by the government (from journalists) and this also means that the industry is allowed to do just about anything to maintain yields and growth. While human rights and freedoms are generally coming back to the people living in Vietnam's major cities, farmers in the central highlands and in other agricultural areas in the country still face a great deal of humans rights abuses and forced relocation. This is can be mainly attributed to the primacy of coffee production.
On a lighter note, it is no doubt that coffee drinking is a national pastime and that Hanoi is a veritable coffee heaven. The traditional cuppa that's known as Vietnamese drip coffee, ca phe den da (coffee black), is served with a drip filter atop the cup and features a taste profile that is quite bitter. Want skinny lattes with sweet syrups? You've come to the wrong place. This time-honoured method of enjoying coffee defines the coffee culture of Hanoi’s older generation. Variations that add condensed milk into an already filtered cuppa are also widely popular as it neutralises the bitter flavour of the Robusta beans. The ever popular Vietnamese egg coffee is a further adaptation, substituting some of the condensed milk for a whisked egg yolk.
The open competition between these styles has come to define Hanoi’s coffee scene, and the locals love it.
Places to enjoy a cuppa
Coffee joints in Hanoi have mostly retained decor that matches its gritty surroundings, an aesthetic choice that permeates throughout the city and is something Hanoians are unapologetically proud of. Because of this, you’d be hard pressed to find the type of ‘modern’, marble adorned coffee joints that are more prevalent in other cities. Espresso machines and glass blown siphons are not the norm here, but the famous drips of Vietnam coffee recipes are. Every neighbourhood in Hanoi is a 'hipster neighbourhood' paradise.
Hanoi, much like the coffee bars/parlours of Rome, offers a localised, no frills coffee experience that can be deeply alluring.
Here are some of the cafes I had the pleasure of visiting:
This legendary haunt, which is frequented by locals and tourists alike, is credited as the creator of ca phe trung, or egg coffee. This ingenious recipe was formulated as a response to periods of strict rationing when milk became extremely scarce in the country. Whisked egg yolks were used for its creamy qualities, a substitute for milk in times of scarcity.
Since then, egg coffee has become a method of coffee drinking in its own right, often overshadowing the milk coffee it was supposed to stand in for. In addition to the one shot serving of the robusta brews, cups of egg coffee feature a rich yet light foam which fills the majority of the glass. This is a very welcome change from the artificial caramel and vanilla syrups that usually accompany sweetened coffees.
While egg coffee sounds like a weird concoction made for bodybuilders that call for a raw egg yolk to be dropped into a Trenta-sized coffee mug, it is actually a sweet and milky cuppa served in a stout, one gulp serving. Egg coffee in Hanoi is usually accompanied with a spoon which is used to mix the coffee and egg foam together. My recommendation is to use it to sample the rich flavour of the egg foam and then proceed to scoop up a sip’s worth of dark coffee. After a getting a feel for these distinct tastes, make an earnest effort to stir the blend, which will yield yet another wash of flavours.
Make a stop here and you’ll be enamoured by how the buzz of patrons in Cafe Giang fills in for the whirrs of espresso machines found in other coffee Meccas around the world. If you only have time for one spot, this is the one to head to as it is arguably one of the best cafes in Hanoi (and is strategically located in the French Quarter). You’re welcome.
Cafe Pho Co/ Old Town Cafe
Cafe Pho Co is a popular local joint that offers a beautiful view of the city’s iconic Hoan Kiem Lake. The cafe’s seating areas straddles three floors with those on the top floor being rewarded with the aforementioned view of the lake.
The craze of egg coffee seems to have firmly nested in Hanoi’s coffee scene and Cafe Pho Co’s interpretation of it doesn’t disappoint. The cafe is perfect for a leisurely morning visit and serves as a meeting place for many locals. While you’re there, let your morning caffeine fix be accompanied with a slice of homemade banana cake.
The narrow entrance of the establishment is actually inside a textiles shop, which makes it hard to locate. Put on your spy glasses to avoid having to walk around the block (like I did) in search of the cafe; happy hunting!
Serein Cafe and Lounge
Serein’s draw comes from its unbeatable view of the iconic Long Bien bridge. Here it is in its full glory.
This centuries old cantilever bridge is a major transport artery for traffic getting into Hanoi’s city centre (Hoan Kiem) and the adjacent district of Long Bien. First constructed as an image of colonial superiority for the French, the bridge has become a major icon for Hanoians, representing the twin ideals of perseverance and strength. The bridge has also weathered a century of constant use, even coming out of the Vietnam War relatively unscathed.
I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the rooftop terrace for an unobstructed view of the bridge especially during the colder months of December and January. Summer warriors shouldn’t be disheartened by Hanoi’s blistering heat in June and July as Serein has an air-conditioned indoor seating area that pairs comfort with the same great view of the iconic bridge.
Cong Ca Phe
Travel to Hanoi for its communist history but stay for its coffee scene seems to be an apt descriptor of Cong Ca Phe, a chain that dominates Hanoi’s coffee scene with its 7 strategically located outlets.
Baristas and servers are decked out in communist garb and its khaki green outlets are decorated with ration books, old style fans and memorabilia from an era when Vietnam’s stance on state socialism was more hardline.
The cafe however, is usually populated by Instagram-equipped tourists who have come to document the curious decor of Cong Ca Phe for their followers. Its friendly atmosphere is perhaps indicative of the Vietnamese government’s efforts to brand itself as a welcoming country for foreign visitors.
Outlets are located near tourist hotspots, with two of the more popular ones being in Ba Dinh (close to the Ho Chih Minh Mausoleum) and at Nha Chung (St Joseph’s Cathedral).
Honestly, we can't get enough
It is without a doubt that coffee has long exerted a preeminent influence over Vietnamese culture. Furthermore, its ingenious recipes have delivered a coffee experience that is able to moderate the bitter intensity of the Robusta blend according to one’s taste and preference. The result? A delectable cuppa that delivers a gratifying caffeine kick. Its a crime that Hanoi's cafe concepts havent been exported elsewhere.
After my trip to Hanoi, I've been wondering why enjoying Vietnamese coffee hasn't caught on overseas. One reason could lie with the fact that the style of brewing coffee in Vietnam is not replicated overseas but instead arrives on foreign shores in non-descript instant mix bags. The bitterness of the Robusta blend is also another factor. I also have not been able to find some of Vietnam's unique/ingenious coffee recipes (like egg coffee) offered in cafes in Singapore and abroad. So, if anyone from the Vietnamese tourism ministry is reading, here's your chance. BRING THEM TO SINGAPORE PLEASE.
Something must also be said about the honest-to-god style of coffee that’s served in Hanoi. Cafe owners there are laser focused on serving quality brews to its loyal patrons, doing away with the fixation on decor that plagues cafe owners in other cities. Less aesthetics, higher quality brews. Hanoi’s coffee joints thus present a refreshing coffee experience that remain true to its roots - and I hope that it stays this way for a long time to come.
Hanoi (HAN) is served by various airlines offering direct flights from Singapore. The flag carriers of Vietnam and Singapore are excellent options. Low-cost flights can also be easily found, either involving a direct flight or a one-stop affair.
International flights will call at the new international terminal (T2) of Noi Bai International Airport, which is a 45 min taxi ride away from the city. There are no airport rail links available.
Domestic flights from Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) are plentiful, but these land at Noi Bai’s T1, which serves domestic destinations. It’s best not attempt an overnight layover here unless perhaps you've got copious amounts of Vietnamese coffee.
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