If there’s a city with a proud cafe culture, it is Hanoi. The locals are immensely proud of their local coffee, and sip it all day in their inimitable style. I wish we in Singapore were as proud of our local coffee as they are. In nooks and crannies, tucked deep inside narrow ‘tube houses’ and in the upper floors of old French buildings are a hidden world of coffee joints crowded with local patrons and few tourists. This is where you get a taste of local flavour, and part of the charm is that they aren’t easy to find.
Having found out that we were ardent foodies, our ever-obliging guide Trang of Hanoi Voyages brought us to a couple of them.
Her favourite coffee house is a local institution called Cafe Giang (pronounced ‘Jac’, with a soft ‘J’), opened in 1946 and still going strong. You can easily miss its dark, distressed entrance way, or dismiss it as an empty, forgotten setup. She slips in and we follow her down the narrow, tired-looking walkway with nary a token given to aesthetics.
As we meander past an open kitchen of sorts and up the stairs, we turn round a corner and suddenly, sunlight pours down from a skylight and we are in a lush, plant-filled cafe, crowded with customers. In typical Vietnamese style, seats and tables are low. Don’t wait to be seated—just head to the nearest available before someone else gets it. Typical Vietnamese coffee is served here, so thick and potent it’ll keep you up for the next few days of touring. Like we say in Singlish: “Gao (meaning thick and rich) until cannot gao”. Good stuff.
What most people come here for is its egg coffee—a supremely thick coffee with condensed milk and an egg whisked into it. It doesn’t sound particularly enticing initially, but once you garner up your courage and dive in, you’ll find that you don’t really taste the egg much. It acts more like a thickener, and the texture of the coffee is rich, ‘puffy’, and custard-like. It’s really thick and sweet—rich enough to be a dessert. They say it’s a must-try when you go to Vietnam, and I did not regret imbibing the extra calories.
Another delightful coffee joint Trang brought us to was Caphe Cong. A very successful local coffee chain, its name makes reference to the Viet Cong who fought the Americans and South Vietnamese in the American War of the 1950s and 60s. Politically incorrect? Maybe, but all’s good in Vietnam now, and Caphe Cong is all about coffee and chillaxing in a distressed, hip setting.
Rice frappe and thick coffee at Caphe Cong.
We visited the outlet at Ma May Street, which occupies a narrow, crumbling colonial building, with a still-beautiful European facade. Inside, the cafe is decked out in vintage wooden furniture with clever details that play up the military camp theme—a bucket or wok for a lampshade, a green army-inspired leatherbound menu, retro photos and posters on the wall. The interior looks rather worn out and a little dark and dusty, but that’s the look, and it attracts a young, local clientele. We head to the upstairs balcony, with old, weathered walls as a backdrop and sipped coffee while overlooking the messy street below, the length of which is festooned with a dangerously tangled mess of electric cables.
On the menu were coffee and drinks with a distinctively Vietnamese flavour—delectable mung bean smoothie with coconut milk, rice frappe (yums!), espresso with condensed milk, thick sweet Vietnamese coffee and even cocktails. The sun starts to set as we while away the evening here. A really nice way to soak in the local youthful pop culture of Hanoi.