A tour of Hanoi in 10 cafès to discover the Viet coffee culture

When you think of the coffee plant, your mind goes to the limitless plantations in Latin America, certainly not to Vietnam. Indeed, this country in South-east Asia is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee. It is second only to Brazil, and the pro capita consumption of Vietnamese people exceeds one kilo a year, with an annual growth of 10%.

The coffee culture in Vietnam is as recent as rooted. The Coffea arabica, introduced by French missionaries only in 1857, found in Dalat, in the south-western highlands of the country, a tropical and humid climate, ideal for growing it. This province with its mountains, numerous rivers and an enviable temperature ranging between 15°C and 24°C, is extremely fertile. Today Dalat is not just a coffee production area; it also produces wine and it is the main nursery centre region of Vietnam and, in Buon Ma Thuot, just north, every March the coffee festival is celebrated.

Vietnam produces two varieties of coffee: Arabica and Robusta. The first, called “mocha” by the locals, is characterized by long grains derived from Coffea arabica, species widespread especially in South America.DSC_0118 Robusta, obtained from Coffea canephora, is the variety most cultivated in Vietnam, where it grows at an altitude of 600 meters (above sea level) resisting to temperatures that can reach up to 30°C. Compared to Arabica it contains a double dose of caffeine that gives a much stronger and a far more persistent taste.

Both plants can produce beans of “culi” type. Normally the coffee fruit contains two seeds, but some berries produce one only: the culi, which is bigger and therefore richer in flavour and caffeine.

Among the coffee classification factors, there are also the producing processing and the blends. Vietnam and Indonesia are famous for one specific and peculiar type known as “weasel coffee” or caphe chon. “Chon” is the Vietnamese name of the civet, a mammal similar to the ferret, greedy of coffee berries. This variety of coffee is obtained by having the beans of the fruit defecated by the animals sun-dried within 24 hours after harvesting. The civet stomach only digests the peel of the coffee beans, expelling the inner part of the berry, composed by a membrane containing the seeds. Stomach acids that filter through coffee berries, are plenty of proteolytic enzymes that break down the fruit proteins. This process makes peptides shorter and amino acids free. The resulting coffee flavour is largely due to the protein contained in it. DSC_0129The protein transformation obtained further to civets ingestion, have the property to mitigate the bitter taste.

This process seems dirty and unhealthy and you may even refuse to taste such a coffee. Nevertheless a study conducted in 2002 by the University of Guelph in Ontario, showed that the grains ingested by civets have a lower amount of bacteria compared to those any other classic coffee. Furthermore, the defecated seeds possess a membrane which is removed in the cleaning process. The roasting at temperatures between 180°C and 230°C eliminates any other remaining bacteria. The refined soft taste of caphe chon makes this coffee variety ever so fine and it can cost up to $ 1,000 a kilo.

Hanoi is one of the best places to learn about Vietnamese coffee culture. It is full of austere cafès, crowded with young people who, sitting on tiny stools, enjoy talking while sipping their coffee. Throughout the city, there are not just cafès, but also small shops specialized in local blends. Hang Buom, for instance, in the heart of the busy Old Quarter of Hanoi, is plenty of small stores retailing roasted coffee beans or powder coffee ground there and then, before your eyes.

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The elegant Anan Coffee (101 Hang Buom, open from 9 am to 10 pm) sells Vietnamese coffee from organic production. The best quality coffees are kept in containers lined up at the back of the shop. You can drink local coffee and tea sitting in front of the store: because of the lack of space, in the seat of the Old Quarter, tables are dressed outside only. In the same shop in Trang Tien, near the romantic Hoan Kiem Lake, it is possible to drink inside sitting at low wooden tables.

Right next door, at number 103, there is Tam Loc Coffee (103 Hang Buom, open from 9 am to 10 pm). It is a store where you can buy and enjoy coffee. They also have an area with coffee cups as well as tea filters.

Coffee Viet (65 Hang Buom open from 9 am to 10 pm) is less sophisticated, but it sells good quality coffee and the staff is very helpful about the various types of blends.

For those who wish to buy coffee as a gift, the right place is definitely Mountain’s Legend Coffee (57 Ma May, open from 9 am to 9 pm) not far from the previously mentioned coffee shops. In here, they sell highly selected coffees in elegant gift boxes. The coffee is produced organically, so civets are not reared and fed directly as they are by so many other producers. The company tries to reproduce their lifestyle leaving them in the wild as much as possible. This methodology, shaped around environment impact, is noteworthy in a context which does not look into nor pay so much attention to environmental sustainability. Civets are wild carnivore animals, but they are often captured, reared in cages and fed on coffee berries only, which should actually be a marginal percentage of the diet only. Given the limited size of the room, there is no place to sit and drink, but the store prepares take away coffee.

A pleasant place to spend some time is Cong Caphe, a chain of cafès established in 2007, where in addition to Vietnamese coffee they serve tea, ice cream, yoghurt and fresh fruit juices. The atmosphere is intriguing: communism-inspired vintage furniture (the logo of the restaurant is a star, like the one of the flag of Vietnam). They give a touch of romantic longing deliberately rustic interior design. It is furnished with style, in shades of green and red, using the wooden tables of old Singer sewing machines. The waiters work wearing socialist fashion uniforms. In Hanoi there are sixteen Cong Caphe, among which, one of the most welcoming, besides its small size is the one at 54 Ma May, in the old city. In addition to coffee, you will be served some delicious flavoured teas such as quat mat ong, kumquat cinnamon tea served with honey, or ginger tea (price 45000 Viet dongs).

Another interesting and peculiar cafè is Cu Bao Coffee, a tiny bar with no doors in Ly Nam De (38C Ly Nam De) just outside the Old Quarter, in a buoyant street full of shops for home appliances where there are just a few bars. You are greeted with a glass of hot black tea and you can sit at the low light-brown wooden tables. Here, they serve organic coffee from the “solidarity” trade brand. The products are Utz Certified, a cultivation program whose motto is “better farming, better future”. They pay attention to farmers and environmental impact. Try the caphe den, hot black coffee, (price 16000 Viet dongs), one of the most appreciated drinks for Vietnamese people who consume it cold with ice cubes during hot days, with or without milk.

If you are walking near Haon Kiem Lake, take a detour to Caphe Pho Co (11 Hang Gai). I must warn you though, finding it, is not at all obvious: you need a bit of faith and patience. It is hidden in the depths of a silk shop, a few steps from the “Fountain”, as the locals call the roundabout between Hanoi Pho Le Thai To and Pho Dinh Tien Hoang. It is not indicated by any notice nor board that might suggest that behind it, a cafè away from the noise of the city centre can be found. Once you find the shop, walk through the dark hallway that opens into a courtyard where scooters are parked and antique objects displayed. There is the cash register and the kitchen where the coffee is prepared. You order, then you go up a set of narrow stairs leading into the various terraces of this maze cafè, passing in front of a half-open room where you can see a dark and huge Buddhist altar. Climb to the top floor where you can sit in a simple decorated terrace and have a beautiful view of Lake Hoan Kiem. This “outside the box” cafè is the ideal place to enjoy one of the best caphe trung, coffee topped with a foam which is obtained by beating sugar and the white part of eggs until it becomes stiff.

Near the Temple of Literature, west of the Old Quarter, the Café Trang (47 Van Mieu) is a quiet place overlooking the street. From here, you can see the Temple surrounding walls, which hosted the first university of Vietnam, built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius. DSC_0092They serve some discreet, decent and traditional dishes and an excellent caphe da, a coffee with condensed milk (price 27000 Viet dongs). To make this coffee, they use a particular tool: it is a small metal container of cylindrical shape. Inside it, there is a filter on which the coffee powder and boiling water is poured. The coffee falls drop by drop into the glass above the condensed milk lying on its bottom. The flavour is intense, but with a sweet milk note that softens its strong taste. The use of condensed milk is t here to sweeten the bitter taste of coffee. It has been more and more used since time when fresh milk was rare in Vietnam.DSC_0096

In in the heart of the Old Quarter noisy streets, in Pho Ta Hien, the street also known as bia junction, (the beer intersection), there is Cafè 39 Ta Hien. This austere cafè is attended by locals and it is ideal for those who want to get in touch with Hanoi reality. Sitting on a blue plastic stool situated nonchalantly on the road, you can make friends with the Vietnamese young people who crowd the cafè during the rush hour.

If you have just visited the High Red Pagoda of Tran Quoc, on the West Lake, north of the old city, then take a trip to Caphe Duy Tri, (43 Pho Phu Yen). Alike many other cafès in Hanoi, it does not look so attractive at first glance, because of the hidden and uninviting façade. But this is not a frivolous city characterized by appearance. Rather, it is a metropolis where the best food is street food which you can eat sitting on uncomfortable plastic stools along dirty pavements among parked scooters. Go up to the second floor of this tight cafè and take your place on the dark wooden and worn-looking tables. This is the perfect place to try something different: caphe sua chua, a coffee with cold plain yoghurt (price 20000 Viet dongs), a sweet refreshing drink.

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