Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Brief Tour of Hanoi Cafés

In my last posting, I admitted my addiction to coffee. The fact is, I'm as hopelessly addicted to cafés as I am to the mighty brew. Twenty years of living in Seattle, where cafés dot every corner and children learn to operate an espresso machine about the same time they learn to walk, left an indelible mark. On a gray, drizzly day (of which there are many in both Seattle and Hanoi), there is little I'd rather do than sit in a café with my laptop or a good book, and read or shoot the breeze with my compadres while slugging down another cup.

Vietnam, the world's second-largest coffee producer, is blessed with a staggering variety of cafés, and this variety is abundantly evident in its capital city of Hanoi. Like Dublin with its pubs, it is physically impossibile to cross Hanoi without passing a few dozen establishments dedicated to the fabled elixir. From streetside stands where lines of men smoke and play chess before faded plaster walls, to the ultra-modern Highland Coffee chain where foreigners and the Hanoi bourgeoisie mingle over $4 frappuccinos, Vietnam's cafés cater to every taste and budget.

My own preferences run toward cafés that possess a sense of history, or a mix of weathered and modernist elements. I have compiled a list of my favorites cafés, which I present below:

Cafe Xe C
13A Hang Bun
This was the first Hanoi café I fell in love with, and it still holds a special place in my heart. While it is nowhere near any of my regular routes, I often head here on the weekends to enjoy its funky blend of antique wooden furniture, abundant greenery, and old motorcycles recalling a 1950s "On the Road" Bohemianism. Its proximity to Hanoi's best art gallery, Art Vietnam, makes the place a convenient stop on a weekend culture tour.

Housed in an old French villa, with a giant oxwheel at its entrance, the café features antique foot-pedal sewing machines that have been repurposed into coffee tables, and tasteful bungalow-style wooden chairs. Periods of history come crashing together haphazardly; its collection of oddball items includes old victrolas, rotary dial telephones, grandfather clocks, antique wooden cupboards, brass trophy cups, manual typewriters, 16mm film projectors, HiFi stereos, candlestics, rusted electric fans, an electric Yamaha organ, and numerous hanging pots.
The coffee itself is nothing to write home about; just the standard Robusta fare. A steady supply of regulars trickles up and down the stairs, but the mood is never frenetic. The anachronistic decor makes it easy to wax into a nostalgic space, dreaming of what must be the fascinating stories behind every item in the room.

Café Phố Cổ (a.k.a. "The Hidden Cafe")
11 Hang Gai
Tucked behind a couple of tchotchke shops on one of the Old Quarter's busiest streets, Café Phố Cổ is a hidden refuge from the din of the city. To enter, you have to duck into a touristy silk shop and walk through a dark, narrow corridor that opens into a tall courtyard. Once there, you're in an Asian surrealistic fantasy. The café is a caricature of a 19th century opium den, with carved wooden lintels, ceramic artifacts, caged birds, stone Buddhas, and weathered silk paintings thrown together between potted lotuses, overgrown bamboo, and neglected bonsai on artifical rocks.

It's a place M.C. Escher might have designed after eating too many spring rolls. Four open-air stories rise skyward, joined by a weird interconnecting network of metal staircases and wooden foot bridges. The service is famously bad; you basically order what you need downstairs, wait for it to be prepared, and then walk it up to your seat. But the view is to die for - a panorama of Hoan Kiem Lake seen from a balcony practically jutting over the water.

An excellent drink here is the Cà phê Trứng. A meringue of whipped sweetened condensed milk and egg is whipped together, and then poured over the coffee. It's a lovely, ticklish, dessert-like brew to sample while enjoying the strange decor, and gorgeous lakeside view.
Văn Vit Café
27 Tran Binh Trong
If I have anything like a regular haunt, this is it. Half a block off Thiền Quang Lake in Hanoi's Hai Bà Trưng district, this establishment offers something rare in Hanoi: tastefully modern interior design. The visitor is greeted by a lovely façade: a full-length window fronted by tall bamboo growing from white ceramic pots. The café has three rooms, each different in atmosphere, yet unified by the consistent presence of exposed brick walls and unframed abstract canvases.
The front room, with it black ceramic tile floors, art-deco counter, rounded brick wall, and minimalist track lights, could easily be the entrance to a tony art gallery in Tokyo or Manhattan. A few steps further leads one to a small, intimate middle room, with a couple of dimly-lit tables. The back room opens up to high ceilings and tall shuttered windows; this room feels more like a proper café, with well-sized tables sided by small cushioned loveseats, and a couple of large floor fans to keep the air circulating.

Văn Vit serves the standard four coffee drinks (coffee with or without milk, hot or iced), and a decent cà phê phin, as well as an assortment of juices and shakes. With its free WiFi, Van Viet would fit in well in NYC's Tribeca, or Seattle's Capital Hill.

Café 252
252 Hang Bong
Just outside the old quarter, Café 252 is a typically non-descript hole-in-the-wall, with fading hospital-green walls, chintzy laquerware wall-plaques, a slow-moving ceiling fan, and cobwebs in the corners. It's the kind of place that, even new, was probably never that impressive. Yet this is where you will find some of the best baked goods in Hanoi.

The owner, a man named Le Huu Chi, learned to bake in the French territory of New Caledonia (there's a picture on the wall of Uncle Ho in the 1950s, with a group of students from the school). In addition to fine croissants, paté-filled pastries and pain au chocolat, the café offers home-made yogurt, and a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu. As a bonus, it's the only place I've found in Hanoi that offers fresh milk, instead of the canned sweetened condensed milk that is served everywhere else.

Le Huu Chi's daughter has taken over operation of the place, with no apparent drop-off in quality. This café appears to be on the tourist map; on my last visit there was a Scandinavian couple eating breakfast, a group of foreign-born Vietnamese speaking French, and two middle-aged Japanese women staggering about photographing and smiling at everything. As I said, you go there for the baked goods, not the atmosphere.

Café Mai
52 Nguyen Du and 96 Le Van Huu
This is where you go when you want good coffee. In operation since the 1930s, Café Mai's two locations offer respite from the bitter low-grade Robusta bean, with a menu of well-prepared coffees from around Vietnam, including high-quality Arabica from the mountainous province of Lang Son. Prices are slightly higher than at other Hanoi establishments, but still lower than the chain-store Highland Coffee cafés that offer a lower-quality drink. The owners know coffee as well as anyone in Vietnam; the beans are well-roasted, and freshly-ground.
In both Café Mai locales, the ambience is unmistakeably Vietnamese: no-frills decor and groups of adults smoking and talking around formica tables. Somewhat incongruously, the Café Mai on Nguyen Du offers free wireless Internet, so it's possible to sit and work there, while sipping a mighty nice brew.

My exploration of Hanoi's cafés has only begun, and I hope after some time I will have many other places to add to this list. Part of the fun of living in a city with a thriving café culture lies in the thrill of discovery. Hanoians constantly swap locales, keep abreast of changes to the established joints, and like to venture into uncharted waters. Given the profusion of Hanoi cafés, I may be exploring for some time.

13 comments:

  1. I don't think the 252 guy is dead (if he is, it was only recently he passed). The enormous plaque-board-thing on the wall is to celebrate his "longevity" (he turned 90 years old last year)-- not to honour his death. But I can understand how it would mislead you into thinking the guy had popped his clogs.

    Just saying, like!

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    1. No, Mr Chi is not dead! He will be 100 in October 2017. At the moment, he is in hospital, but we all hope he makes his centenary, and beyond.

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  2. Oops! Thanks for the correction! I guess it just proves the old adage: when you make an assumption, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "umtion!"

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  3. Updated/corrected. Thanks again, mate!

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  4. Fantastic! Coffee is a huge motivator for my heading to Vietnam. Here in South Korea, a cappuccino requires a lot of instruction, and even then, I end up gutted by a poor cup. Lovely photos too. I know where I'll be hanging out.

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  5. Monica - I lived in S. Korea in the early 90s. Sad to hear the coffee hasn't improved! Bearing in mind what I wrote about the bitter Robusta bean, I think, all in all, you'll appreciate the coffee and the cafe culture of Vietnam. BTW, are you going to be based in Hanoi?

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  6. i am from the bamboo made products industry, those cafe are really amazing, i can smell the different taste there! it cannot source from starbucks of such taste!

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  7. thanks for the update on Hanoi cafe's. I was in Hanoi 15 years ago and loved the cafes then. I look forward to trying your suggestions when I go back next month.
    Like Seattle, Melbourne in Australia is a coffee and cafe loving city. We love real and really good coffee so much we are the only town in the world where Starbucks has gone out of business :-)

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  8. Hey Hal, are you aware of this Lam Cafe at 60 Nguyen Huu Huan? http://www.vietnam720.com/Virtual-Tours/Lam-cafe-Hanoi.37.html?f=1

    Thanks for this post. I'll be visiting Hanoi next year and will be sure to check out ALL of the above mentioned :-)

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  9. I LOVE CAFE PHO CO :D such a nice place with a view. except that it's waaaaay too crowded to have a nice beautiful quiet time :D
    in fact, it's actually hard to find a place that you can do your reading or something in hanoi.... now that i think of it :D

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  10. will take a short cut by posting a comment, still confused with the street names. if im in the ba dinh district and would like to go to one of the cafes you listed above ... which is the nearest one to me. - bards

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  11. Hey - I don't hang out a lot in Ba Dinh, but from where you are, I think Cafe Xe Cổ might be the closest. See if Sticky Rice has any suggestions - I think he knows Ba Dinh fairly well, and might have the perfect cafe for you. Link to his blog is up on the top right of my page - a great blog even if you don't find the cafe you're looking for.

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