Text & photos by Anh Nguyen
Vietnamese iced coffee, the sweetened version loaded with lots of condensed milk, has been the favourite snack of many in the western world. But truly, that weak and sweet coffee is nowhere close to the local version in Hanoi which is so strong, fragrant and almost liquor like. One sip, and the addiction starts.
Vietnamese coffee is brewed using finely ground dark roast coffee. Different blends produce an array of tastes and finishes. Various coffee houses also have their own way of roasting coffee beans. Trung Nguyên, a popular brand, uses cocoa butter and cocoa flavouring in their coffee. The aftertaste is sweet, chocolaty and vanilla like. Chicory is added to certain coffee brands for smoky dimension. I know Mai does. Others are more pure in their approach – just strong black and intense flavours.
The basic coffee menu is quite standard across places. We Hanoians order coffee by color code. Black coffee is well, black (đen). Coffee with condensed milk is called “brown” (nâu). Then, you can have it hot or with ice. For example, đen đá is iced black coffee, and nâu nóng is hot coffee with milk.
If you are new to Vietnamese coffee, start with iced milk coffee (nâu đá or cà phê sữa đá). This has large portion of condensed milk, and when mixed with black coffee liquid, the result is like coffee and rich chocolate together. It normally serves in tall glass in three layers – condensed milk, hot coffee and crushed ice. To drink, just use the spoon to mix everything together. Delicious!
My personal favourite is nâu nóng (hot milk coffee). Typically, the amount of condensed milk is much less, just enough to bring out the dark coffee flavours. The coffee is smooth and buttery but not milky.
Just like a shot of espresso is not everyone’s favourite, black Vietnamese coffee (cà phê đen) is reserved for the addicted only. Served in a small cup, it is pure black liquid – so dense and dark. The coffee is not bitter (if done well), but very smooth on the palate and has that liquor like effects. Sure, it can be tamed by adding some crushed ice. But still, be warned. The coffee can be really strong.
Making coffee is a science, and also an art. Traditionally, Vietnamese coffee is made with a small metal French drip filter. It takes good experience to pack the right amount of coffee to create enough pressure so that the speed of coffee drop is not too quick, or too slow. A while back, coffee is served with a filter at the table. However, time changes. It seems that no one has enough time to wait around anymore, so Hanoi cafés opt to brew their coffee in advance. In my recent trip, I asked for a filter, and no one serves that anymore.
At home, I admit using a filter still produces the best Vietnamese coffee, but my dad has good results using coffee pot, the kind you would use on the stove. It’s quick and relatively simple to prepare.
Tastes and addiction aside, Hanoi café culture is something so unique and special, you must experience it once if coffee is your thing. Introduced to the local residents in the early 20th century, coffee has been the favourite of the upper and educated classes although cheaper coffee is available everywhere.
Everyone has their favourite café – either for the décor or the taste. I am of the later crowd. My favourite Hanoi café experience is in small, simply decorated shops around town. Nothing fancy but a few vintage items as decoration. The chair and tables are tiny, packed in small area. Uncomfortable it may seem, I can stay there for hours, alone with a book or chitchat with friends.
A few recommendations – this is not a comprehensive list of cafés in Hanoi, but rather the ones I kinda like. Do try if you ever get a chance to visit Hanoi.
+ Café Mai: A childhood favourite. Their original shop was so close to my school, and the fragrance of their roasted coffee beans got me addicted to coffee. Mai’s coffee has a sour finish (if drinking the black varieties). It has several locations, but I frequent their Nguyen Du operation.
+ Café Thọ: Very popular with the young crowd. Great space. The coffee is strong and good. There are several more cafes close by, but this one is a firm favourite of mine.
+ Café Giảng: one of the Big Four café fame that is still around today. After being forced to move out from their original spot in the Old Quarter after years of operation, it is now available at two locations. I like their home-style feel and approach. And because it brings back the memories of the old Hanoi, something I have a heart for.