Hanoi’s Coffee Culture

Vietnam is one of the world’s largest coffee producers. Among the country’s exports, it is second only to rice. However, much of that annual output is consumed locally, for Vietnamese, especially city-dwellers, have become great coffee-drinkers. In Hanoi, for example, one can hardly walk ten minutes down any street in any direction without passing a coffee shop. And they always seem to have customers, even late at night.

Patrons prefer the strong, aromatic Robusta, Arabica and other types grown on plantations in the Central Highlands, especially around Buôn Ma Thuột. While one can order it black and add sugar or not, most customers mix it with sweet condensed milk. Like coffee itself, French colonialists introduced this way of drinking it because cans of condensed milk were easier to keep in the tropics than fresh milk.

Some places serve the coffee in small cups with the condensed milk already filling the lower portion of the cup. The patron stirs it with a small spoon. The shop may also serve a glass of hot water for diluting the strength of the coffee (and the condensed milk!). In other places they use the original French filtered style. A round container with a perforated bottom, containing the coffee grounds, fits over the top of the cup and its bottom layer of condensed milk. Hot water poured over the grounds slowly seeps through the coffee grounds into the cup.

Besides ordinary coffee, Hanoi is also known for cà phê trúng—literally, ‘egg coffee.’ It’s made by whipping an egg yolk with condensed milk into a froth that is laid over the top of a cup of black coffee. Often a bit of caramel or cinnamon or mocha powder decorates the top of the froth. Patrons use s little spoon to eat the froth and maybe mix the last of it with the coffee underneath.

Besides the wonderful kinds of coffee available, the venues themselves can be attractive. Some, like at the end of Hàng Nón, are basically sidewalk cafés, where one can sit outside and watch the passage of mobile street vendors. Coffee shops in Hanoi sprang up throughout the city in the first years of đổi mới, in the late 80s and early 90s, coinciding with a burst of activity by painters. Coffee shop owners were among the best patrons of the artists and today the walls of coffee shops on Nguyễn Hưu Huân, for example, are filled with paintings. Other establishments feature ethnic minority handicrafts. Phố Cổ coffee shop, behind a handicrafts stall at the end of Hàng Gai, features sculptures, from carved stone and wooden plaques to statues in various styles and high-relief, gilded imagery on what is perhaps the most splendid family altar in Hanoi. The top two floors have balconies with a magnificent view of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Whether here or in a more modest establishment elsewhere, Hanoi coffee shops provide a pleasant, even artistic environment not only for a refreshing drink, but an opportunity to meet and befriend people sitting around you.

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