One of the most surprising cultures in Hanoi is the coffee one; purely from a point of dissociation I have (or had) with South East Asia and coffee. This dissociation was based on experiences of other South East Asian countries I had travelled in where tea was the major refreshment drunk, not coffee.
My first experience came from Tam, the owner (with his wife) of the apartment we were staying in. On our first morning in Hanoi he invited us up to his residence on the top floor, and we started our breakfast chat with a delicious green tea laced with what Tam described as “white bee honey” – a honey that is pure and comes from a bee that feeds only on a certain white flower in parts of northern Vietnam. Then Tam made some traditional Vietnamese coffee (cà phê); the kind we had tried in Saigon ten years earlier; slowly dripped though a filter sitting on top of the cup, and finished with sweetened condensed milk. For someone who does not take sugar with coffee, it was really a decadent surprise. The coffee was strong but very smooth, and the sweetness from the condensed milk harmonised with it perfectly.
As we were drinking there was a glint in Tam’s eye, and a devious smile was forming. He asked what we thought of the coffee, and in all truth I was certainly sold on it. He then asked if we knew where the coffee had come from, and what type it was. He then said that this was genuine weasel coffee, and went on to explain that coffee beans are eaten by the local weasels (civet cats) where they are then passed through their digestive system, and the resulting bean is then deposited from the rear and then collected. Never could I have imagined saying, as I did, that the excrement from a cat would be the finest and smoothest I have ever tasted.
The juices were flowing and the fires now burning to go out and discover coffee in Hanoi. I currently live in Melbourne, which must be one of the coffee capitals of the world with coffee influences from around the globe. Surely Hanoi would only be a blip in comparison. How wrong I was. Coffee is everywhere, and locals in particular divulge on every street corner in Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. It’s not weasel coffee as the genuine beans are very expensive; however there are simulated weasel coffees where additives are added in order to replicate the flavour.
I remember finding a great little coffee house, very basic inside, and sitting people watching whilst drinking a supremely smooth, dark, filtered, strong and sweetened espresso.
This was opposite the Temple of Literature, a Confucian university that was built in 1070 – it was like an amalgamation of modern Hanoi and it’s beautiful past – a truly blissful moment.
I think the greatest discovery was in a café called Pho Co. We first had to walk through a small art shop where a resident artist was copying a post card on to a large canvas using oil paint; even that was quite mesmerising, especially the ease at which he was replicating. Then we passed through a silk shop and tailors and down a narrow alley into a courtyard that could have been plucked from the Temple of Literature.
At the bottom of the staircase we had to order our drinks, and then ascend a couple of narrow rickety staircases, pass a dark prayer room emanating wonderful incense, climb up a very tight winding staircase and then through a room with a few tables and chairs on to a small terrace, where an incredible view of Lake Hoan Kiem greeted us.
The greatest discovery was not this though; it was egg white coffee. When I saw it on the menu I have to say that I was not inclined to order it as I conjured up an image of a gloopy, slimy coffee preparation – but things are there to be discovered, so what the heck I ordered it. Imagine a dark rich espresso with a sweet foamy meringue on top. As you tip the cup and the strong coffee transcends through the foam it picks up the sweetness and texture, and the taste is just exquisite.
Some have likened it to drinking tiramisu; and I can concur with that. It was just brilliant. I came back again later in the trip and spent a whole afternoon drinking egg white coffee, reading a book, and watching dusk set over Hanoi.
My wife on the other hand had a different favourite coffee place; it looked like it had be plucked from a Pacific Island with its cane chairs and flowery wallpaper, and plonked right in the middle of Hanoi. All the waiter-cum-barista wanted was to make the greatest cup of coffee he could, and with his limited English he managed to fully understand my wife’s order; an espresso with a side of hot milk (not condensed) – ordering this in many Hanoi establishments is a real feat I tell you.
Thereafter every time my wife walked in to the café he would greet her with a smile and would say “espresso, milk”. This was one of the great things about staying in Hanoi for a month – you get to be known locally.
If you ever go to Vietnam, and you love coffee, then Hanoi is a must.