The streets of Hanoi are awash with foods to suit most palates. Noodle soups, fresh rolls, crispy fish and fluffy tofu tempt the inner glutton to table hop their way across the city. All of this takes a little energy, especially in the heat of midday, but Hanoi has just the answer – Coffee!
Introduced by the French in the late 19th Century, coffee plantations flourished in the central highlands that border southern Laos and eastern Cambodia. The coffee produced here is rich, dark and with an intense, unique flavour. I am no connoisseur when it comes to my coffee, but the flavour of Vietnamese coffee is unlike any other I have come across. The strength of the stuff is enough to wake up an army, and puts a standard Italian Espresso to shame.
Coffee vendors can be found just about anywhere and in most forms. The large coffee chains are yet to reach these shores and when they do arrive they are in for a shock. Almost weekly I walk past another coffee shop – they are springing up from nowhere. The model is the same as you would expect from any European or American city – comfy chairs, quirky interior design and a token wistful looking barista hunched over a book. On the streets, tiny coffee stalls cling to the roadside and travelling coffee sellers have all the key ingredients clinging to their bike frame.
Up all night
Before arriving in Vietnam, its reputation for coffee excellence had preceded it. I had patiently waited to tuck into a nice smooth coffee for months – having had my fill of Indian teas and strange ‘bubble’ concoctions on my way across Asia. When I finally arrived, to say I was a bit disappointed is an understatement – I simply couldn’t stomach it. It was thick, grainy and made sleep near impossible for a good 20 hours after one cup. I take my coffee without milk and I like it strong, but this was a step too far. I had conquered Turkish espresso, drunk my away across Italy and even tackled the terror of a friend’s attempted Bolivian Americano for over a year. But Vietnam defeated me – how could you enjoy such a thing?
It was only on my return two years later that I realised how. Drink the coffee how it is meant to be drunk – cold, with ice and with an un-healthy spoonful of sweet condensed milk. Sound appealing? I thought not! But this is how to do it, and trust me it is delicious. I am sure some hardened coffee drinkers will disagree and cry sacrilege – but don’t listen – just add another spoonful of milk and enjoy. The recipe is simple: 1 quarter milk, the rest cold coffee, served on the rocks. The art is stirring it so all the milk is mixed whilst no ice is lost – a tough thing when anxiously trying to get your caffeine fix. The sound of clattering ice being stirred is as common in most cities as the hoots of motorbikes, but a little more relaxing.
As with most things in Hanoi, the best places are found on the street. As ever the chairs may be a bit uncomfortable and the surroundings noisy, but find the right place and your stay in Hanoi will be complete. Ask for a “Café Sua Da” and you will be ready to tackle the city all over again.
Here’s my recommendations for where to savour a glass in Hanoi! If you are staying in the Old Quarter then be sure to try the coffee shop at 5b Dinh Liet Street. The owners are lovely and the more you drink the sweeter the coffee seems to get. You will also get a great view of one of the busiest thoroughfares in town. If coffee is your thing then you should really be heading south towards Vincom Towers, where you will find Trieu Viet Vuong Street, a treasure trove of coffee shops of all shapes and sizes. Take your pick – you can’t go wrong! Last, if you are looking for somewhere to escape the heat and mingle with Hanoi’s cool crowd, then Cong Caphe is is the place for you. Menu’s are written on old Lenin textbooks and the theme of the day is old school communism. This tiny place has atmosphere in droves and does a mean coffee – iced or hot. Be sure to try the coconut coffee ice cream for a treat in the heat!
All of our Hanoi day tours finish with a glass of Café Sua Da with your guide. If you need a boost at any point in the day, just ask your guide, who’ll probably be craving one too!