By CHEF GENE GONZALEZ
As a frequent Vietnam visitor, I know how seriously the Vietnamese take their coffee and their coffee break, a big part of community relations. A friendly custom is ordering a phin (coffee filter) with your hot or cold beverage, waiting patiently for the extraction of coffee while chit-chatting, and meditating on the drops of rich dark liquid falling one by one into your cup. The most common order is caphe den nong (hot black) or caphe da (iced), which you drink still warm after watching strong hot drops of coffee fall through to the bottom layer of condensed milk and then, after vigorous mixing, it is poured into a glass full of ice.
Both beverages are sipped not chugged and the experience of the coffee and condensed milk flavors bloom on one’s palate while the delicious, smoky, caramel finish lingers in the cup. It’s almost pastry or dessert-like, but with a caffeine rush of course.
On the last week of our food trip in Hanoi, we had to time our coffee breaks, walking great distances and making sure that we didn’t get too close to the evening or we would be up all night on caffeine. In any crowded area in Vietnam, there’s always a place to have coffee. Even the small places still traditionally serve coffee extracted through a phin, though this practice is more prevalent in Saigon. In Hanoi, more and more modern places now use large filters to extract the coffee from an espresso machine, taking out the romance of tradition but ensuring thorough extraction of flavor. Here are some of our latest favorite discoveries in Hanoi.
Truong Nguyen has been the by-word of coffee in Vietnam as it is present in many areas. It has become the meeting place on coffee breaks. Many chains in the past have tried to invade the coffee scene of Vietnam, but the locals still prefer their brand and way of coffee preparation. Because of its fame among locals and tourists, Truong Nguyen started streamlining its operations and making its concoctions and coffee blends more cosmopolitan. The upscale coffee shops are minimalist in style and many recommend pour-over preparations instead of the traditional style you find at the old cafés. There are some pretty impressive blends I personally like such as culi. This blend has choice beans mainly from peaberry, which are rare single beans without the usual cleft you find in a coffee bean. I like Creation #4, which is a blend of peaberries from Robusta, Arabica, and their unique chari and catimor varieties. The blends are complex and contain balanced flavors of fruit, sweet spice, smoke, and caramel.
Way back, I’d tried its legendee, Truong Nguyen’s most expensive coffee, which is enzymatically treated to produce a fine, flavored coffee much like kopi luwak. At about P500 a cup, you take this in a single filter pour paper phin cup. It has around and sweet finish (don’t take it with sugar).
Cafe Giang at Lee Thai Tho is the inventor of the iconic “egg coffee.” The French influence of a bubbly sabayon gives great texture whether hot or iced. To find it, you have to pass through a small alley leading to a garage where you find the kitchen and mixers for the foamy egg toppings. From there, you go up an antiquated stairwell to the coffee hall separated into nooks by arches. Caphe trung (egg) nong or hot egg coffee or caphe trung da or cold egg coffee is served in classic Vietnamese portions by an efficient staff. The café has so many choices for egg toppings on their beverages, from coffee, chocolate, mung bean to beer, rum chocolate, and rum coffee. I did try the egg beer after my egg coffee and was particularly happy with the creaminess of the egg foam rounding out my beer.
The newly renovated Kafa is located along the way to the lake from the old quarter. The elevated porch has low benches on the sidewalk. The coffee boutique is beautifully designed with custom-made display jars in brass. We ordered the usual capge sua da or iced coffee, which came in bistro glasses. I am particularly impressed by the complexity of the blend that still possesses rich, buttery notes but with the unique character of smoky pipe tobacco, toasted marshmallows, and dark caramel.
Cong Caphe seems to be the crowd’s favorite as there are so many shops all around. Cong has a military theme and what I found the most charming was in the old quarter in front of the church, on the second-floor balcony of this very old townhouse. Its signatures are its coconut-laced range of beverages from coffee to chocolate. The coconut iced coffee is served with a mound of coconut granite, freezing the coffee. While those who prefer it hot can get a topping of foamed coconut cream. These blends are great for the lactose-intolerant and the vegans. Some also order it as a smoothie. I like the way the coffee shop preparation includes hang dieu, cua dong, and hoan kiem. I ordered a foamy caphe sua da and was delighted that it was shaken to produce a foamy texture even as you sipped from it. It’s great to watch people on the customary low chairs and tables on the sidewalk.
I want to make special mention of Highlands Coffee, a chain whose operation is now Filipino-owned. It is all over key areas in Vietnam. Highlands started the streamlining of coffee operations much like Starbucks does, but in Vietnamese fashion. I’ve been a longtime patron of this chain. Besides its consistent quality and pricing, the house blend quite departs from the one-sided buttery or caramel-like profiles and mass appeal of Vietnamese coffee and puts some sophistication and complexity to its blends with spicy, smoky notes. Whether iced or served as an espresso, the rich house blend is always something I enjoy.
You can email me at email@example.com or message me on Instagram