Hanoi is such a hotspot for coffee that we didn’t even find time for tea in our three days there. What’s more, Vietnam’s capital has such a wonderful range of coffee shops serving up the traditional Vietnamese coffee that we also didn’t bother trying to find any western-style cappuccino or espresso, and that must be a first for us.
Every street corner seems to have a coffee shop in Hanoi. With people (mainly guys, it has to be said, though not exclusively) sitting on low stools or chairs spilling out onto pavements, you can tell Hanoi has a café culture such as we hadn’t really seen since Istanbul.
With so many coffee shops, it’s impossible in such a small space of time to visit enough to say we ‘covered’ coffee in the capital. But we loved everything we did sample in Hanoi.
Our first cuppa was at a place called Homemade Coffee in a street called Thai Phien.
After the tourist focus of Sapa, where everything is in English, we were confronted with our first menu only in Vietnamese, and only limited English among the staff, so it was a case of picking at random and seeing what we got…
One of us ended up with an iced coffee, the other with a hot coffee with milk.
Now, I’d always been a bit disdainful of people that rave about iced tea or coffee (usually folk from the southern US states, where most things are drunk iced), but actually in Vietnam, I began to appreciate a glass of the iced stuff on a steaming hot day.
When it first appeared in front of me, I still wasn’t too sure – all that ice!!!
But mix it up in the same way you do with a hot milk coffee in Vietnam, and you get a passably decent colour, which tastes pretty good, made with the right coffee.
I didn’t get the time in our few days in Vietnam to develop a palate sensitive enough to pick out what makes a good Vietnamese coffee from an ordinary one (and we did have a couple of those too on our travels).
But when you see the guy roasting his own coffee beans in the street in front of the coffee shop he runs, the chances are this will make a good coffee. And so it was with Khoa Coffee (or Cafe Khoa).
We watched the whole roasting process in front of us; a real micro-roast if ever I saw one, with a tiny number of beans going into each small roasting ball, before he then sieved the beans post roast and packaged them for the next customer.
His coffee was good enough, and his meticulous dedication to his work impressive enough for me to want to buy some of the coffee Mr Khoa roasted in his shop on the corner of Hang Giay and Van Chuong streets.
And such was his pride in the quality of the coffee that he insisted we take away the newly-roasted batch rather than a packet roasted a few days earlier.
We were well impressed with this guy and his coffee shop in Hanoi. It’s our top tip for coffee if you’re in the old part of the Vietnamese capital.
Our final sample of the Hanoi coffee culture came at Pho Co Café, which is a bit of a tourist attraction these days, so it’s hard to know for sure how genuine the place is.
A lot of people go there for the great views over Hanoi’s beautiful lake, and the two floors that have terraces looking out over town are worth it whatever tipple tickles your fancy.
The coffee shop is tucked away down a narrow alleyway on Hang Gai street, and you walk through a clothes shop first to even get to the alleyway.
They take orders on the ground floor before you head upstairs and pick your spot, either looking down on the courtyard garden, with all its Buddha paraphernalia and plants growing in the dim light, or you go right up past the actual (Buddhist) shrine to those upstairs terraces.
What’s famous about this café is the egg white that’s added to the coffee (if that’s what you want, of course). We tried it and wow, yes this is a great idea for a really rich, frothy coffee in the morning. I have no idea how genuinely traditional this is in Vietnamese coffee culture (perhaps someone better informed can answer…), but this is the main draw for tourists, and it’s what gets the mention in travel guides like Lonely Planet.
We liked this place enough to go back twice, though as much for the views and atmosphere as for that eggy coffee.
I wish we’d had a week more to explore other parts of Hanoi and try other coffee shops around the town. We’d almost certainly have come up with as many stories and versions of what makes a good coffee as we have in the three places we did try.
So for coffee lovers, Hanoi is one top destination. And as I say, I didn’t even try to find a western-style ‘speciality’ coffee shop there.