Aug 16, 2019
Café Giảng is a mecca for any Hanoi local or tourist. While the café is on to its third location (39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội), it remains a hotspot for eager coffee lovers in the city. The café is hidden inside a deep alleyway, with a single ironically egg-shaped sign at its entrance. As we walked through the dark lane, we passed patrons sitting on tiny, low dark wooden stools at equally low tables. The whirring of the electric mixer, constantly whipping a new batch of the egg mix, slowly came to the forefront.
The café is two floors, with a narrow little staircase connecting the two levels. Both floors are quintessentially Hanoi, with the first floor being a busy, hectic room filled with wonderful aromas, while the second transports one back to the colonial French days, with high ceilings, wooden tables and stools, and maroon-tiled floors, with a hint of greenery. A lengthy menu is at each table, outlining the café’s offerings, from the famed egg coffee, to the traditional condensed milk coffee, to more adventurous options, including Coca Cola with the added egg custard. We had no choice, but to try a handful of the offerings.
Served in tiny cups, the egg coffee was sweet and somewhat creamy, yet somehow retaining a dark coffee undertone. The iced condensed milk coffee was silky and sugary, yet boundlessly addictive – similar to a good coffee ice cream. It was tempting to finish off our coffees within just a few sips, but instead, we joined the other coffee-drinkers in a chance to relax, and slow down. Of course, the perpetual sound of car horns still echoed in the distance. After a brief moment of reflection, we – like countless others before us – returned to the restless streets of Hanoi, leaving this wonderful coffee haven.
While coffee-lovers across the world may find commonalities in a cup of coffee, there are fundamental differences between coffee culture in Vietnam and North America. We in Canada or the United States might be familiar with many coffee chain brands. While an interest in the origins and roasting processes of coffee is growing rapidly, coffee often remains an on-the-go beverage in North America. Nothing symbolizes this way of life more than the iconic paper coffee cup, designed to be carried around for hours.
On the other end of the spectrum is Vietnam, where elements of the distinctly European view of coffee as a drink for relaxation. Cafés in Vietnam are getaways from the hustle of the streets, allowing a relaxing place to sit down for a small cup of coffee. In Hanoi, we would often glance locals seated in a café, or even on the side of the road – a cup of coffee or tea in hand – chatting with friends.
In North America, we have a stereotype of a typical businessman or professional strolling down the sidewalk, with a paper cup of coffee in hand. To the best of my memory, we never once encountered such an image in Hanoi, let alone someone with a take-away cup of coffee. Even the most common coffee beans are different between North America and Vietnam. North American consumers generally drink coffee from the arabica variety, a slightly sweeter variety that makes up 60% of the world’s coffee production, while the majority of the coffee we sampled in Vietnam – as well as the most popular – is the stronger, earthier robusta variety, the second most produced worldwide, at roughly 40%.
While Vietnam retains a strong taste for coffee, another milk-added drink is making waves among Vietnamese youths. Bubble tea, a Taiwanese creation of milk tea with various tapioca pearls and jellies, is quickly becoming a new favourite on the streets of Vietnam. Hundreds of bubble tea stores, mostly chain brands, have opened in Vietnam within the past 5 years. According to one survey, an average of 8 bubble tea shops opened in Hanoi each month in the first half of 2017. Shops sold hundreds, some thousands, of cups of bubble tea each day.
Driving around Hanoi, we would often notice plenty of bubble tea shops from various international chains – mostly spotless and brand new, with droves of young people clutching colourful cups of bubble tea. While bubble tea is slightly pricier than a cup of Vietnamese coffee – ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 dong each – it is obvious that many still flock to buy this in-demand drink. Presumably, the allure of a sweet, milky tea and chewy pearls is much more appealing to some than the traditional iced coffee with condensed milk.
Regardless, coffee consumption still has a strong – though narrowing – lead over tea in Vietnam, with nearly 5 times that of tea consumption. The cafés of Hanoi that we encountered were always packed, regardless of how many we saw at the bubble tea shops, suggesting many Vietnamese still prefer the dark, roasted flavour undertones of classic Vietnamese coffee.
The story of Vietnamese coffee is reminiscent of the story of the country, Vietnam. From beginnings in foreign influence, coffee, much like Vietnam itself, went through various hardships and misfortunes, before rapidly evolving into an indispensable player in the modern day. As Vietnam’s economy continues to grow, the country’s coffee culture continues to transform. Opportunities, as shown through the history of Vietnamese coffee, are limitless. If something as unheard of as egg yolks can find their way into a delicious coffee in Vietnam, we, the world outside, excitedly await the future growth of Vietnamese coffee culture.