Vietnamese coffee is famous, and justly so. The first time I was in Hanoi with family, we downed about 5 cups each per day. Despite its strong taste, the caffeine effect is strangely absent, and we slept just fine on our trip. Everywhere we went, we had great coffee – our tipple of choice usually being a càphê sữa (iced coffee with milk), and a càphê đen đá (iced black coffee) for my lactose-intolerant sister.
This time round, though, either general standards have fallen or my personal standards have gone up (likely) – a couple of cafes we’ve randomly walked into so far have had lousy brews. We did eventually have an amazing cup of coffee, but our first experience with it left a bitter taste in our mouths.
Enter No. 37 Luong Van Can in the Old Quarter, a permanently crowded little establishment on a street of toy shops, scooters squeezed side-by-side in a tight line across the front. The proprietor, Ramen-Hair Lady (her perm, you see), was sitting front and centre when we approached mid-morning yesterday, a tad wary. We’d been stared out of the place an hour or so earlier, and decided to return later since it was full. This time, there were empty tables. I took the plunge.
I slipped past the men at the front, and pointed at a vacant table inside. Ramen-Hair Lady shook her head. ‘Càphê sữa đá‘, I tried, in rubbish Vietnamese. Still a no. Her Right Hand Girl walked past me to the counter, glancing at me. Written all over her face was oh god not another bloody foreigner.
Hime-sama swooped in, and tried, this time in actual Vietnamese. Ramen-hair lady shook her head, then gestured outwards. Apparently, we would get our coffee, but only if we got out. 20,000VND for a takeaway plastic cup of some of the best càphê sữa đá that has ever trickled down my gullet, thrust at us with a grunt and a frown.
The next morning, we dropped by to try our luck again. This time we were accompanied by Himesama’s parents, who were in town for a tour. We’d regaled them with yesterday’s events and they were surprised; her father said that we should have just sat down and demanded drinks. And that was exactly how it went this morning, as smooth as the coffee we sipped.
Her parents pulled up their rightful seats at the front of the shop, and barked their orders at the waitstaff. Right Hand Girl even brought the drinks over with a smile. Amazing. Is this because they’re Born-And-Bred-In-Vietnam-Viet? Were we too obviously tourists, and unworthy of a seat in the house? Who knows. I was sort of hoping for a confrontation of some kind, but evidently they were wise enough not to pull the same shtick twice.
Anyway, if you can get past all of that, at the end of the rainbow awaits a stellar càphê sữa – strong, rich and sweet, exactly the way it should be. If you’re a faint-of-heart tourist like me, perhaps you should bring a local. Your cuppa probably won’t come with a smile, but who visits Hanoi for the service, anyway?
37 Luong Van Can
20,000VND for for an iced coffee; 15,000VND sans ice