In Hanoi the sip lid hole is an inconvenience.
Every single coffee shop offering takeaway has a roll of tape at the counter. Your coffee is prepared, lidded and the hole, or holes, are taped to stop spillage. The cup is bagged and the bag hooked onto your motorbike as you continue your journey to work or home.
People don’t walk in Hanoi. Nobody strolls sipping from a takeaway latte.
This is what all those tourist traffic tales and tips for crossing roads don’t get. Yes there are ways to cross the road, but most of us will go months between crossings. Hanoians don’t cross roads. When you literally park your bike in your kitchen, then on the pavement outside work, a cafe, shop or bar, why would you?
Even if you’d like to walk you can’t. The pavements are full of bikes.
The coffee is for the destination. Not the journey.
If I’m honest I’m not especially fond of any of the big brand behemoths that may or may not be coming to whichever big Asian city near you.
People queuing up to do online reviews of a Burger King in Hanoi remind me of that old Peter Kaye sketch about family holidays where they find Kellogg’s Cornflakes in a Spanish supermarket and buy them to see if they taste the same. Funnily enough those reviews can be divided roughly in two: It’s the Same! and It’s Not the Same (Typical Vietnam!).
That said next up is Starbucks in Ho Chi Minh City which means inevitably they’ll end up in Hanoi before too long. Before we proceed, check out this fantastic blogged snapshot of local coffee providers for some context.
Over Christmas in the UK I avoided Starbucks, opting for the UK-based Costa, mostly because of the widely publicised at the time Starbucks’ tax avoidance. On a recent trip to Hong Kong though I visited every day. My boycott, it turns out, was pretty half hearted but a reasonable relfection of my don’t-love-em but don’t-care-enough-to-hate-em attitude to the brand
With that scene set, what of Starbucks coming to Vietnam? Will it kill the local coffee scene?
I doubt it.
People talk of how the high street coffee shops killed independent outlets in the UK but frankly pre Starbucks there were very few local cafes making even a half decent coffee. Hanoi is a little different. There is already a coffee culture. Seeing as it was the French who introduced the bean that became your caphe sua da does it make much difference if the Americans now popularise the latte?
When I first worked here, less than a decade ago, women just didn’t drink coffee. Now I watch my two fellow comms team members arrive at work clutching takeouts. If coffee was a culture it’s now become a craze.
Recently I noticed the bizarre, if very sweet, The Note Coffee appear by the lake in the centre of town. Beyond the provision of very decent coffee it also has a baffling post-it note subtext. Providing coffee is old hat, you have to have a gimmick too.
But in Hanoi it’s not just about the number of places you can buy coffee but also the different types. Italian espresso, egg coffee, yoghurt coffee, sticky rice coffee, fair trade and the ubiquitous caphe sua da. Frankly the fact that the world is going nuts for coffee is good news for Vietnam rather than the other way around. There can be few other places offering such a diverse array of the stuff. On a lovely day, when you can sit outside at pavement cafes, Hanoi is a like a gaint caffeine theme park.
Starbucks will settle into Vietnam in much the same way as McDonalds and Subway fade into the food scene in KL. There was such a massive diversity of food there that the big American brands became another layer amongst many. In the end they’ll only remain if they’re wanted.
At Christmas, alongside a 30 kilo coffee machine, myself and my wife also carried back a huge box of takeout coffee cups (decent ones with lids and ripple walls). To buy such a thing in Hanoi would mean ordering 30,000 of the things that would fill half our house – takeout coffee culture is growing but obviously in its infancy.
That said, when my wife set up The Cart a few years back, the desire to do a half decent espresso meant they opted for Italian beans. But the quality and diversity of Vietnamese coffee continues to grow and that may change in the not too distant future.
Starbucks won’t fail but I don’t think it will kill the coffee scene either. If anything it’s all about to get even more interesting.
There’s a little history with me and the new Cart location.
Before I left first time around, I stayed briefly at the Especen. When I returned, two and a half years later, I contacted them about a room and they put me in one of their longer-term digs down the alley.
The fact that my late friend Martin‘s cafe was right opposite was a mere happy coincidence. I arrived late at night, then left my lodgings the following morning to cross the road to see my good friend. It’s a moment captured on film 35 seconds in above. A minute later he introduced me to Loan, his business partner. One year later she would be my wife.
She disputes this story, saying we met on another visit and she wasn’t in that day. Whether or not that’s true I’m sticking to my version. Between truth and legend, always choose the legend.
Fast forward and shortly before we celebrated our second wedding anniversary Loan shook hands on the deal to move The Cart to downstairs at the Especen rooms.
Frankly it’s nowhere near ready but, yes, it is open. Better to leave it two weeks if you want to see it properly in operation and get the best service.
The Cart Au Trieu has many ties to the past, not least to Martin. Nice then that when we announced it on Facebook his sister Jill was among the first to give the move the thumbs up.
Working from home more than ever, if I eat lunch then it’s frequentally at the Xuan Dieu bun cha place.
It being deep in the heart of Tayville this is probably the most whitey patronised street food in the whole of Hanoi. The bun cha is good, if not fantastic. The nem though are especially tasty. Despite not quite making it up with the best, I love the place.
I ride past it most days and the staff member out front frying the pork patties always manages to catch my eye. She shouts “bun cha!” to me in the tone of voice that westerners might use for something more calorifically naughty – like a cream cake or ice cream. I’ve noticed that Hanoians literally can’t say “bun cha!” without eyes glinting and mouth smiling. It seems inaccurate even to write it without an exclamation mark. Apparently Hanoians still love it, even if they spend their days shovelling the stuff into bags and bowls in extreme temperatures.
Eating in is straight forward but with the house close-by we often take away. The first time we returned only to find that of the usual two types of pork we only had patties. Next time the old lady told us she thought that’s what foreigners preferred. She’s probably right – like Jack Sprat and his missus, I eat mostly the patties, she eats the fatty pork.
When I stop for delivery there are always nem negotiations. I ask for two, she cheekily suggests three. I stick to my guns but she giggles and puts five in the pan just in case. She then uses the frying time to talk me up. She says four, then a hopeful three again. She’s still appealing to me to up the order as she puts them still sizzling into plastic bag. I wonder why the bag doesn’t melt.
When we take away, the accompanying bag of greens could fill a salad buffet on its own. Both the salad bag and the noodle bags are loosely tied. The soup bag is watertight with a challenging knot. The on-table condiments of ground garlic and chillis are already added. I like spicy but still have to spoon out half a dozen red slices before it becomes inedibly hot. The garlic means I spend the rest of the day averting my breath from people’s faces.
Despite working in what must be incredible summer heat, around grills and boiling broth, the younger women always wear skin tight jeans, high heels and boutiquey blouses. No grease nor sweat marks are apparent.
Sometimes I’ll be passing late afternoon. All the customers are gone and the mess mostly cleaned away but there’s still someone out the front ready to tempt me.
I’m embarrassed to say yes, thinking surely they just want to finish. However if I nod they seem genuinely pleased and start unpacking the food and equipment again. By this time there’s another older woman sat out the front peeling a sack of garlic ready for the next day.
The place must be a little gold mine and yet beyond the money, staff seem to take a genuine pleasure in just feeding you bun cha and having you enjoy it.
All of which sounds a bit soft and yet, none of the normal negative Hanoi expat filters appear to apply.
The Bun Cha! Heroes of Xuan Dieu – we salate you.