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.
Pic taken at the new branch of Cong Caphe on Dien Bien Phu, just down from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
Doubly brilliant for me is that we live round the corner so I picked up an already bagged up latte and muesli on the way to work this morning and had something of a luxurious breakfast while I waited for my computer to boot (it takes a while here).
Anyway this is just a quick in-my-lunch-hour post to say how chuffed/knackered we are in equal measures. The place actually looks better than we ever could have hoped and everyone is telling us what a great location it is and yet it’s also off the Xuan Dieu beaten track.
Chatting with Puku’s co-owner Daragh yesterday we mused on how incredible it is that you can open a cafe in Vietnam in under a month and on a fairly limited budget. Back home the paperwork would probably take twice and the cost would be prohibitive. However don’t ever think it is easy. On Friday night alone signs turned up in the wrong colour, menus turned up full of spelling mistakes suggesting our designs had been retyped in instead of just being printed. On Sunday when we were working towards opening we had three power outages lasting 20 minutes a time.
Right now, still trying to sort out our coffee cup conundrum I’m simoultaneously making enquiries about importing reuseable eco cups while also sounding out other coffee shops owners on the possibility of a collective that could order together in a bulk large enough to make decent paper cup manufacture worthwhile.
But by far the biggest problem is staffing. If I hadn’t heard the same problems voiced elsewhere then I’d be worried that it was us. Typical of our experience was a new recruit who turned up on his first day and then left after 15 minutes never to return again – not answering his phone when we’ve called him. No experience required – there has to be someone out there. If you know someone – get them to ring Loan.
We went out for dinner Thursday night after a quick stroll around our corner of the lake. It was doubley enjoyable because we have little time for each other recently. We both work long hours on our day jobs then spend the evenings on menu design, updating websites and generally working our way through a lengthy to-do list.
Either way it’s been worth it – the new place is great. The coffee is wonderful and we’re so glad we imported a decent machine. The food and drink is the same fresh mix of sandwiches, pies, pasties, cakes and juices – plus a new beefed up breakfast menu.
It’s phenomenally exciting and seeing the cafe open gives you a real sense of pride. I should also remind you that this is not my Cafe, it’s my wife’s. I just help out when I can but Loan’s hospitality experience stretches back well over a decade before we even met.
Our next break is Christmas (staff recruitment allowing) but until then it’s hard to imagine a break from a seven day a week , 12 hours a day cycle.
Luckily I know a great place to stock up on caffeine.