Coffee Just Leveled Up – Giang Cafe – Hanoi, Vietnam
One of life’s simplest pleasures has become one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of this trip: where to get a decent cup of coffee? Christine is more of a tea gal, but anyone who needs their daily fix to function will understand Kevin’s struggle. There have certainly been some low points…we will never talk about how much instant coffee has been consumed in the last two months. But along the way, we’ve been to countries that have amazing coffee cultures, and we’ve discovered some incredible drinks. The lattes in New Zealand were out of this world, and the “kopi c” in Singapore was basic but delicious. Vietnamese coffee has been a pleasant surprise; in fact it’s been some of the best that we’ve ever had. Christine has even temporarily switched over!
The Vietnamese love their coffee, and as with many Asian countries, it’s a sit down experience – slow-and-social, not grab-and-go. You won’t find many cafes open early here either. While the experience lacks speed and convenience, it more than makes up for it in taste. To start, most of the beans that are grown in Vietnam are Robusto, making for a strong, potent, and bitter brew, closer to espresso than coffee. A traditional Vietnamese coffee (iced or hot) can be ordered “black” or “white” – the latter being served with a layer of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the cup. Fresh milk has never been readily available, so sweetened condensed milk has become the standard dairy/sweetener. At the right ratio of coffee to milk, there’s a richness to the taste that is addicting. You need not worry about it being too rich though, because the serving size is quite small.
What’s even more interesting is how the coffee is brewed and served. A single-serving filter/press device called a phin is used to brew each cup. The process is as simple as putting some coffee grinds into the base of the phin, placing a damper on top, and filling it with hot water. The phin is then placed on top of a coffee mug, and over the next 5-10 minutes the coffee will drip through holes in the bottom of the phin into the mug. Once it’s done, drink up! This is the standard for coffee in Vietnam. You’d be hard pressed to find a pot of coffee sitting around outside of a hotel dining room.
But wait, there’s more. Back in the 1940s, a man by the name of Nguyen Giang dreamed of an even better cup of coffee. Instead of just the usual sweetened condensed milk, he whipped a few egg yolks, then added a proprietary blend which may or may not include honey, butter, a touch of sweetened condensed milk, and possibly even cheese. It was a hit, and Vietnamese Egg Coffee was born. Egg Coffee started in Hanoi, but can now be found throughout the country. We went as far as making it ourselves with Josh in Saigon, but being in Hanoi, we had to have a taste of the original.
After some wandering through the Old Quarter, we found the sign for Giang Cafe. The door led us through a narrow hallway, which opened up into a small, modest cafe. We took a seat at a very low table about the size of placemat, on stools that rose about a foot off the ground (they say the lower the stools, the more authentic the place is). The menu was basic – coffee, hot or cold, egg or not, etc; there was even egg beer, but we we only came for one thing. We ordered, and about 5 minutes later they arrived. The mugs were very small, topped off with what looked like a very rich froth, served in a larger mug of hot water to keep things warm. We gently mixed the drinks, and took a sip. They say that a proper Egg Coffee tastes like liquid tiramisu. They didn’t exaggerate one bit…it was coffee perfection.