28/09/2009 | 16:02:40

Café in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Tucked between a great number of shops on a motorbike-choked streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter, the Cafes have as much a quality of new discovery about it on the 50th visit as on the first one.

Hanoi is a city that takes its coffee seriously, unlike the rest of Asia -- a tea-drinking continent.Vietnam has a cafe culture to rival Italy's. Along with the colonial architecture and the fresh baguettes that are still sold o¬n street corners, coffee is one of Vietnam's most pleasant legacies from its years of the French colonial time.

Putting traffic aside, the pace of life is quite gentle here, and almost any Vietnamese you'll meet, regardless of age or class, has a favorite local cafe, where many hours are spent chatting and smoking and sucking down the ultra-strong, ultra-sweet ca phe sua da (espresso served in a tall glass with crushed ice and sweetened condensed milk), which is the favorite local coffee preparation.

It's a restrained sort of cafe culture: no flamboyant umbrellas, no tables spilling out onto the sidewalks. People-watching isn't really what it's about. The typical Hanoi cafe is a tiny space, often just a storefront with a beaded curtain separating it from the street. Hanoi residents come to cafes to escape the heat of the day, to relax, and to sip a cup of a grainy, bittersweet local blend.

For many people, a cup of coffee was simply a crutch for the sleep-deprived but Vietnamese coffee, on the other hand, can teach you the feeling of linger. At the Cafe Mai, a small open-air establishment on Le Van Huu Street, south of Lake Hoan Kiem, you can order a ca phe sua da, and the waitress will bring out a glass of ice and syrupy yellow milk (sweetened condensed milk keeps better in the heat) with a lidded metal contraption perched on top.

There's an aspect of ritual to it: sitting, waiting, watching the coffee brew right over your own glass. The whole process takes about 10 minutes, and the resulting drink is so sweet that some newcomers to Vietnam find it overwhelming. But sipped slowly, through chips of ice, the sweetened condensed milk gives ca phe sua da a mellow, caramel flavor, and makes it a wonderfully cooling drink on a summer afternoon. once you've finished, you'll probably be offered a cup of green tea - said to cleanse the mouth.

Though you won't find a Starbucks in Vietnam, there is no shortage of variety in Hanoi's cafes. Besides the standard four coffee drinks -- ca phe den nong (hot black coffee), ca phe den da (iced black coffee), ca phe sua nong (hot coffee with milk) and ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk) -- available in any cafe, there is ca phe trung, hot coffee with a raw egg beaten into it, with or without milk, which tastes a bit like flavored meringue. With sugar, it is practically a meal. The favorite place for this is Cafe 129, at the southern end of Mai Hac De, one of Hanoi's busiest restaurant streets.

Traditional cafes still abound, and they are a good way for a first-time visitor to experience a bit of Vietnamese daily life. So, when you're wandering through Hanoi's Old Quarters and the afternoon heat and the vehicles smoke and the traffic annoy you, drop in.

Let your eyes get used to the light, and find a table with a good view of the street. There are family photographs on the walls, perhaps an old “Happy New Year” calendar. And the usual display of the cafe's wares are on the counter at the back: cans of Coke and Sprite stacked in neat pyramids, bottles of Tiger beer, jars of Ovaltine, big glass jars of apricots in syrup, Vinataba cigarettes, Juicy Fruit and Doublemint gum in their little revolving display case.

A child may bring a menu. Then you can make your request: ''Xin cho toi mot ca phe sua da'' -- one milk coffee, please!./ Hanoi Times

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