On the far shore of an artificial lake in Hanoi, Vietnam, I found a much-needed antidote to restaurant hell, with its reckless gastronomical woes on untranslatable menus (involving Indochinese delicacies like baked sparrows, friend scorpions, sautéed snakes, and roasted rat): a coffee stand.
But not just any coffee stand.
Here they served the Vietnamese national drink: “Ca phe da.” Which is basically Vietnamese coffee and canned milk poured over ice, in the same way scalding hot water is poured over meat resembling cannibalism to produce an unsavory soup called “pho.”
In this land of rice and men, I considered Vietnam’s number-two export (coffee) to be a safe bet–until I found out that their most-expensive joe is also made with number-two: poop.
“Our best coffee is called ‘weasel coffee’ and is made from shit!” Vo mentioned, getting down to brass beans with evident hilarity. “Drink shit and die!”
“Uhn, that sounds terrible.”
“It is only for tourists: way too expensive for locals to buy. The Chinese like it a lot!”
“Weasel coffee” uses the best domestic Arabica beans, rather than the more common Robusta, which are consumed by wild “civets” (a kind of feral cat) who pass the beans through their digestive systems, where they partially ferment, and then the unsavory beans reappear in the unlucky beasts’ bowel movements.
And then in our cups.
“Could I, er, have a cup of crap?” I asked with relief resembling a laughing attack.
“I cannot sell such expensive coffee. I have to be careful: if I make too much money, the government would close me down,” Vo voiced. (No last name is given). Vo had studied in London, so his RP accent came across like a calmed-down Russell Brand, the British MTV spokesperson who recently divorced blue-haired pop diva Katy Perry.
Hence, with rolls of communist red tape and only a rudimentary tourist infrastructure, Vietnam is nevertheless, I view, the perfect place for a coffee klatch, seemingly on every other street corner: most of them doomed to go out of business if they become too successful: an economic paradox perhaps, or the genesis of a capitalist fable. It’s still quite difficult to get there and travel around. The two official government tourist agencies, Saigon Tourist and Vietnam Tourism, offer prohibitively expensive and restrictive organized tours and accommodations in overpriced luxury hotels. Also, the mushrooming private “tourist agencies” are often corrupt.
Fortunately, independent travelers can turn to “traveler cafes.” Evidence of free enterprise–in a country still ruled by hardline communists–the cafes are more than just places to socialize and have a cheap meal (starting at around 5,000 dong, depending on moribund inflation and currency-exchange fluctuations). Café society also provides centers from which to take cheap trips throughout Vietnam, including areas that are difficult or impossible to reach via the anarchic public transportation system. Foreigners can swap news and post messages; arrange transport and cheap accommodations; obtain visas to neighboring Laos and Cambodia; and rent motorbikes ($10 a day) or bicycles ($1 a day).
It’s possible to travel from one end of Vietnam to the other for less than $200 using a combination of cafe tours. Most of them offer an open ticket that lets you get on and off wherever you want. The most common route is Saigon to Hanoi (or vice versa) via Dalat, Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Hoi An, Da Nang, and Hué, using these stopovers as bases for shorter day trips. Because trips are mostly in crowded minibuses, it’s best to use them for short hops rather than long hauls. Good luck, smokers! No one is wild about stopping for a “smoko” on a landing strip through rice paddies filled with bamboo rat traps resembling a dire set from “The Deer Hunter.”
To hook up with the loosely associated traveler cafe network, jump in a cyclo (about $1) in one of Vietnam’s two entry points: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south and Hanoi in the north, with the name and address of a cafe in hand.
In Saigon, all of the traveler cafes offering organized excursions and transport are within walking distance of each other and near a cluster of budget hotels.
Influenced by their popular T-shirts, I decided quickly on The Sinh Café to try my first real Vietnamese coffee called “ca phe da” or “café da,” which takes some getting used to for strictly Starbucks irritants. I decided upon “ca phe sua da” (Iced Coffee with Milk), feeling like a proud colonial Frenchman reminding the Vietnamese who first introduced coffee to this country in 1857.
The poker-faced barista, with café-au-lait-colored skin, convinced me to try “ca phe nau da” (Iced Brown Coffee), made with finely ground Vietnamese-grown dark roast coffee individually brewed with a small French drip filter (called a “phin”) and poured into a cup containing a quarter to a half cup of sweetened condensed milk (from a can, of course), which is then stirred and poured over ice.
A true Vietnamese coffee contains no chicory. This was an additive invented by the Viet Kiew (overseas Vietnamese) in New Orleans. Indeed, today, “Café du Monde” blend (named after the famous French Quarter café) is the most popular brand.
[pullquote]The best coffee is grown in the central highlands (Annan Plateau) extending from Dalat to the Laos border.[/pullquote]If you mean business, though, your café will order from real Vietnamese coffee companies like Trung Nguyen, Indochine Coffee, Highlands Coffee, or—my favoite—“Phuc Long!” The best coffee is grown in the central highlands (Annan Plateau) extending from Dalat to the Laos border. Vietnamese coffee was considered an aphrodisiac by Uncle Ho, whose waxy effigy can still be viewed in Hanoi. . . .
Nowadays, a visit to Vietnam drives in the fact that here religion is not the opium of the people, real opium is. But uncontrolled caffeine addiction is a close runner-up. . . .
Vietnamese Ice Coffee Recipe (Ca Phe Sua Da):
You have gotten the skinny, so now it is time to make your own.
- 1 tablespoon (about 4 teaspoons) of Cafe Du Monde grind or non-chicory Vietnamese brand, such as “Phuc Long.”
- 1-2 teaspoons condensed milk: “Carnation’s”
- 1 Vietnamese “phin” (coffee filter)
- 1 glass for the strange brew
- 1 glass filled with ice
Prep time: 1 minute
Cook time: 2-5 minutes
Begin by boiling water. Remove the metal filter and pour in 1 full tablespoon of “Cafe Du Monde” (about 4 teaspoons). Twist the filter on gently. Ideally you want to add the condensed milk to the cup first because the boiling water actually cooks it. To brew, pour a tiny bit of water in to wet and expand the grinds. Then fill the filter and let it drip. Correct brewing time comes to about 2 to 5 minutes. Put the cap on and watch the coffee dribble and drabble!
Most Vietnamese prefer the longevity brand of condensed milk, called “Sua Ong Tho.” But I prefer “Carnation’s” (available in most bodegas next to Pringles and Milo).
Strongarm the brew into a glass filled with ice and serve.
Saigon and Hanoi Coffee Shops:
Most of the best cafes are in Saigon and Hanoi: at points in between your best bet is to look for cafes not mentioned in The Lonely Planet guide.
In Saigon, most budget travelers choose one or two of the best cafes:
The Sinh Cafe
246 De Tham St.
By far, the most popular travel cafe outfit in the country (T-shirts sporting their logo can be spotted throughout Southeast Asia), The Sinh Café offers one- to three-day tours of the Mekong Delta ($8-$27), three-day tours of the idyllic hill retreat of Dalat and touristy sea resort of Nha Trang ($20), and 10-day tours to the ancient former capital of Hué ($140), among others.
The Kim Café
270 De Tham St.
By far, the least expensive travel café in the country (T-shirts sporting their logo can be spotted throughout Southeast Asia), The Kim Café Offers a day trip to the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh and Cu Chi tunnels ($4). The colorful rococo Cao Dai Temple is the center of a uniquely Vietnamese religion combining Spiritism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Laoism, and Catholicism; the Cu Chi tunnels are a network of underground tunnels begun in 1948 by the Viet Minh in their struggles against the French and expanded by the Viet Cong.
The highlight of my cafe travel was Kim Cafe’s boat tour of the Mekong Delta ($19). Our guide was a former SVA interpreter (who after a stint in a “reeducation camp” drove a cyclo until 1989). One passenger was a returning Viet Kieu exiled in New Caledonia who had fought with the French against the Viet Minh. Many villagers we met on the riverbanks had survived the war by living underground as Viet Cong “tunnel rats.”
In Hanoi, tours can be arranged through a number of competing cafes:
The Queen Café
65 Hang Bac St.
Green Bamboo Café
42 Nha Chung St.
Tin Tin Café
14 Hang Non St.
59 Ba Trieu St.
Lonely Planet Café
33 Hang Be St.
Kolo Friendship Café
24 Mai Hac De St.
Love Planet Café
98 Ma May St.
Old Darling Café
4 Hang Quat St.
(Don’t confuse the Old Darling Cafe with the Real Darling Cafe, on the same street.) All café names and prices are subject to change without notice.
Hanoi cafes usually offers a two-day trip to Ha Long Bay ($24), a three-day trip to Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island ($38), a four-day trip to Sapa ($48), a two-day trip to Mai Chau/Hoa Binh ($25), plus daytrips to Hoa Lu/Tam Coc ($15) and Perfume Pagoda ($17). It also offers discounted tickets ($2-$4) for the ancient Vietnamese art of “roi nuoc” (water puppetry) at Thang Long Water Puppet Troupe.
The pinnacle of my trip was a visit to Ha Long Bay, where some 3,000 cave-riddled spiky chalk islets rise up from the crystal-clear waters. It is almost impossible to tour this region independently as cheaply. I met two intrepid travelers who somehow made it there on their own, only to get stranded on a deserted islet (where they were forced to pay an additional bribe of $100). Ha Long, which means “Where the Dragon Descends into the Sea,” has a jagged karst topography similar to Guilin in China and Krabi in Thailand, plus its very own version of the Loch Ness Monster, dubbed the “Tarasque.”
So, if planning a trip to Vietnam, become a member of the Indochinese Café Society and discover the cheapest and easiest way to see the country!
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Vietnam visas should be obtained well in advance from:
The embassy’s web site features detailed instructions and online application forms.
Another option is to fly to Bangkok and get expensive “rush visas” and cut-rate airfares from bucket shops on the famous Khao San Road. They handle all the formalities.
When ending your trip, minibus taxis can be arranged by all the Saigon and Hanoi cafes to both airports: Noi Bai in Hanoi and Son Nhat in Saigon. The cost should be around $4.
For other “Open-Ended” bus tours visit Vietnam Open Tour.