Vietnamese Coffee and First Impressions

It’s ironic how “they” always say that first impressions are the ones that count. I think it’s not really always true, or at least not always accurate…but here are mine of Vietnam.

When we landed, a car was waiting to pick us up to take us to the hotel. We were escorted in style with comfortable air-conditioning through a busy road lined by rice patties and fields. But as we drove, it was hard to soak in all the contrasting views. Here we were sitting in a luxury automobile with the driver and one of the concierge ladies from the hotel, with wifi included so we could get online or make a phone call (like we did on Skype to my parents), while outside there were a complex array of views passing by. The road was full of vespas and motorbikes, loaded with not only people (most wearing masks to protect against pollution and air contaminants) but everything you can imagine; the rice patties on the sides of the road brought images of a quintessential Asia seen in travel and history books; the houses looked like something out of a European fairy tale crossed with Indian or South American influence, with their very tall and many-storied look and colourful facades; and yet through this semblance of peacefulness, there is an underlying chaos all around with horns honking, fumes blowing out of cars and motorbikes, and even a water buffalo or two trying to cross the same road we were driving on.

Vietnam is a country trying to embrace and adapt to the modern world, yet it is riddled with a political system that would seem anything but Communist (everyone seems to be an entrepreneur) and a history that usually equates to invasions, suffering and wars. The Vietnamese seems like a strong and resilient people; a people with hope and hard-working ethics; and a people who want to bring their nation into the 21st century quicker maybe than they are really prepared for.

I couldn’t help but think all of this, and kept rehashing that only about 30 years ago, this country was at war, and one of the bloodiest and most tragic wars remembered in recent history. From a Vietnamese perspective, especially in the north, the latest war is called the American War, and was started by the invasion of the Americans. They have also been invaded on numerous occasions by China, from whom they have a rich historical legacy, and by the French.

But on the street, all that one sees is a frenetic kaleidoscope of colour, people, mopeds, and rapid movement, sprinkled with elements of an ancient culture, which is still very strongly pulsating.

So, my first impressions of this beautiful country were anything but orderly (what a contrast from “alles ist in Ordnung” mentality of the Germans!).  And to make matters a bit more disconcerting, I was suffering from jet lag and lack of sleep from our 12-hour flight from London and our little excursion into Macau (I’ll share about that soon, as well as a delicious recipe).

I was in serious need of sleep, but too excited to get any. And, so once at the hotel, I ventured out to see a pagoda and a temple along the West Lake of Hanoi.

I quickly learned that I should’ve gotten some rest, especially if I wanted to be lucid enough to remain alive on the streets. Crossing the road in Hanoi and Vietnam for that matter is a question of keeping calm, having a determination of steel, and carrying on…there are no rules of the road and very few traffic lights that are adhered to. Therefore, one must cross the street amidst hundreds of mopeds zooming by, other people crossing, and an incessant noise, as well as uncomfortable fumes lingering everywhere. I know a few friends back home, who probably wouldn’t venture out more than once in a chaos like this!

But being successful at the effort is definitely rewarding! There’s a magnificent world to be discovered if one does. The first pagoda I visited was Tran Quoc. It’s not the first one I’ve seen in my travels, but it was the first one in Vietnam. It’s quite impressive mostly because it’s on a little peninsula on the West Lake and is truly picturesque. I didn’t dare ask if photography was allowed, and simply started taking pictures and waited to be reprimanded. However, I never was and there were many other taking pictures, including locals. (I’m usually more respectful, mind you, but I was a bit tired to be coherent.)

After the pagoda, I walked along the tree-lined avenue to the end of the lake, where there was a temple to be discovered. Along the walk, locals were fishing with bamboo canes, selling exotic fruits and lounging around. It was all very peaceful, except it was constantly interrupted by the noise of all the mopeds driving by.

The Quan Thanh Temple dates from the 11th century and is one of the four sacred temples of Hanoi. Although it’s not as impressive as other temples, it’s worth a visit for its historical value, as well as being very close to the Ho Chi Mihn Mausoleum complex, which I realised a few days later when we visited that area.

Another important discovery, which helped me immensely with my jet lag and concentration is Vietnamese coffee! On my way back to the hotel, I just couldn’t keep my wits together any longer and had to stop for a strong dose of caffeine to wake me up. And wow, what a discovery! I love coffee. I love the aroma when it’s being ground and brewed. And although I could drink it more often than I regularly do, I don’t because I usually get very nervous with more than two cups. But Vietnamese coffee is different. It looks menacing with its dark colour, but as it’s a smoother version of Java, it’s easier on the nerves. Or at least, it seemed so to me.

The Vietnamese serve the coffee in a little cup brewer with condensed milk on the bottom. And although I’ve pretty much given up sugar, I couldn’t resist for two reasons: one, it was safer than drinking coffee with “fresh” milk; and two, it is simply delicious! And well, I must add a number three: I love anything different and drinking it as the locals do just made it more fun.

I had numerous Vietnamese coffees while in the country and even bought an individual brewer and some coffee. I just wish I would’ve bought a couple more brewers and also more coffee to last a while…

But fortunately, as the Vietnam Lonely Planet explains, Vietnamese coffee is exported all over the world. “The best grades are from Buon Ma Thuot and the beans are roasted in butter.” Maybe that’s the reason for the delicate aroma and smooth flavour? Additionally, LP points out, the following, which I didn’t pursue unfortunately, but found interesting: “Lovers of weasels and strange things should get their hands on ca phe chon (‘weasel coffee, No 8 of the signature Trung Nguyen brand). These coffee beans are fed to weasels first, then harvested from their droppings before being sold to you.” Ha! Now, that’s different alright! I, however, bought No 7 of the Trung Nguyen brand unknowingly, which probably has a less colourful process, but tastes just as delightful.

Over the course of the days we were in Hanoi, I managed to have at least two cups of coffee per day. And we even visited the Kinh Do Cafe, which is famous for being the setting of Catherine Deneuve’s morning coffee during the making of the film Indochine. If you’re in Hanoi, don’t bother, unless you’re a fanatic of the actress and want a picture of the film’s poster or are in the neighbourhood.  There are plenty of more inviting coffee shops in the city.

I did miss out on one opportunity though and that was trying caphe trung da, coffee with “a silky smooth beaten egg white” (and one could say a Vietnamese version of cappuccino)… so I had to try this at home and hope that it’s close to the original. 😉

CAPHE TRUNG DA

Ingredients:

1 cup of Vietnamese coffee

sweetened condensed milk to taste, or honey and milk to taste

1 egg white

Process:

Place a teaspoon or more of sweetened condensed milk or honey, if you prefer, in the bottom of the serving cup or glass.

Place the ground coffee in the Vietnamese brewer with piping hot water over a cup or glass. (If you do not have a brewer, use your regular coffee method to serve yourself a cup of coffee.) Allow all the water to pass through the brewer. (Add milk at this time as well.)

Beat egg white until stiff peaks form and place over the brewed coffee.  Serve immediately. Sprinkle with cinnamon or nutmeg if so desired.

(I have to admit that without the sweetened condensed milk, the flavour of the coffee is not the same. So, if you eat sugar, at least give this a try once the “real” way! ;-))