Where least expected

Some of the best cafés in Hanoi are found in places where there couldn’t possibly be a café. We invite Ms Isabelle Sudron from Hanoi Hideaway to tell us more.

on September 06,2017 10:49 AM

Where least expected

Duy Tri Café. Photo : Bien Nguyen

Among other things, Vietnam is well known for its traditional, delicious, but somewhat potent coffee. On warm summer evenings, cafés are often just as full as bars, with patrons drinking caffeine as readily as beer. It’s a wonder anyone manages to sleep here, but they do, and on everything from motorbikes to market stall counters, for that matter. However, the coffee itself is not necessarily the main appeal of coffee culture in Vietnam, as good as it is. A big part of what makes the coffee culture here so intriguing is the cafés themselves.

That’s where ‘Hanoi Hideaway’ comes in. We’ve been reviewing and photographing some of our favourite coffee shops in the city for the past two years. It started off as a way to share spots with friends but it quickly turned into a way to champion locations that we felt deserved a little more recognition. Hanoi arguably has some of the most interesting and unusual cafés in the country if not Southeast Asia. Coffee shops range from dusty one-room haunts in family homes to establishments that fill entire French colonial villas. There are new modern cafés decorated with colourful murals and age-old spots comprised of nothing more than a few plastic stools. And then there are the truly inventive places, like The Farmer Gardenista, a greenhouse-cum-café, and Oto, a café in a fully-functional bus.

Cuoi Ngo Café. Photo : Bien Nguyen

Cuoi Ngo Café. Photo : Bien Nguyen

Old and new, small and large, and weird and wonderful, cafés in Hanoi are full of character, boasting innovative design or intriguing history or both. There seems to be a running theme, though, that most of the best places in the city are incredibly difficult to find. Nestled down alleys, wedged in between shops and hidden within housing blocks, you can often spend as much time finding your way to a coffee shop as actually being in it. If you consider yourself a bit of an explorer, this is half the fun of the coffee culture in Hanoi. If you’re not navigationally gifted, café-hunting can be a little frustrating and occasionally culminates in going home after spending an hour going around in circles. However good you are with directions, though, there is definitely a sense of accomplishment that comes with finding a particularly hidden spot in Hanoi.

One of the early reviews we shared on Hanoi Hideaway was of Cuoi Ngo, a café so alluringly hidden that we still congratulate ourselves every time we manage to find it again. Cuoi Ngo roughly translates as ‘the end of the lane’, but the location feels more like the end of the earth. Hidden within alley after alley, visitors are met with a dead-end, a crumbling archway and an ancient one-room café, not to mention the sense of relief that comes with finding the place. Since then, we’ve reviewed both tiny establishments barely visible to the naked eye and great looming ones that are impossible to miss, but truly secluded places like Cuoi Ngo are the ones that originally inspired Hanoi Hideaway.

So, how do we go about discovering some of the most undiscoverable places in the city? Well, some of the places are found accidentally, whereas others have been tirelessly searched for upon recommendations from our readers. Mostly, though, we find word of mouth is the best way to find a great café. In Hanoi, patrons are extremely loyal and good recommendations can keep businesses open for years. Everyone in the city seems to have their favourite spot, many of which have become more and more difficult to find with every year of construction growing around them. Simply asking local people about the best places to go can reveal some surprising spots. The cafés that have something special to offer are often recommended from friend to friend and stay open for years, with or without advertising or clear signage. In fact, recommendations and customer dedication is so important here that cafés can stay popular even when they move locations, as customers will often make the move with them.

Duy Tri is great example of how far loyal customers and word of mouth can go. Operating since 1936, the family-owned café has been serving famously delicious frozen yogurt and Vietnamese coffee for 80 years. The establishment has occupied a few different locations in the past three-quarters of a century, within the Old Quarter, the French Quarter, and now Tay Ho, yet you’ll still find it full to the brim with customers. The business has survived through a tumultuous history due largely to its owners’ resilience, but also in part due to its dedicated customer base and good reputation.

Where least expected

The Farmer Gardenista Café. Photo : Scott Pocock

Some of the cafés in Hanoi are spectacularly unusual while others are quietly charming. In many cases, it’s simply the fact that they exist that makes them amazing, be it in historical buildings or bizarre corners of the city. Cafés in the middle of living rooms and those seemingly wedged into construction sites - they’re all fully functioning businesses and, furthermore, they almost always serve good coffee too! Whether it’s the ingenuity of the staff, the charming impracticality of the location, or the bizarre décor of the place, café-hunting never seems to get old in Hanoi.

Although we love to share these hidden gems so that others can enjoy them, we can’t express how much fun it can be to discover your own hideaway as well. There’s something incredibly satisfying about stumbling upon your own sanctuary and sharing it yourself. In Hanoi, there’s no shortage of cafés either, so even if you don’t discover a hidden gem immediately, you certainly won’t go thirsty!

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