Go: Hanoi's Secret Cafes

As I mentioned yesterday, I wasn't really excited about going to Hanoi.  However, one thing I knew I wanted to do while we were in this city was try Vietnamese egg coffee and yoghurt coffee.  I am chronically addicted to coffee and was excited to try these strange variations.  I naively expected that these were common drinks and would be on the menu of every cafe in town. They weren't.

I first found them at the famous Lake View Cafe.  The Lakeview Cafe is one of those secret hidden gems, which in this era of social media, is anything but a secret now.  However, this in no way diminishes its charm.

Half of the fun is finding it.  About a block back from Hoan Kiem lake, you enter a souvenir shop...

Don't get distracted by Radio Cafe. You're looking for this.

The owners of the establishment are on to it.  They pounced on us as we reached the bottom of the stairs, handed us menus and asked us what we'd like.  I settled on Caphe Sua Chua (yoghurt coffee) and the Boy got an iced chocolate.  We were asked to pay and wait while they made our drinks.  This clever strategy meant that we were the ones that had to balance our beverages as we climbed those very steep stairs.  About half way up there is a very pretty terrace garden which I was tempted to stop at.  But we had promised ourselves a trip to the top, so up we went.

This terrace with a view was also inviting, but we opted for the spiral stairs right to the very top.

Where this view awaited us (okay, so the picture doesn't do it justice at all... please use your imaginations).

The yoghurt coffee was surprisingly good, a creamy alternative to iced coffee.  And sitting way above the hustle and bustle looking out at the lake was just glorious.  We would have had another coffee, only we didn't fancy climbing those stairs a second time!

So that was my yoghurt coffee experience.  But I still hadn't tried egg coffee.  After checking numerous menus throughout the afternoon I had basically given up, but the Boy, insisting that I would get my wish,  decided to ask the (very helpful) hotel receptionist for a recommendation.  She directed us back down towards Hoan Kien lake, with a vague circle on a map ("it might be on this street, or this street") and a scrawled name, Caphe Dinh.

We obediently headed to the indicated spot and searched for the cafe.  After 20 minutes and circling the block twice, we gave up.  We decided to head to one of the bigger cafes on the block instead.  As we were about to enter one of the girls stationed outside asked us what we were looking for.  In a last attempt we showed her the scrawled name. "Ah", she said knowingly, "follow me". And off she trotted down the street.  We had to run to keep up.  About 100m down the road she deposited us outside this unlikely looking door and instructed us to go upstairs.

At first I wondered if the girl had misunderstood us. Or, had the receptionist decided to send us to a friend's house for our egg coffee rather than a cafe?  But having come this far we had to give it a shot.  We ventured down the dark alley.  Climbed the dark, narrow, steep stairs.  Squeezed past a man washing his dishes. And walked down a narrow hallway into what looked like someone's living room.  Only the living room was full of people crouching at miniature wooden coffee tables. The cafe was buzzing with uni students and young office workers.  We were the only foreigners.

The Boy approached the old woman behind the counter, and tried unsuccessfully to make sense of the paper menu taped to a grimy fridge.  Eventually another customer helped him order my Caphe Trung (egg coffee).  We wriggled into the last available table trying to manage our gangly foreign legs in the tiny space allotted us. A few moments later my coffee arrived.  I was happy to see it was the same concoction that the majority of people were enjoying.

I took my first mouthful with trepidation.  But it was delicious.  Kind of like coffee topped with melted marshmallow.  Egg and sugar are whipped before being topped with black coffee.  It's kind of like coffee and dessert all in one.  As we drank we made friends with the couple at the next table and chatted happily.  This was one of the few times during our trip where I really felt like I was a part of Hanoi, rather than just a visitor.  And best of all this little cup of goodness cost me about 75 cents.

I was so enamoured with both the coffee and the cafe that I popped back in the next morning.  The clientele in the early morning was much older.  Middle-aged women gossiped as they ate breakfast and sipped their coffee, and men got their fix be fore heading off to work.  It was a lot quieter and I was able to sit near the tiny balcony and again have a lovely view out over early morning action.

If you are visiting Hanoi, make sure you explore some of the "secret" cafes tucked away at the back of homes and down dark alleys.  They are a perfect opportunity get a taste of Hanoi and one of the highlights of our visit.
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