I am dreaming of one beverage the Vietnamese do better than anyone else on earth. Having spent a lot of time in Asia, jet lag has arrived for me in LA with a ferocity that is a reminder of having been on the other side of the world. Doing this without coffee is impossible. The jet lag always lifts, but my memory takes me back quickly to Hà Nội.
If you like coffee please read on – Cộng Cà Phê (Cong Coffee) in Hà Nội is the greatest coffee on Planet Earth. Thank God I brought a pound back with me!
I always ask myself the question when visiting a city “What do they have or do better than anyone else?” In New York City, it’s Katz’s deli, in Vienna it’s sweets and pastries at Demel, in Paris it’s damn near everything connected with the Western food world, in Tokyo it’s everything, in Oaxaca it’s mole and mezcal, in LA it’s the endless world of great cheap eats from around the globe. In Hà Nội it’s the street food…and the coffee at Cộng Cà Phê.
There are five branches around Hà Nội. We visited three of them under the watchful eye of Tân’s friend, owner Linh Đúng. Talking about the next LA International New Music Festival, what the next steps were for new music in Hà Nội, creating a strategy with the U.S. Embassy for the 20th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations in 2015, brainstorming ideas for Zone 9 and new music programming, dreaming of new collaborations, all were long conversations.
All the good parts that I can’t tell you about just yet were all plotted out at Cộng Cà Phê’s in Hà Nội. If only these pictures could talk…so stay tuned.
The coffee I’m raving about is the dark brown version, mixed with luscious sweetened condensed milk. The coffee comes from the high mountains of Việt Nam and is roasted with special wood from those very same mountains. Whatever it is and however Linh Đứng does it, the result is perfection.
The decor at each Cộng Cà Phê is Việt Nam War chic. Think propaganda poster art with a sense of humor. You feel as if you’re plotting a revolution just having a coffee. “Join the Party!”
At this first coffee on a quiet street deep in the French Quarter off the tourist grid, Tân was asking us about how to address a particularly sensitive subject. We spoke softly and came to a good conclusion but were overheard by the table next to us. It all felt very Cold War…
Vũ Nhật Tân, Jan and I had a lot to talk about and Cộng Cà Phê was the perfect spot.
Our next trip was a few days later. We’d held a lot of news over a few days when we had meetings and Tân had other commitments. For example, Nguyễn Thiên Đạo had promised a big new piece for our next LA International New Music Festival, we’d met the new leadership at the Việt Nam National Academy of Music, talked to Geir Johnson of Norway, Jakob Riis of Denmark, Bernd Ausmus of Stuttgart and were going to be meeting with the U.S. Embassy.
Time for another meeting at Cộng Cà Phê!
These thoughts and plots aren’t easy. What moves first on the chessboard of ideas? Hard to determine. I know one thing. Good programming decisions mean you have to spend a lot of time in the future seeing things that are invisible. You have to write about them before they happen. And they have to be dreams and not fantasies. Getting older helps. What a relief.
Free advice: if you are writing grants for projects, do some thought exercises to practice, as you would an instrument. I have a recommendation to get you started. Imagine you are Beethoven and you need to describe the importance of your projected Fifth Symphony to a panel of people who aren’t experts (which will be your reality….). I learned a lot writing that down many years ago. Writing up the Ring Cycle by Wagner was even more interesting. You don’t need a consultant but you need to practice…
Both of these Cộng Cà Phê’s, in the French Quarter or the one close to the U.S. Embassy, are far off the tourist path. To help you on your next trip to Hà Nội, I recommend you head to Điện Biên Phủ Street. THAT Điện Biên Phủ, which was the victory over the French expelling them from Việt Nam in 1954. This main street in Hà Nội is the zenith of the French Hangover so architecturally visible in Việt Nam.
The street is lined with tall trees, a Vietnamese version of a major Parisian boulevard. I always pinch myself walking this street. Where am I? The old buildings are now treasured, and house many important government departments. Revenge was sweet in the 1950s. And understandably vehement as 70% of the French infrastructure was torched. The story is different now and the remaining buildings are treasured.
As autumn broke over the high humidity and often blistering heat, there was an ease of movement that was a joy to experience, as in dry clothes for sauntering in Southeast Asia. The Cộng Cà Phê of 32 Điện Biên Phủ Street might be our favorite haunt of all.
As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, Việt Nam is a Dragon Awakening to a new world of new music. The components of composers, players, infrastructure, performing spaces, respected elder composers in Paris, critical mass of outside assistance, all are bridging the generational gaps caused here by the wars of the 20th century.
And you also need a conductor. So meeting Cường Do, who studied at the Juilliard School in New York City and plays a brilliant oboe and enjoys conducting was yet another important link for a meeting at Cộng Cà Phê.
Cương had never been to Cộng Cà Phê. He’s recently relocated from Sài Gòn, escaping to the cooler north of Hà Nội from the tropical heat of the south. Cường also leads the Đương Dai Festival of New Music in Sài Gòn, one more cog in the emerging new music world of Việt Nam.
I didn’t come to Việt Nam for the fifth time for a bowl of noodles. But I might go back for more of the coffee and Cộng Cà Phê!
So that’s all for now. My jet lag is roaring and it’s time for me to open my precious pound of Cộng Cà Phê and get on a normal schedule!
“Join the Party!” Linh Đứng’s Cộng Cà Phê vision is incredible, artisanal, arts supportive, savvy and hip. Small enough to remain extraordinary. Look her up at http://www.congcaphe.com and get on the plane as soon as you can. Jet lag never tasted better!
Best, best, best,