Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin, Asia, Buddhism, Café Giang, Dam Quang MInh, Egg Coffee, Food, Hanoi Coffee, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Hanoi Social Club, Hanoi Street Food, Loading T Coffee, Vietnamese Ceramics, Vietnamese Cuisine, Vietnamese language, VTV4, Vu Nhat Tan
“You and Jan are Hanoians now, no longer outsiders anymore,” said our friend Vũ Nhật Tân, a few days before our recent Hà Nội residency concluded in April. He was quickly seconded in French by Đàm Quang Minh. “Monsieur Jeff et Madame Jan, nous marchons toujours ensemble!”
I continue to slowly absorb our most recent residency with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. Always SRO concerts, important media interviews, long range planning meetings for an ever brighter future, new friends met and old friends brought closer, even progress with the labyrinth of first pronouncing and now speaking Vietnamese.
And always memories upon memories of the amazing cuisine of Việt Nam!
For this post I’m going to focus on the unique to Hà Nội liquid tiramisù known as Cà Phê Trúng, or Egg Coffee. There are a few urban legends about the origin of the recipe, and both point to the scarcity of milk after World War II, so this truly decadent beverage is a genuine cuisine d’opportunité. One claim is to a bartender at the famous Metropole Hotel and the other, more likely to me, is from Nguyễn Giảng, the son of the founder of Café Giảng. He says his father concocted the recipe in the late 1940’s. Whomever you believe, today you’ll find incarnations all over Hà Nội.
The outline of the recipe is to beat egg yolks with sugar but be sure to have a layer of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom of your cup. Pour the high octane robusta coffee of Việt Nam over the bottom layer of sweetened condensed milk, then float the egg cream on top of everything. Stir the gooey sweetened condensed milk from the bottom up to mix the coffee with the egg cream, a unique to Hà Nội taste. Variations around town abound, a good test of a great recipe.
Cà Phê Trúng is why twenty-six hour induced jet lag tastes so good!
Hà Nội embraces an elegant chaos. It’s the only city I know of where traffic is personal, where you rub shoulders with your fellow commuters in a daily flow that does the unthinkable, it makes traffic attractive. Why, you ask? Because there is no angst, no drama, no road rage, I miss being with my always courteous and accommodating friends – after all, everybody is just trying to get somewhere at the same time. Traffic is a metaphor for the social cooperation of the Vietnamese. There is no sense of competition in getting around Hà Nội.
But Việt Nam is in Asia, so the balancing act of yang to yin has to be somewhere. In Hà Nội, that balance is found by wandering the ever present back alleys. The city would be a great crime novel backdrop, as one always finds not only back streets but alley ways, no, they are really secret passage ways, that often open up to secret homes and businesses. Like a cat, Hà Nội is a genuinely cryptic city. You would be, too, after a 1,000 years of the Chinese and then a century of the French, forcing your hometown to become a center of revolutionary intrigue, defeating both France and the Americans in the 20th century.
Café Giảng is one of the best of these secret Hà Nội passage ways for the first time visitor to experience. You’ll get the sense of being lost and confused but, in this case, the ever present sound of customers and clinking coffee cups will guide you to your destination. And once you arrive, you’ll be greeted by a big surprise – so many people happily jammed into a few small room slinging back egg coffees!
But don’t worry – there’s an upstairs to accommodate the overflow. Expect a crowd for what I’d recommend be your first egg coffee. After all, respecting history can bring dividends and rewards to your experience.
Remember, Café Giảng invented the egg coffee!
Located on one of the many alley ways of Hà Nội, you can find another very good egg coffee at the Hanoi Social Club at 6 Ngõ Hội Vũ not far from Hoàn Kiếm Lake. The word “ngõ” is Vietnamese for alley, which is good to know for the visitor looking for addresses. Do take the time to not only find the Hanoi Social Club and enjoy strolling a narrow Hà Nội street, but also take in the French era century old building (Hà Nội friends urged me to go and showed us the place for the first time). This place is a hip cafe (one of many in Hà Nội), might be filled with more Westerners than Vietnamese and features great vegan and gluten free options. On the rare day I tire of Vietnamese food during my long Hà Nội New Music Ensemble residencies, you can find me there chomping on a western sandwich while memorizing my current score. Or enjoying a wonderful version of an egg coffee!
I will always disappoint you if you think I’ll recommend “the best” of anything in my blog posts. It’s an exclusionary attitude that comes more from a competitive streak that sustains media, those gluttons of any and all controversy. Really, only one baker can make a baguette? One bartender a martini? There is a best restaurant? This “best” idea does create a cheap suspense – but should everybody else then just pack up and go home?
I’m more attracted to flexibility and balance. This doesn’t mean I don’t allow myself a favorite, but that status has to do with personal preference, which might easily be different for you. Which is fine by me!
My wife and I were wandering one day on our most recent residency in Hà Nội. Meandering jet-lagged is now almost an instinctual activity when we first arrive. I savor those out of body moments truly being in touch with traveling to the other side of the world. Not far from our apartment in the city’s French Quarter, we easily stroll into both the Old Quarter and the alleyways around St. Joseph’s Cathedral (hint to the visitor – wandering in this neighborhood highly recommended).
I’ve learned to look carefully when wandering around Hà Nội to pay attention to what the ever enterprising Vietnamese are doing with the many old French era mansions. Countless silent architectural reminders of Indochine do more than remain in the cityscape, these old wrinkled green and gold façades still shape many neighborhoods. In fact, the elegant chaos that describes Hà Nội has brought me to the unavoidable conclusion that Hà Nội remains permanently blurred, it’s both a French and a Vietnamese city, at least in appearance. However the two don’t live side-by-side. The French were defeated and routed in fury, revenge and anger in 1954. But their buildings remain, silently nostalgic for Paris, and there exists a permanent French influence in Vietnamese cuisine that is daily – no one, least of all the Vietnamese, can imagine the food of Việt Nam without numerous absolutely French influences. I find a French hangover on most any street food vendor’s corner. And the permanent flexibility of the general Vietnamese character long ago created a warm and happy chapter between Paris and Hà Nội, a lesson that the United States would do well to emulate.
So I looked up as we turned onto Chàn Cầm Street, and saw a large, formidable French era mansion. Certainly it was divided up into many shops, downstairs and upstairs. I saw people outside, puffing their cigarettes and water pipes with tea and coffee, and thought I spied activity inside the left side of the mansion. I thought to myself, this looks like a good stairway to investigate. Let’s give it a go and see what’s up. Trendy first floor dress shops are always a good clue something is going on.
What a wonderful cafe house greeted me at the end of a still vulnerable old staircase!
If there is a Loading T Coffee secret, is that they infuse their wonderful Vietnamese coffee with the perfect amount of Vietnamese cinnamon, or more to the point cassia bark. The cinnamon does not dominate, but like a musical pedal point is present grounding each sip of their addicting Vietnamese coffee or each oozing spoonful of their egg coffee.
And they have a wonderful atmosphere, from the architecture to the ambiance, the incense of the family altar mixing with coffee and a soft French soundtrack in the background. La vie en rose in Hà Nội, anyone?
But then a few days after my discovery of Loading T Coffee, something truly surprising happened. Had I been there before?
”Mr. Jeff, I cannot believe we meet here, the address kept talking to me” said a rather dumbfounded Đàm Quang Minh greeting me in French. After my meandering discovery a few days earlier, I had suggested Loading T for a meeting with Minh and composer Vũ Nhật Tân so we could begin to put together a plan for a major world premiere of Tân’s The Five Elements, a collaboration between my Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and Minh’s Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin, the Đông Kinh Cổ Nhạc.
Minh was clearly shaken. “I last saw this building as a young boy of about five years old, Mr. Jeff. I played children games here with friends before the wars and have not even considered this house or its family for maybe fifty years. My God, the passage of time and war and exile to Paris – and now you, a foreigner, bring this place back for me. Unbelievable, Mr. Jeff!”
Sure enough, from that meeting to the concert we had our greatest success, playing The Five Elements to over 1,000 adoring music lovers in Hà Nội!
And sure enough, Loading T was later chosen by VTV4 as a location shoot for an international interview with me about the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. It’s an interview that has received epic viewership in the Vietnamese cultural world (as in coming home I’ve been recognized here in Southern California by Việt Kiều from the Loading T segment) all to the benefit of my hard working ensemble members.
But what makes a restaurant or coffee house a favorite?
That’s an easy answer. People. How owners and staff interact with you as a customer. Saying hello, goodbye, chatting when appropriate, showing genuine interest, leaving you alone if you’ve got work to do. And you can get hints of the personal touch of a place by paying attention. At Loading T Coffee, what struck me first was the cartoon instruction sheet for how to approach and enjoy a Hà Nội egg coffee. It was Em Sơn offering to take photos or his wife Em Trang greeting me in Vietnamese and helping me speak her language in conversation. They made me feel welcomed every visit, their kids play quietly around the place, knowing when to play, when to disappear and when to take a nap if it’s a slow afternoon.
And the freshness of every hand made juice is amazing! Or other coffees, as my wife Jan adores a coconut coffee, and voilà, they make a good version of that delectable beverage as well. Or the cinnamon Vietnamese coffee. You get the idea.
And one more tip about the narrow passage and hallways of Hà Nội. When you’re finished with your coffee or juice, be sure to go down the narrowest of hallways from Loading T Coffee. You’ll see ghosts of French Indochina if you’re imaginative, but you’ll surely discover an almost secret ceramic shop from the oldest ceramic family in the country, based north of Hà Nội in the village city of Bắc Nình at the back of this mysterious hallway. Be sure to take a good look. You’re welcome!
So if you need a way to overcome fearsome jet lag or just want to enjoy the must luscious and decadent coffee on earth, stop in at Cafe Giảng, the Hanoi Social Club of Loading T Coffee and order yourself a delicious speciality of Hà Nội, the egg coffee!
Jan and I know that Em Trang and family will have our “jet lag tastes great” egg coffee waiting for us on our next arrival. We’ll be ready soon for our next upcoming residency with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble – and of course more enjoyment of the inexhaustible tastes of Vietnamese cuisine!
Best, best, best,