I’ve been told — and Nick, the Vietnamese electrical engineering student who guides our group of six smartly on a street food tour across Hanoi’s old quarter, confirms — that you can only get egg coffee in Hanoi.
The street tour is one of the many highlights of our two-week G Adventures trip, which begins in Bangkok, takes us through Laos, and concludes with two days in Hanoi.
A word about coffee, specifically Vietnamese coffee. If, like me, you are a coffee devotee, if you are unable to function without a hit — or two? perhaps three? — of the dark brew, if the day you face every morning will only make sense if you are profoundly caffeinated, then you should go to Vietnam.
Locally grown Vietnamese coffee is the stuff of dreams. It is the deepest brown, strong, possessing the faintest hint of sweetness. It holds no bitter edge.
To the surprise of many, Vietnam is the second-biggest coffee producer in the world, after Brazil. This is a relatively recent development. Tea was the beverage of choice before the French introduced the coffee bean in the 1850s. Java production has, with starts and stops along the way, been a major source of income for the country since the early 20th century; today the coffee industry employs between two and three million people, with beans grown on half a million small holdings of two to three acres each.
In short, the Vietnamese know from coffee.
And Nick knows the best place in town to find egg coffee, steering us to a spot my husband and I would never have found on our own — and even if, courtesy of divine intervention, we did stumble upon it, we would not have had the courage to enter.
The unassuming entrance to Shop 13 (Café Binh), located near the old quarter’s Hoan Kiem Lake, is partially obscured by vertical rows of knapsacks for sale, a narrow grey building among a row of narrow grey buildings with a neon sign above the dim doorway, quietly announcing its presence.
We trudge single file — there isn’t room for two abreast — behind Nick, down the hall and up two flights of the winding staircase. Only slightly out of breath by the time we reach the top, we step into a pleasantly crowded room of young Vietnamese seated on low stools, cups of coffee scattered across wooden tables, talking, drinking and smoking out the window.
Lace curtains flutter softly in the delicate breeze. Old black-and-white photos dangle on the walls. A yellowed menu in Vietnamese hangs between the windows. We’ve gone through the portal to old/new Vietnam.
Our guide — whose Vietnamese name is Nguyễn Quang Sơn — orders for us from a man standing at a small counter and behind whom a tiny, white haired woman is focused intently on producing multiple coffee concoctions for the room. Her equipment consists of a single battered blender, a two-burner hot plate and a dented tin pot that bubbles merrily on one of the burners.
As we’ve experienced everywhere we’ve eaten in Hanoi, service is neither fast nor slow. The Vietnamese seem to understand the Goldilocks sweet spot of perfect pacing.
Six cups of egg coffee arrive. The foamy white tops boast lovely designs similar to the ones you would see on a latte, except here the image is created from the brown coffee against a white background.
Egg coffee is a delightful combination of rich, locally grown coffee, egg yolk beaten with condensed milk, and a dash of whiskey. We take a sip. It is unlike anything I’ve tasted. Thick, layered, closer to unsweetened chocolate than to the harsher bean taste I’m accustomed to. We drink slowly. This is not a cup that should be downed quickly — egg coffee demands mindfulness. We do it right, the Vietnamese way: neither too fast nor too slow, before venturing back into Hanoi’s night, and our next culinary adventure.