Where To Drink Coffee Like The Locals In Hanoi

If there’s a city with a proud cafe culture, it is Hanoi. The locals are immensely proud of their local coffee, and sip it all day in their inimitable style. I wish Singapore was as proud of their own coffee – local coffee that is. (Yes, the one you brew in a sock, while wearing your blue striped pyjama pants.) In nooks and crannies, tucked deep inside narrow ‘tube houses’ or in the upper levels of old French colonial buildings are a hidden world of coffee joints. They are vibrant, happening places crowded with mostly young patrons, and few tourists. They aren’t easy to find, but our guide Trang of Hanoi Voyages brought us to a couple, having found out that we were ardent foodies.

The action is hidden away upstairs at Cafe Giang

Her favourite and a local institution is Cafe Giang (39 Nguyen Hu Huan) — pronounced ‘Jac’, with a soft ‘J’ — opened since 1946 and still going strong. You can easily miss its dark, distressed entrance way, dismissing it as an empty, derelict passage. But that’s because the action is deep down the narrow corridor, and up an even narrower staircase.

The kitchen of Cafe Giant. The cafe itself is up the stairs. Er…do you see the stairs?

As you reach the top landing, suddenly sunlight pours down from a skylight and you’re in a lush, plant-filled landing, crowded with customers. In typical Vietnamese style, seats and tables are low. Don’t wait to be seated – just head to the nearest available.

Typical Vietnamese coffee is served here, so potent it’ll keep you up for the next few days of touring. And it’s good, believe me. ‘Gao’ until cannot ‘gao’. But what most people come here for is its egg coffee – a supremely thick coffee with condensed milk and an egg. It doesn’t sound particularly enticing initially, but you don’t really taste the egg much; it acts more like a thickener, and the texture is rich, ‘puffy’ and somewhat custard-like. It’s really thick, sweet and delectable; rich enough to be a dessert. Definitely a must-try for the food adventurer when visiting Hanoi.

The iconic egg coffee of Hanoi

Another delightful coffee joint we visited was Cong Caphe . A very successful local coffee chain, its name makes reference to the Viet Cong who fought the Americans and South Vietnamese in the American War (Americans calls it the Vietnam War). But it’s all about coffee and a fun experience at Caphe Cong, not propaganda or politics.

Bucket, transistor radio, enamel cups and military style camouflage chairs on the terrace of Cong Caphe
The leatherbound menu; the loud hailer was commonly used to rally the people during the American War in Vietnam

We visited the outlet at Ma May Street, which occupies a narrow colonial building, with a crumbling but still beautiful European facade. Inside, the cafe is decked out in vintage wooden furniture with clever details that play up the military/retro theme — a bucket or wok for a lampshade, a green leatherbound menu, retro photos and posters on the wall. It’s rather worn out and a little dusty inside, but that’s the look. We head to the upstairs balcony, with distressed walls as a backdrop, overlooking the street and a tangled mess of electric cables. It’s a quaint and atmospheric place to wind down after a day’s exploration.

The mung bean smoothie – white fluffy one at the back – was pretty fabulous.

Drinks here are typically Vietnamese in style given a modern yet authentic spin — a delectable mung bean smoothie with coconut milk, a rice smoothie, espresso with condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee and happily, even cocktails. Sit down, relax and let the sun set, casting the terrace in weakening light. With the mess below and the worn out walls around, there is something quite charming about this. And it’s a really nice way to soak in the local youthful pop culture of Hanoi, of which this cafe is very much a part.

For more about Hanoi’s food, read about the food tour of Hanoi’s Old Quarter which Trang brought us to as well.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, and nothing written in here was sponsored or paid for in any way.)

Restaurant Review: Sugarhall’s Heady Rum Cocktails & Hearty Grills

Located in Amoy Street and right next to Jigger & Pony, Sugarhall is one of the most enjoyable, laid back restaurants I have visited in some time, funky without pretentiousness, suffused in an easy going, if not somewhat confused, vibe. While the front is dominated by a dazzlingly stocked bar, the dining area lies beyond, exuding a strange half-reggae half-barn feel. But nevermind — the people here, dressed in suitably farmer-inspired checkered shirts, are clearly comfortable with Sugarhall’s chosen identity.

Dining-Hall-2-Copy

Rum cocktails and good grills are the reason you would go to Sugarhall. As it’s owned by the same people behind Jigger & Pony, you can rest assured the drinks there are top notch. With award winning mixologist Aki Eguchi, the brilliance behind Jigger & Pony, heading up Sugarhall’s drinks, you’ll be treated to cleverly original cocktails which are sumptuously balanced and using great ingredients.

Head over early in the evening for a sundowners, and sit at the bar for a yammer with the bartender while you wait for your friends. Good bars don’t leave a lone guest to fester over their drinks in silence, and Sugarhall is no different. While here, I managed to eke out a couple of tips from the bartender — who their spirits supplier was (and now mine), and how to DIY your own orange bitters at home even if they won’t divulge their own house secrets.

Between three of us that night, we managed to sample quite a few cocktails over dins. If you like yours fresh and zingy, Oriental Note (Bombay Sapphire East Gin, Dita Lychee, peach, lemon, ylang-ylang, prosecco) and Dark & Stormy (Gosling Black Seal Rum, lime, house-fermented ginger beer) are good choices.

Rum cocktail updated Sugarhall

But I am not the sweet and fruity sort, and much prefer heady, potent libations with darker flavours. I loved the Perfect Storm (Cutty Sark Storm Scotch, CocchiAmericano, MancinoRosso, cherry, Angostura Bitters) and Bumbo Old Fashioned (El Dorado 12 YO Rum, demerara sugar, nutmeg tincture, cinnamon) — incidentally one of Eguchi’s personal faves. Sugarhall’s negroni, based on rum rather than gin, is good too, and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try the Monkey Julep, with banana-infused Monkey Shoulder Scotch, vanilla syrup, coconut water and pandan bitters. I don’t like the idea of drinking my bananas, but — live a little — this one turned out surprisingly drinkable. All cocktails are $22++.

Pork-Chop-Grilled-Cauliflower-and-Roasted-Beetroot-Copy

The food here is all about good grilling and laid back, easy eating. Chef Polo Seah, formerly of SKIRT steakhouse of W Hotel in Sentosa, handles the charcoal-fired grill, serving up hearty mains, of which the grass fed Dry-aged Rib-eye Steak (240g, $48++) with chimichurri and the 300g pork chop ($28++) which has been brined, are well recommended. It’s quite an experience to be served Sugarhall’s whole spring chicken ($32++) though. Stand back and be prepared for the full bird — head, beak, eyes, claws and all. If you get to carving it up, it’s really tasty too. Not recommended for your first date, though.

 Get some side dishes too. The chunky pumpkin that came with mozzarella and rum-soaked raisins was divine, and the grilled cauliflower ($12++) was earthy and more-ish with the deep tones of bacon puree, burnt butter, and hazelnuts. A very clever combination indeed.

Heading backwards, the appetizers we liked were madai ceviche ($18++), the hearty, flavoursome pork sausage ($14++) with cabbage and bonito butter and an rather precious dish of foie gras profiteroles ($18++) which came with foie gras ice cream and caramel.

photo-2-e1420898734501

As much as the bar makes their own bitters and infuses their own spirits, the kitchen also makes plenty from scratch. “Everything that can be made in-house is made in this kitchen, from cold cuts, pâte, sausages and more. It’s the only way to maintain the quality and taste of the ingredients,” shares Seah. These include the bacon which he seasons with rosemary and lemon for a week, before bathing it in maple syrup for two days, and the duck prosciutto.

It’s best to take a cab here or travel by MRT, since you’ll be bound to do a fair amount of drinking. If you are driving though, note that its almost impossible to get streetside carpark here during weekday lunch. If it’s dinner, come early and you’re likely to get a spot – and a perfect excuse for a round of drinks first.

102 Amoy Street, Singapore 069922
Tel: (65) 6222 9102/ 9732 5607
http://www.facebook.com/sugarhallsg