The drizzle of constant rain and damp mist clings to the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Under roofs of tarpaulin, locals huddle with bowls of pho on tiny blue and red plastic chairs. The steady buzz of scooters and motorbikes blends with the odd indignant beep of a car horn.
Our sanctuary from the elements is an easy miss. A narrow alley signposted ‘Cafe Giang’ marks the modest entrance to the birthplace of one of Hanoi’s most famous delicacies. Following the whitewashed passage and emerging at the ground floor, the only sign of its function as a cafe is the coffee machine and grin of the barista. A swift scan around induces a wave of panic at the limited seating in the tiny room. However, the grinning barista quickly directs me to a flight of stairs to the left of the counter. Climbing the tiled stairway, I am met by traditional tiny wooden stools and low tables scattered around an open plan second floor. Greenery and artwork are splashed across half tiled walls in a display of casual elegance, the interior a far cry from the humble entrance. It is packed by 10am – immediately speaking volumes of the cafe’s high reputation – but ample seating is available here. Judging by the numerous tables of tourists too, Cafe Giang is fast becoming Hanoi’s worst kept secret. The sight of 6ft plus men sipping coffee with their knees up to their chins is enough to make anyone giggle.
Although the comical tourists and décor do wonders for Café Giang’s ambience, the crowds flock here for a different reason. They are chasing ‘Ca phe trung’. Egg coffee is an alien concept to many outside of Vietnam and is near impossible to find of quality outside of Asia. As previously mentioned, Café Giang is especially famous for the delicacy that is egg coffee. In fact, the founder of Cafe Giang was the mastermind behind its very creation. Mr Nguyen Giang created the recipe during the French War in 1946, when fresh milk was scarce in Vietnam. He innovated the use of readily available egg yolks instead. The coffees grew in popularity throughout the 8 years of the French Indochina War, nowadays acting as an attraction for tourists and locals alike. The café remains in the family, as Mr Nguyen Giang has now passed down the running of the café to his son – Mr Nguyen Tri Hoa.
A scan over Mr Giang’s menu reveals a wonderful assortment of egg-based beverages to sample. These include egg beer and egg coke, not just your ‘regular’ coffee. I opt for the egg coffee with cinnamon for just 40,000 VND – the equivalent of £1.33.
The creamy foam is a faint vanilla colour and demands the use of a spoon. The texture and taste are nothing like the eggy gloop I had half expected; it is silky smooth and dessert-like from the condensed milk. The egg itself creates a thick, velvety layer of sweetness over the Vietnamese coffee below. This is strong enough to be rocket fuel. I immediately wonder how I will ever drink western coffee again.
It is hard to say how the recipe has developed over the years as it remains a trade secret, however, ingredients are commonly presumed to include: condensed milk, egg yolk, cheese and robusta coffee. Robusta is the bean that makes up the vast majority of coffee in Vietnam. It is known for tasting stronger and nuttier than its popular alternative arabica.
Aside from beverages, another must order at Cafe Giang is their sunflower seeds. Served simply as a generous pile on a plate, the seeds offer a perfectly complimentary balance to the sweet taste of the coffee and are surprisingly moreish. Cracking open the shell with just your front teeth and slipping out the seed in one smooth motion is a party trick amongst locals. Sipping our egg coffee and failing miserably to imitate this proved an extremely sociable experience. Although be warned: apparently the sunflower seeds can make you feel sleepy so avoid them if you want to hold on to your caffeine fix.
Despite Café Giang’s claim to fame and potential to widely target tourists, it retains a humble and traditional atmosphere and service. The café has an impressive history of family ownership – could this be the root of a profound respect for both heritage and legacy? Maybe it is a continued love for the coffee itself. Regardless, the café remains incredibly reasonable in pricing and hospitable in a homely manner.
On a final note, it is not until I am back in Australia that I realise the barista who welcomed us so warmly was Mr Nguyen Tri Hoa himself. Initially I am frustrated that I did not get the chance to speak to him in person about the café and his family’s amazing story. Then I realise the beauty that the son of such an icon remains running such a personal venture with such a small team. There seems no better way to describe an experience at Café Giang than with this anecdote. A ‘coffee in Hanoi’ should be at the top of every visitor’s to-do list.