Jung loves his coffee, so we tried to get Vietnamese coffee as often as we could. Vietnamese coffee is supposed to be quite good, so although I'm not a big coffee drinker, I indulged here and there. We stopped here on our way back to the Old Quarter. Cafe Mai is on the Northeast corner of Thien Quang Lake where Nguyen Du Street becomes Le Van Huu Street. I think this cafe had several floors, although we got seated on the first floor so we didn't venture upstairs. To the side of the cafe, they seemed to be selling coffee by the pound. We saw a lady grind the beans and package it up for the steady stream of customers that were on hand.
I ordered a ca phe sua da or iced coffee with milk. And by milk, we mean the thick, syrupy condensed version. There is no non-fat milk to be had here. The guidebooks suggest not getting anything with ice because you shouldn't drink tap water in Hanoi, but I was hot and I justified my decision by saying I'd drink the coffee really fast. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, because it came out like this.
What is my hot cup of coffee sitting in, you ask? A bowl of ice water. It's an interesting way to solve this dilemma. I wish it actually worked, but it didn't. I ended up drinking a cup of hot coffee that kept dripping water on me. I appreciated the effort though. =)
Here's Jung's ca phe sua nong (hot coffee with milk). The metal contraption reminds me of a mini French press. It contains hot water with very fine coffee grounds and a plunger that slowly ... very slowly nudges the water through the grounds and through the tiny holes in the bottom to your coffee cup below. They take their pretty time to drip. We were in no rush, so we sat outside and admired the view that we've become quite accustomed to on this trip, watching traffic go by. It really is a great source of entertainment and fascination. I think we could have sat there for hours.
The coffee here tasted like a cafe mocha. I've ordered coffee with condensed milk multiple times at multiple places, but every cup ended up tasting chocolaty to me. I kept wanting to ask them if they added chocolate, but of course, my limited vocabulary of mot (one), cam on (thank you), xin chao (hello) and nha ve shinh o dau (where is the bathroom) did not give me the luxury to ask such complicated questions.
Jung would get coffee far more often than I did and sometimes he'd get a cup that didn't taste so chocolaty ... and I'd get jealous. So all in all, Vietnamese coffee was a hit or miss for me, but I did like the leisure and rest it provided during the day. I always looked forward to sitting down with a cup of coffee and just soaking it all in.
For those who are really into coffee, you should definitely try the ca phe chon aka weasel coffee. Apparently, coffee growers pick the ripest and sweetest coffee beans and feed them to weasels. The beans somehow pass through the weasel's system undigested. The coffee beans are then collected, washed, ground and brewed. This whole process somehow strips the bean of bitterness, resulting in a superior aroma and a very smooth taste once brewed.
There are a lot of shops that sell coffee beans in huge plastic jars on display (don't you love the weasel cutouts?) and we went into one to inquire about weasel coffee. The lady told us there was a range of weasel coffee, with the more purest form being about $20 for a small size pack of beans. She gave us a sample too. It did taste pretty smooth. We were tempted to buy some, but we weren't sure whether it was the real thing or not, so we passed.
79 Le Van Huu Street