It’s 8am on Tuesday morning and Hanoi’s Quan Thanh Street thunders with motorbike exhausts. As one of the most important arteries in the city’s historic center, street life on Quan Thanh is in full swing at rush hour.
Elderly ladies in pajamas peddle lottery tickets, while suited office workers tuck into breakfast in makeshift street kitchens. The road bustles with clothing boutiques preparing for a day of trade in front of French mansions in varying states of physical health.
Some mansions have suffered from clumsy extensions and are unrecognizable reincarnations of their former selves. Others fare better, still flaunting their original features. Hugging one of the prouder French mansions is Cafe Yen, a sidewalk coffee shop serving up java on small wooden tables.
The scene is quintessentially Hanoi, with nattering patrons on pint-sized chairs huddled over their morning brew. There’s a healthy mix of people, including middle-aged ladies with styled hair, young men fresh from the gym, canoodling student couples and a score of white-shirted office workers.
Cafe Yen is open to the elements, but on a sunny day it doesn’t need a cover because the yellow-walled mansion provides enough shade to keep temperatures comfortable.
However, there’s one important difference between this café and other Hanoi sidewalk bistros: Customers aren’t knocking back the traditional 100% Robusta rocket fuel that defines Vietnamese coffee.
Instead, they’re nursing exquisitely crafted Arabica signature drinks and artisanal lattes and cappuccinos that would look more at home in the hushed hipster cafes of Melbourne than on the rowdy streets of Hanoi.
There are no international telltale signs associated with a premium brew, such as blackboard menus written in chalk or tattooed baristas sporting man buns, but the coffee quality is undeniable.
“We make each cup of coffee through a meticulous and thoughtful process,” says Nguyen Duy Minh, who founded the café in August 2017 with his girlfriend, Nguyen Ngan Quynh.
Casually dressed in a black T-shirt and navy chinos, Nguyen is bright-eyed and passionate about his craft. He carefully sources his beans from farms outside of Dalat in Vietnam’s central highlands and only works with select roasteries. “We’re so fastidious because, to put it simply, we believe that’s what the customer deserves,” he explains.
Customers aren’t knocking back the traditional 100% Robusta rocket fuel that defines Vietnamese coffee. They’re nursing exquisitely crafted Arabica signature drinks and artisanal lattes and cappuccinos
CAFE YEN EXEMPLIFIES Vietnam’s unique experience of the third wave of coffee, a term coined nearly two decades ago in the US to refer to specialty brew made with premium beans sourced from select suppliers or direct from the farms.
In the American context, the first wave is associated with mass producers of coffee, such as Folgers, who made instant, cheap coffee widely available from the late 19th century.
The second wave is associated with café giants such as Starbucks, who from the 1970s made fresh brew fashionable and educated customers about its origins.
Vietnam had its own “waves” that correspond with the US experience, though it was late to the game and the timing is condensed.
The Vietnamese grew and drank tea before the colonial period in the 19th century, when the French established coffee farms in central Vietnam. Most of the crop yield was for export and instant coffee for the domestic market wasn’t widely available until after colonial efforts ceased in 1954. The war in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by a decade of economic stagnation in the 1980s, thwarted the product’s national expansion.
Economic reforms in the 1990s, known as doi moi, expedited coffee production. This new economic climate nurtured companies such as Trung Nguyen, which produced cost-friendly instant coffee for home use.
At the same time, cheap street cafés popped up across the country, usually starting in people’s houses before spilling onto the street for extra space. Because the Vietnamese traditionally brew coffee with small, modest filters, opening a café didn’t require any expensive equipment or big investments, and such home-run street businesses quickly multiplied.
These humble establishments, most of which started with just a handful of tables, set Hanoi’s obsession with cafés in motion. A century after the United States, Vietnam was experiencing its own first wave of coffee.
Vietnam’s second wave followed in the 2000s, with coffee chains such as Highlands Coffee – the country’s answer to Starbucks – proliferating across the country. Vietnam’s third wave only began within the last decade, but it remains restricted to the big cities.
Hanoi now has a healthy selection of specialty coffee shops, but with local tastes still developing and prices comparable with Western capitals, businesses like Cafe Yen are thinking about how they can make their brew both accessible and affordable.
“The price barrier of a fancy café can make it hard for people to enjoy a good cup every day,” Nguyen explains over the whirring of coffee grinders. “We’re trying to make high-quality coffee more accessible to everyday people.”