Coffee was brought and introduced to Vietnam by the French. According to some Southern Vietnamese writers, the first two café in Vietnam appeared in Saigon, by French owners: Lyonnais Café and Café de Pari.
Coffee came to Hanoi later, by French soldiers attacking Hanoi the second time the late 1880s. As in army base, there were always cafeteria for French officers and soldiers. After completely occupied Hanoi in 1882, the first café appeared in Hanoi on Tho Kham Street (Trang Thi Street nowadays) one year later in 1883.
Followed their army to Vietnam, French traders found that Tay Nguyen, the Center Highlands of Vietnam, had basalt soil which is very suitable for growing coffee trees. They started to plant coffee in 1870. In 1887, it was also the French who first grew coffee in Indonesia. Therefore, Vietnam was the first in Southeast Asian who drank and grew coffee. But no one can give a reasonable answer for the first Vietnamese who drank coffee and the first coffee shop opened by the Viet. Only until the early 20th century, young Vietnamese in Hanoi started to get familiar with this “black liquid that looks like machine oil and tastes bitter”.
The French invented the French press to filter coffee with hot water through a drip since 1882. It was introduced to Vietnam and became the most used way to make coffee. Now this method is still well used almost everywhere in Vietnam. For budget coffee shops who served ordinary working people, they put coffee in a clean sock and boil it until done. Or some shop used a big scoop of coffee powder and dipped it in hot water. This was to serve a large number of coffee drinkers who just wanted a quick coffee before work. Meanwhile some “upper class” coffee shops used coffee filters made of aluminum. Hot water run through coffee powder and dripped down to a cup beneath. This required more time and patient so it was mainly for businessmen and the wealthy.
Late 1940s Mr. Giang a former bartender at the Metrople Hanoi Hotel (the first hotel in Hanoi opened by the French) opened his own coffee shop in Cau Go Street. Giang café was famous for the special coffee he roasted and ground by himself.
After 1954 North Vietnam government forbid private business and coffee shops in Hanoi shrank. No more coffee provided from France and Tay Nguyen (the Center Highlands). Instead coffee from Russia and East Europe was imported. But the new coffee supply was not as good. Private coffee shops were replaced by state own ones that were very difficult in the way of serving. Famous ones were: Bon Mua, Nguyen Sinh, Pho Hue… only black coffee was served due to the shortage of milk during the war.
Private coffee shops appeared again in Hanoi from 1960. Lam Café on Nguyen Huu Huan Street was famous among artists in Hanoi. Many well-known artists often came here for coffee and left their artworks as a gift since they didn’t have money to pay.
After the “Opening Time” coffee shops in Hanoi and Saigon mushroomed. Vietnamese people start to like coffee and find it an important part of their daily routine. Vietnamese used to drink green tea and “voi” leaf (a special kind of leaf that is drunk like tea). But coffee shops are now replacing almost all tea shops. Now numbers of café in Hanoi are countless and more new ones are being opened. Unlike other cities where coffee is only for the morning, Hanoi people are found at coffee shops at any time of the day. Now young Vietnamese go to café not only for the drink but also to enjoy the atmosphere, the coffee culture that long exists in the country.
Now coffee is well planted all over the Center Highlands of Vietnam. Vietnam is famous for being the second largest coffee exporter in the world.
Follow us on your Hanoi Food Tour to sample the signature street food and coffee while you are in Hanoi.
By Pham Tuyen