I have barely managed to plonk myself onto a ridiculously tiny wooden stool at Cafe Giang. We are at the last pit stop of a half-day-long walking tour through Hanoi’s French-style old quarter. It surrounds the city’s greatest landmark—the iconic Hoan Kiem Lake. Cafe Giang is where my food tour guide, Nguyen Ngoc Ha, usually ends the tour, treating guests to a cup of the famous ca phe trung. Priced at 30,000 dong (approximately ₹100), this creamy beaten egg yolk coffee is so popular that it has made the current cafe owner, Nguyen Van Dao, a social media star.
Son of the inventor of ca phe trung, Nguyen Van Giang, he is known as Santa for his flowing white hair, beard and twinkling eyes. “Drink your coffee first and we’ll chat in half an hour,” he barks at me, pointing to my cup of ca phe trung, perched on a saucer containing hot water to keep it warm. He goes downstairs, switching from Vietnamese to French to English according to whom he is conversing with.
Ha embarks on an authoritative backgrounder of the beverage. It tastes like liquid tiramisu thanks to its unctuous sabayon-like cremeux, which is surprisingly not at all egg-y. To understand its origin, one must go back into history. From 1887 until the Geneva Accords were signed in 1954, Vietnam was part of the French ‘Indochina'. It was a vast colonial stronghold, which included Laos and Cambodia as well. The colonialists weaned the Vietnamese away from tea by introducing them to the milky café au lait—the only difference being that the Vietnamese preferred to have their coffee iced due to the tropical climate. They called it ca phe sua da.
“Due to a shortage, post-WWII, of tinned condensed milk that went into the iced coffee—fresh milk was never a part of the traditional Vietnamese diet—it was my father, Giang who came up with a solution,” says Dao.
Giang first experimented with a stiffly beaten chicken egg yolk and sugar emulsion to top iced coffee as a bartender at Hanoi’s Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in the early 1940s. But he soon found it worked better with hot coffee. The cafe, however, still serves an iced iteration of ca phe trung— and a rum-spiked one too —among scores of other permutations and combinations.
It was in 1946, after saving a bit of his salary that Giang finally opened his own cafe. Since then it has stayed at the same location along Nguyen Huu Huan Street. The area has now come to be called ‘Hanoi’s Coffee Mile’, dotted with several other imitation cafes claiming to be the original one.
Interestingly, Giang’s daughter and Dao’s sister runs Dinh Café a few blocks away. It’s known as the second best place in Hanoi to have a cup of egg coffee. This doesn’t seem to bother Dao. “I’m still number one,” he signs off.