Repositories of a city's soul

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Hanoi's old cafés are more than cultural icons; they are reflective spaces that carry the capital city's spirit


A corner of Hanoi-based Lam Café, which is a famous place because it is patronized by famous artists

I know him well and I see him often sitting at that particular café as I pass by.

I know that he visits the place almost every morning but something about his repose as he sits alone, with a newspaper or cigarette in hand, reading or daydreaming, prevents me from intruding.

I know that there is a story behind this particular friend's special love for old cafés in Hanoi, and I wonder if each of the legions of regular patrons has his or her own story that defines their unique relationship with these small, stately establishments.

This friend of mine, a native of Quang Ninh Province, told me once about his feelings for cafés. His affair with them began through a girl in Hanoi that he fell in love with.

In their early days together, she took him often to café in Hanoi's famous Old Quarter. Sitting on the third floor, they drank coffee and admired together the beauty of the Hoan Kiem Lake. My friend said he did not really care about the coffee or the scenery then and only went to please his girlfriend.

It was when she left to study abroad that he started linking her image with old cafés. Whenever he missed her, he went in search of memories to the old cafés. "I used to drink tea, but Cuc steered me to coffee," he said.

"And gradually, I became attached to these old cafés and fell in love with the narrow alleys, the mossy walls and the simple, small stools."

There is certainly a lot of what I guess can be called the "old world charm" about Hanoi's cafés that attract many who choose to while away the hours sipping hot coffee in winter and iced coffee in summer. It seems that these old, quiet, small cafés carry some Hanoian characteristics themselves a bit reserved, quiet and romantic.

It is almost impossible to imagine these cafés, and I imagine, their peers elsewhere in the world, as spanking new, glamorous places. They seem to have existed in the same condition forever, possibly because the atmosphere they carry has been built up imperceptibly over many years.

The Giang Café on 39 Nguyen Huu Huan Street is typical of Hanoi's old style cafés. Although it stands off on one of the capital city's busiest streets, Giang Café always has a quiet atmosphere. Customers must park their motorcycles somewhere and follow a long, tiny lane to get to the old coffee shop.

The café reminds people of the subsidized period (between 1950s-1980s) with its old porcelain cups and small, clean stools. Here, customers usually know one another because they are all regulars. But unlike in a restaurant, bar or other modern cafés, they come here to find some quiet, peaceful moments. They talk little, and then in low voices that do not carry to the next table.

Also on Nguyen Huu Huan Street, is Lam Café, a famous place because it is patronized by well known artists. This small café is decorated with many paintings, many given to the café's owner by the artist as payment when they had no money for coffee.

Coffee in the Lam Café is prepared on a massive, old table and customers wait for their beverage on scattered smaller tables. When it gets crowded, they take a stool and sit out on the pavement, perch their cup on another stool and quietly read newspapers or watch people go by. The noise of the streets does not seem to disturb the loyal customer base. Each person sits in his or her own different world.

Although these cafés are open and patronized throughout the day, their peak period is usually the morning. Regular patrons like to start their day with a cup of coffee at these cafés.

Returning to my friend's story: "One autumn morning, Hanoi suddenly became cold," he told me. "Like every morning, I went to my old place but this morning I was very down. I'd just found out that Cuc had married and would stay abroad.

"She had forgotten me, forgotten the old cafés. In this black mood, I ordered a black ice coffee and sat brooding, not paying attention to anything around me."

"But unexpectedly a warm voice spoke up beside me: "˜It's a beautiful day, isn't it?' I noticed an old, simple man with glasses sitting next to me. "Ah yes," I answered, not wanting to be rude. Then, he continued, in a low, soft voice, talking about the beauty of Hanoi when autumn arrives, and about the pleasure of drinking coffee and admiring the scenery.

"Gradually, I became absorbed in his stories and felt relaxed. I felt the need to share my problems with him. He listened to my stories attentively and gave me only one piece of advice: "˜You should think of the good things on such a beautiful day,' he said simply."

"I looked outside and felt that indeed, life was indeed exciting out there. I looked at him, surprised, smiled and said: "˜Indeed. Thank you for showing me." He laughed, clapped my shoulder and said goodbye."

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