Vietnam's center for caffeinated calm

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News

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The interior of Nguyen Thanh Truc's place walks a line between sophistication and hominess. Photo: Calvin Godfrey The interior of Nguyen Thanh Truc's place walks a line between sophistication and hominess. Photo: Calvin Godfrey
For most of the world's history, the coffee house has been a place for regular people to get hepped up on caffeine and vent political steam.
But there's more than enough of that on the street these days.
With the Chinese blasting our boys with water cannons off the coast of Da Nang and Thomas Friedman interviewing 19 year old girls and twisting his creepy mustache in Hanoi, the last thing I need right now is more political steam.

Nguyen Thanh Truc converted his boyhood home into [a] café about two years ago. Photo: Calvin Godfrey
Cool quiet is more my speed. And coffee. Lots of delicious coffee.
As far as I can tell, there's only one place for that right now.
[a] café sits behind a grey wooden gate on Huynh Khuong Ninh—a claustrophobic colonial lane that houses former revolutionary hideouts, the palatial “loving hut” vegan emporium and a Japanese pottery studio.
Artist Nguyen Thanh Truc lovingly carved the café out of his boyhood home two years ago and imbued it with esoteric good taste and homey warmth that's hard to describe without details.
Flowers (fresh and dying) sit on nearly every table, surrounded by squishy couches and deep armchairs.
A low-key soundtrack manages to flow seamlessly from obscure American indie rock to the Italian jazz impresario Paolo Conti. Full volumes of Tolstoy and Gorky line the wall, above huge red rock carvings of Hindu gods.
But none of this feels intimidating or pretentious, because pictures of Truc's friends and family dangle from all the lamps. Truc himself can usually be found shuffling about in a long sleeved shirt, jeans and fanny pack, either playing his guitar in a rear courtyard with friends or cheerfully welcoming newcomers with a nicotine and coffee-stained grin.
“Most of my customers are my friends,” he said over cigarettes and iced catimor on a recent afternoon. “It's not really a big business here.”
And that's the beautiful part.
Truc opened the café thinking it would be some kind of self-serve place.
That didn't really work out. Then, one day a friend handed him a tin, stovetop espresso machine that Italians call a Moka.
“I just wanted to play with it,” he said. “I wanted to know how many different tools there were to make coffee.”
He got switched on to a group of coffee visionaries raising and roasting genuine arabicas, clean catimors and real robusta up in Da Lat. Then he filled a whole shelf with a collection of brewing devices so elaborate, Rube Goldberg would tone it down.

These days, an open shelf on the cafe's ground floor houses a collection of the best beans and coffee making equipment in the country.Photo: Calvin Godfrey
He's laid out bags of Starbucks beans next to his own carefully curated, roasted and labelled beans drawn from South and Central America.
You pick the coffee and its method of preparation.
Some of the most delicious among them, I'd say, are the Da Lat-grown La Viet beans brewed in the hourglass-like vessels known as Cemexes. The drink they yield tastes closer to tea than any coffee you'll find in town.
For five dollars, one of Truc's staff will spend 15 minutes by your side carefully slow-brewing two cups of coffee (hot or over ice) with the power to change your day.
While [a] café does pour-over coffee beautifully— I'd stay away from anything made in the small Hamilton Beach espresso machine in the back. Also, there's no parking, so you usually have to leave your bike at an internet cafe a few doors down.
Beyond those minor glitches, the place is sheer heaven.
Lately, I've been puttering through my days on La Viet's honey-process bourbon—a colonial strain of Arabica roasted with the sugary, yellow skins left on the bean. It tastes just like it sounds and requires no sugar or milk.
[a] Cafe

15 Huynh Khuong Ninh st.

Da Kao ward, Dist.1,

HCMC, Vietnam

0903 199 701

Open: 8am-9pm

Price: VND100-140,000 for a Cemex pitcher (good for two)

Interest in this sort of coffee is growing fast. In addition to artists, designers and architects, Truc says a lot of roasters, buyers and purveyors have started showing up to his door for a cup.
Plans are in the works for yet another [a] café in the alley behind Quan Ngon on Pasteur a place even larger and more grand.
“It's very exciting and interesting at this moment,” Truc said of Vietnam's coffee scene. “Because it's just the start.”
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