Panacea: Café with Music?





The idea of a guitar-strumming accompaniment to one’s coffee is enticing, but rare in Hà Nội, as it is in the US (beatnik legacies nonwithstanding).  So I tried out Panacea in the hopes of experiencing some of that magic.  Apparently, its a live music venue on occasion, but not at lunch today.  Only the hints of a possibilities were there…


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Watching the rain come in at the Disco Café

Everyone has known all day that it would rain… It seems the entire Saturday afternoon has been spent in lazy anticipation of the storm… The morning opened with fog and clouds over the lake – pleasantly cool but some sun in the morning – and gradually the gray has consolidated and darkened over the course of day.

I stare at the white dot of condensed milk in the foam of my unstirred nâu đá, and watch the entire street rush to clear the chairs from the lakeside sidewalk as the first drops come in… I’m opting for a passive waiting, along with the rest of the customers at 68 Trấn Vũ, but I am a bit more uneasy than some – I have to bike home in an hour, and if its heavy, it could be an adventure….  How long to wait… When is it imprudent to remain… I stare at the neon green of the cafe’s color scheme reflected in the metallic frame of my laptop screen, and wonder if  the caffeine jitters will take the rest of the anxiety away.

Scooters rush by with what seems like increasing speed – cautious ones with ponchos already donned and lights blazing – more careless leaning on the horn, sans helmet with blinker going, speeding to get home before it gets bad.

The first sip of coffee is perfect, as always. I don’t think its any different than any of the other lakeside places, but it hits the sweet spot of balance between condensed milk and bitter coffee.

A few tables reappear across the street under a tree as the neighboring cafe decides to risk it. Now, as afternoon progresses into evening, the cafe turns on its led projection system so that passing bàs, umbrellas tucked under arms, are illuminated with dancing points of bright red and green light.  The odd disco flashes illuminate young men lounging on bikes and chairs, silhouetted against the lakeside greenery giving the scene a typically eclectic Hanoi feel.

As it happens, I make it home about five minutes before the skies open up in a typical Hà Nội late afternoon downpour that dumps 28 mm of water in less than an hour (that’s over an inch for those of you in the non-metric world). Sadly, I did’t have a camera to record any pictures of this bizarre evening scene – don’t let your 4-year old play use your iPhone charger as a leash for her stuffed bunny – you may wind up with a dead battery and no way to recharge.


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Café Quất – A visit to a venerable venue

I’ll admit it… I came by Café Quất only for a purely utilitarian reasons.  Rather than the exploratory impulse, searching for new and unexplored destinations, sometimes the needs are simpler. I was out of coffee.


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61 Bát Sứ – Yin to the aircon Yang

After large plate of phở xào – noodle stirfry – the trance is starting to start to kick in as blood rushes to my stomach and caffeine floods my brain. The rhythm of passing motorbikes, the quiet birdsong from across the street, the rhythmic rising and falling of TV conversation.

61 Bát Sứ is a no frills street operation – you can probably not get any more opposite from Align 3D, around the corner. It is on a shady corner at the end of the tree lined street, producing an effect not all that different from the expensive bamboo courtyard of its counterpart.

There is something about the caffeine trance that encourages people watching – whether the conical hat clad fruit vendors haggling with customers around the corner, or the uber-clean “True Milk” franchise store front operator across the street, or the silent solitary man sipping his đên next to me, I am filled with a sudden desire to know everyone’s stories.

Maybe it is just the coffee or perhaps the accompanying mild dehydration headache, but I feel a kind of zen state that Align perhaps was trying to bring on, but that can only really be achieved by close contact with the Vietnamese street, rather than at a safe and A/C-enclosed distance.


PS – I am indebted for the inspiration for this photo to fellow Hanoi blogger Steve Jackson – mine isn’t as good as his, but shares the same lucky phone camera shot aesthetic.


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Align 3D – The snazzy end of the spectrum…

I was initially curious about Align 3D after reading about its indoor waterfall in The Word. Arriving at its new location at 6 Đường Thành, I peered down a narrow lane I the obviously swanky interior and realized I had better check the prices to make sure I had enough cash.

Align 3D is obviously in that category of cafes that serves a middle-class status-oriented crowd, which cherishes an air conditioned and comfortable place to smoke their Marlboros and work in their laptops, and maybe have a bite to eat. Never mind that coffee is twice as expensive as a regular cafe (my cà phê sữa chua ran me VNĐ 38K or about two bucks). Although the waterfall seems to have been a casualty of the move, they did feature quite amazing decór – for example, the best khoi pond I have see in Hà Nội graced their indoor bamboo-lined courtyard. A 15 foot mobile of khoi was the centerpiece inside, and upstairs they somehow managed to put a tree!



The walls were lined with these elaborate paintings of traditional Vietnamese scenes – were these somehow computer generated, the 3D graphics that are the places namesake? I will never know… Auditorially, the ambience was completed by a series of not quite Enya english musak tunes – I swear they played Greensleeves at some point.

The place was certainly popular – a number of tables on both chairs were crowded with folks. It was the kind of place that Arabica, where I ended up yesterday, was desperately trying to imitate… but without the over the top decor, comfy chairs.

Overall, the experience was antiseptic – it left me cold. However, there was remained a certain odd eclecticism that is perhaps the hallmark of Hà Nội cafes. While Align3D replaced the natural lakeview of other cafes with its own khoi pond, or the odd paintings of other places with its own strange and stilted 3D art, the combination still seemed oddly reminiscent of the spirit of the street cafe, where a few plastic chairs, a pot of coffee and bucket of ice can be turned into an entrepreneurial success.

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Lost and Found: Café under the Banyan

At times I am hesitant to review cafes already reviewed by others. I feel like I am retreading old territory, rather than generating new content. But invariably, there is a new discovery involved – further insight into this crazy city and its caffeine scene.

Today I set off to review one of food blogger StickyRice’s favorite cafes – a nameless place under a banyan tree that sounded rustic and special. It was also very close to my house, and perhaps chased a bit by yesterday’s meanderings, I figured the better part of valor was to stick close by, on foot.

I arrived however, to find that the steamroller of development had come first. The tangled power lines were still there, but the banyan tree was replaced by the massive skyscrapers I mentioned in a previous post.


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Café 51 Phan Chu Trinh

What does it take to open a cafe in Hà Nội?

The inventory is actually quite simple:

  • Coffee – Brewed in advance
  • About 50 glasses
  • Many cans of condensed milk, perhaps pre-filled in the glasses
  • A cooler of ice
  • A variety of condiments – sunflower seeds, gum, etc
  • A couple of jars of pickled apricots and limes
  • Plenty of plastic stools and chairs, preferably pockmarked by cigarrette burns
  • Some yogurt, properly chilled
  • One or two underpaid staff members
All of this fits in a small corner of the cafe:


Cafe 51 Phan Chu Trinh is such a simple operation. But they have a few additional excellent ingredients…

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