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
Cafe 51 Phan Chu Trinh is such a simple operation. But they have a few additional excellent ingredients…
The first, unique one, is an old man, perhaps the proprietor, with a guitar, picking out melodies to some song about cats in his special seat in an open doorway looking over the side alley.
Second, they have a loyal and gregarious customer base – mostly well dressed and male – clearly on lunch break from their jobs in the French Quarter, grouped in tables of three to five, talking. I came here at the recommendation of Ghien Cafe, so I was unsurprised to find it crowded. I was not dissappointed by the coffee, but the real treat was the mơ muôi (pickled apricot and soda) – a delicious combination of salty and sweet that was the perfect refreshing antidote to a hot day.
Little did I know that I had actually been victim of a bait and switch! The GC review had been of a little place down the alley called Homeless Cafe, which actually was on the second level of 51. As I left, I noticed its entrance around the corner. I had been deceived by the two awnings, one on top of the other. However, as is so often the case here, I feel like I benefited from the confusion – Homeless appeared to be completely empty – a sure sign that it wasn’t as good as Cafe 51. And it certainly didn’t have and old guy with a guitar.