Hoan Kiem, the heart of Hanoi, is abuzz as it rebounds from the pandemic. For the first time in months, Vietnamese citizens walk freely around the lake, enjoy the serene oasis in the middle of the growing capital. Around the iconic lake are many charming cafés, resting in shady alleyways or located on a major street, next to a constant parade of traffic. Maybe in some other cities, the chaos of the streets would clash with the relaxing atmosphere of the cafés. Yet, in Hanoi, the juxtaposition is an everyday staple of life in Vietnam’s capital.
|Hidden cafe on a balcony around Hoan Kiem Lake. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
Out of the many cafés in this area, it is hard to choose just one. This makes Hoan Kiem the perfect location to engage in a pleasant Hanoian tradition – a café crawl; a visit to a series of nearby coffee shops. With plenty of delicious drinks and Instagrammable spaces, a café crawl is a great way to spend a memorable weekend in Hanoi.
|VNT’s first Café Crawl goes past the most lively streets of Hanoi and offers a stunning view of Hoan Kiem.
1st Café: Coffee A – 2 Lan Ong, Hang Dao
Our journey begins at Coffee A, above the vibrant intersection of Lan Ong, Hang Ngang, and Hang Duong. The view from the balcony on the second floor looked at Hang Buom street which leads straight to Beer Street. During the night, the streets are alive with beer-soaked smiles but during the day the streets are crowded with busy city-goers. For those in a rush, it is a nightmare but for those just looking to people-watch, Coffee A is a splendid choice.
It is breathtaking to observe the scene from the 2nd-floor balcony. You will see the true hustle and bustle side of Hanoi just by sitting on the balcony and enjoying your coffee. From people crossing the streets to motorbikes speeding past, you witness Hanoi’s citizens moving to the city’s chaotic rhythm.
While witnessing the special of Hanoi – the wild traffic, you can have a taste of the egg coffee. The cream egg is so light and tastes like sweet caramel cotton candy overlay the rich Vietnamese coffee.
|The view from Coffee A’s balcony. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
Leisurely stir your egg coffee as the city speeds beneath you. It should be served hot and it is the best drink to have on a windy day. The variation for non-caffeine drinkers is Hot Cocoa with egg cream, it looks exactly the same as the Egg coffee , just without the coffee underneath.
When collecting pictures for this article, I came on a busy Sunday afternoon. Above the rushing motorists, the staff pours refreshing drinks in a calm setting. I had to try the lemongrass peach tea- quite delicious! The big chunks of peach were a nice touch.
|The interior of Coffee A. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
The view of the balcony at Coffee A is truly the main show, everything on the menu is extra for the grand view. It is not only Instagram-worthy but also a place to immerse in an older French vibe. Walking up a tiny stair, getting to the second floor, getting to enjoy the best live-action scenery is the series of actions you would want to spend your time on while traveling in Hanoi.
2nd Café: The Note Coffee – 64 Luong Van Can, Hang Trong
|Inside the Note Coffee. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
For the second stop on the café crawl , walk 500 meters south from Coffee A, towards Hoan Kiem. Located steps away from the historical lake,The Note Coffee is a café with a special message – several special messages, in fact. The walls are covered with little love notes, made by tourists and natives alike. The notes are written in different languages but they all give the same message of love, inspiration, and adventure!
The staff is incredibly warm and welcoming, matching the positive vibes of the special space.
|Messages on the wall that people left behind. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
As my eyes scan over the sweet notes, the server arrives with a cup of hot matcha latte for me. One of the final winds of winter blows over the lake, causing most of Hanoi to shiver. However, I remain warm, either from my frothy brew or the loving messages written by strangers.
|“Do what you love and love what you do”, a message on the note that the cafe serve with the hot matcha I had. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
Similar to Coffee A, the Note Coffee offers stunning views. The northern spot of the lake is quite crowded in the post-pandemic season. While most people enjoy people watching from the massive, nearby Highlands Coffee, the Note Coffee is by far the better option. As international tourism slowly ramps up, the Note Coffee, once a tourist novelty, is now a quiet refuge near Hanoi’s most magical lake.
|The view from the third floor of Note Coffee. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
The Note Coffee is constantly written about in travel guides to Hanoi, making it a must-see spot. Before the pandemic, one could meet plenty of backpacking couples taking pretty photos for Instagram. Every week, the walls would be painted in a new shade of Post-It Notes. Now, the messages left tourists by remain untouched.
Hopefully, within the coming weeks, more tourists will visit the friendly cafe and leave new love notes for Hanoians to enjoy.
|The views looked at Hoan Kiem Lake. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
Café 3: Hai Four – 24 Ba Trieu, Trang Tien
|Hai Bon at 24 Ba Trieu. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
After leaving The Note Coffee, continue heading south. Take some time to walk alongside the lake, enjoy the blossoming flowers. A group of Vietnamese women giggle as a photographer captures both them and Hoan Kiem’s beauty within his mighty lens.
750 meters from The Note Coffee is a like cafe called Hai Bon, which literally translates to 24 – the number, where it is located – 24 Ba Trieu Street. The rustic appearance transports you to the older days of a newly independent Vietnam.
The menu is interesting with cool options such as Peach Americano, which I had. It was absolutely refreshing for an afternoon drink if you want to have the taste of summer in your mouth. Even though it is not a slushy drink, it does bring up the vibe of a summer cooler. The Vietnamese Brown Ice – Coffee with Condense milk is also really good since it does give you a hit of caffeine but without the terrible buzz. Especially, none of the drinks gave a sour aftertaste which is amazing if you are a coffee lover.
|Peach Americano at Hai Bon. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
Hai Bon has been well-known in central Hanoi amongst the city’s photographers. They they come here to discuss their new ideas and recent projects. The location is the perfect backdrop for aspiring models or offers a grungy snapshot of a distinct urban landscape.
Don’t be surprised if a spontaneous photoshoot happens besides you as you enjoy your drink!
|The interior of the small Hai Bon. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
Neat, clean and refresh are the adjectives I would want to use to describe Hai Bon. The decors arrangement are inspired by the Japanese minimalism. The café menu is well-arranged on the wall right where you can see it.
Just by sitting down outside of the café, you can sense the freedom of creativity. It is truly satisfying to send your mind to a different creative zone. Witnessing the passersby and having a new point of view about Hanoi is probably what you find here, at Hai Bon.
|The interior of Hai Bon’s 2nd floor. Photo: Ollie Le Nguyen
Hai Bon is also a great stop for a pre-cocktail journey. The neon light that said “Bar” in the middle of the indoor Hai Bon sign will soon be lit up. In the evenings, the staff starts pouring enticing alcoholic beverages.
I sip a hot chocolate with bourbon (a Hai Bon favorite) and reflect on my journey. Even those I passed some of the busiest intersections, dodged an onslaught of never-ending traffic, and consumed copious amounts of caffeine, I never felt more relaxed. Perhaps, that is the subtle magic of Hoan Kiem and its wonderful cafés.