Every day, Café Giang hums with blenders, all churning up eggs, cheese, condensed milk, sugar, and other secret ingredients. It's the birthplace of Hanoi's cà phê trứng, or egg coffee. And yes, that means the egg and cheese go in the coffee.
Egg coffee has been a way of life and a livelihood for Tri Hoa Nguyen and his family since shortly after 1946, when Tri's father Nguyen Giang founded Café Giang and invented the first cup of egg coffee. Because there was a shortage of fresh milk in Vietnam during the French War, most Vietnamese would line the bottom of the cup with condensed milk and pour the coffee on top, and that's exactly how Vietnamese coffee is served today. But lacking milk, Nguyen whisked in egg as a substitute.
It wasn't immediately popular, as it took a long time to hand-whisk the egg to the right consistency, and it tasted too much like egg. But with the invention of the blender and the slow adaptation of the recipe to eliminate the eggy flavor, the drink exploded in popularity in the 1980s.
Today's recipe for the latte-like drink has no egg flavor. The froth is light, sweet, and floats atop bold and rich Vietnamese coffee, which Tri roasts himself. It's tempting to drink the coffee as it's served—a beautiful and simple presentation—but Tri instructs drinkers to stir it all together to create balance, like mixing yin and yang.
The drink's success is based upon a two-fold secret recipe. Of course, Tri will never tell anyone which ingredient makes the drink taste egg-free. But there's also an intangible element: Tri's innate ability to make it better than everyone else. It's why he's not worried about the thousands of copycat drinks around Hanoi.
"I'm really open to imitation," he said, via translator Nguyen Thi Mai Phuong. "It's a part of the business. I only registered for the name of this café. Even if someone else makes egg coffee, they can't take the name of my café—the name itself is popular.
"A lot of people can have the same product and develop it in their own way. For me, I'm confident in my secret ingredient, and it makes my drink original."
Perhaps he's comfortable with competition because his sister is one of his competitors. She serves egg coffee at Café Đinh, which is also well known to locals in Hanoi.
She may be better at making other specialty drinks, but his sister's egg coffee is not as popular as his. He was born to be an egg coffee master, he explained, and compared himself to a kung fu master that was born to practice kung fu. Coffee-making is an art that he honed his entire life.
"My whole family lived off the coffee business at one point," he said. "So now, when everything has settled down and my children have grown up, I'm grateful for egg coffee.
"For us, it's more about gratitude—what brings you good things. You pay gratitude to it."
A part of honoring the coffee is respecting its history and tradition. Many of the cafés in Hanoi are modernizing or Westernizing, but Café Giang never changes.
The downstairs is dark and the long entrance feels like you're walking down the mouth of a cave. The echoes of laughter and conversation can be heard from the upstairs, where sun comes through a roof window into the solarium. Coffee is a social drink in Vietnam. Unlike in the US, where we grab a cup and go, the Vietnamese like to sit over coffee with family or coworkers to slow the day down and solve a problem—or just shoot the shit.
Tri almost never leaves his downstairs counter, so he can speak with customers and keep track of each table's bill. His wife, to which Tri gives endless credit, bounces around the kitchen and instructs their two employees.
On his website, Tri writes, "Cafe Giang's timeworn patina is almost a bleak exaggeration of communist-era non-chic."
"I'm converted," an Australian tourist said, and sung Tri's praises. She showed a map that illustrated how far she'd walked to find the café, which showed that she'd gotten lost many times.
And it's easy to understand what she means by converted: There was something religious about the pilgrimage to get to Tri's cafe. For almost everyone, it's difficult to find this hole in the wall. Even on my second trip, I walked right by it. And Tri's application of Buddhist principles to the egg coffee-making process helps you understand why it is something of a spiritual experience. Coffee-drinkers pay homage to the eccentric drink.
Tri's father perfected the recipe when he was 30. And at 60 years old, Tri's been making it for most of his life. It's a product of persistence and perfectionism.
Despite his focus on the past, he's got an eye on the future, too. He finished by adding that he'd like to open a shop in New York. It's something of a pipe dream, he admitted. But if possible, it's a Cronut-esque phenomenon in the making.