The streets around the Saint Lazare train station churn with a current of hurried office workers, wandering tourists, delivery trucks, and city buses. In the shadow of the austere Église de la Sainte-Trinité church, Hanoi Corner is a little haven of calm welcoming passersby for lunch or an afternoon cup of tea.
The cafe, specializing in Vietnamese filter coffee, Vietnamese tea, and street food staples like banh mi sandwiches, is Nguyen Nam and Nguyen Linh’s love letter to their Vietnamese-French heritage.
“I wanted to create a Vietnamese coffee shop, but I didn’t want to just serve a good cup of coffee,” Nam says. “I wanted to take customers on a voyage to discover Vietnamese culture.”
Nam is Vietnamese, but grew up in France; his wife, Linh, came to France from Vietnam to study. For Nam, a former IT project manager, coffee is an opportunity to stop and enjoy the moment. In Vietnam, he says, coffee is never taken to go.
“Coffee made with a Vietnamese filter takes time,” Nam says. “It’s coffee that invites you to sit down and share it with someone.”
Though Vietnam is a major coffee producer, the quality of the beans, mostly Robusta, is generally considered inferior to those produced in other regions. But as interest in coffee grows, so has the demand for locally grown Arabica and lighter roasted beans. Cafe culture is developing in new and exciting ways in Vietnam, particularly in cities in the south, where a number of cafes are taking a specialty coffee approach that includes different extraction methods and a special attention to provenance. Hanoi Corner tries to capture the diversity of this movement for a French audience, sourcing both darker-roasted beans as well as more modern interpretations from The Workshop, a specialty roaster in Ho Chi Minh City.
“There’s this side of Vietnam that many French people aren’t aware of. We wanted to show traditional coffee, specialty coffee, and what’s happening in between,” Nam says. In addition to offering straight up Vietnamese filter coffee, the couple also prepares a beverage with iced coconut milk, as well as egg coffee, which is topped with whipped egg yolk and condensed milk. Nam admits that purists might be put off by the idea of coconut and coffee mingling, but also insists that different occasions call for different coffees.
“I love eating at gourmet restaurants, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying comfort food now and then,” he says.
For Linh, it was important that teas also appear on their menu. A staple beverage in Vietnam, green tea is consumed in the morning, after meals, during ceremonies, and with family. In addition to two native green tea varieties and three native black teas, the cafe serves a lotus-infused green tea produced within the traditional Vietnamese style, with no artificial flavors—for this drink, green tea leaves are infused six times with lotus flowers harvested from the West Lake area in Vietnam. All teas are procured from small producers who work with local communities in Vietnam’s mountainous tea-growing regions.
“Our work here in Paris has to give something back to Vietnam, it can’t just be about making money,” Linh says.
Nam’s decision to exclusively serve coffee brewed with the Vietnamese Phin filter is unique in Paris, and even more so because he has developed a specialty-inspired brewing method specific to the filter.
“I wanted to work with the beans and filter from Vietnam, and the methods I learned in France,” he explains. When he first began learning about extraction methods, he found the Vietnamese filter often presented as a quaint element of local culture rather than a serious way to make a good cup of coffee. So, initially he concentrated on learning V60 techniques.
But there were things about the V60 that bothered him, namely a nagging sense of irregularity, no matter how precise his measurements were. “The Vietnamese filter is even simpler than the V60, which meant I could concentrate on precision of grind, temperature, and ratio,” Nam says. He spent a year poring over books and adapting V60 techniques to the filter, eventually refining a brewing process that produces coffee with a flavor and mouthfeel somewhere between an espresso and a filter brew.
Nam’s hard work paid off earlier this year when he won the Réseau Barista de France Brewing Contest with his method. In the past, he’s been reluctant to enter competitions that don’t include blind tasting, because he’s sensed some condescension within the specialty coffee community toward the Vietnamese filter.
“In my experience, people have had preconceived ideas about my coffee before they even taste it. They’ll say, ‘It’s not bad,’ but they don’t dare say it’s good,” he says. The blind tasting was an opportunity. “To show people that it’s possible to make a modern, relevant cup of coffee with a Vietnamese filter. It’s not just a quaint bit of folklore to play on nostalgia about Vietnam.”
The couple takes the same approach to food as they do coffee, using Linh’s family recipes to create banh mi sandwiches, bo bun bowls, and manioc desserts that break with a nostalgic or static approach to Vietnamese cuisine.
“We want to show there’s another face of Vietnam than what you find in the restaurants in the 13th arrondissement. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they were opened by people who came after the war with an older vision of Vietnam,” explains Linh.
“But we can show something new, with good pastries, tea, cake, a good banh mi—a blend of French and Vietnamese culture, based on traditional recipes.”
The slow evolution of Vietnamese cuisine in Paris may arise in part from the stigma Nam says many Vietnamese families attach to working in the food industry. Growing up, for example, Nam says his parents emphasized the importance of higher education and getting a well-paid job in a company, and his decision to open a cafe left them perplexed.
“There’s a level of fear in saying you work in the food industry, it implies that you’ve failed in your studies, in your life,” he explains. “But I went to school, I worked and eventually I realized I had nothing to prove to anyone.”
After just three months in operation, Hanoi Corner landed a Time Out mention as one of the best places to seek out Vietnamese food in Paris. It may be a sign that the city is ready for what the new generation of Vietnamese creators have to offer.
“It’s funny because the French brought coffee to Vietnam and now we’re bringing Vietnamese coffee to France. The circle is complete,” Nam says.
Kate Robinson (@KateOnTheLoose) is a freelance journalist based in Paris. Read more Kate Robinson on Sprudge.