Café 129

Michael L. Gray

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Café 129 in 1998. Photograph: Michael L. Gray

I didn’t expect to stop at Café 129 when I turned onto Mai Hac De Street, during a rare work trip to Hanoi in November 2015. The street looked the same as always – houses with faintly French architecture pinched together in an endless row, the ground floors hosting all manner of shops and businesses. The noise, the early evening dust from the chaotic but well-choreographed stream of motor scooters, the old grandmas squatting in their doorways preparing vegetables for the night’s dinner. It was enough to be back on familiar ground, where I’d spent more than a decade of my life, in probably the most Hanoian part of all Hanoi. But I didn’t expect to see anyone sitting inside my old haunt, Café 129, especially this late in the day.

Yet there she was. I stopped and stared until I was sure it was her. Nha was sitting at a table at the back of the café. Her eyes went wide with surprise. I had not visited Hanoi for many years. What’s more, she had left Vietnam. “Aren’t you in Germany?” I said to her in Vietnamese as I clasped her small, delicate hands in greeting. “I just arrived,” she said, and I noticed the travel bags at her feet, and saw the silhouette of her husband in the tiny mezzanine room above the stairs.

Serendipity. The two of us arriving at this tiny corner of Hanoi at the exact same time, from opposite sides of the planet – her from Germany and myself from Canada. We exchanged pleasantries and quickly recapped key news of our lives, but I sensed she wanted to see her sisters and their children upstairs. I excused myself and continued up Mai Hac De.

A wistful sentiment washed over me like a sudden rain. I’ve been up and down that stretch of road a thousand times. But at that moment I could see a little piece of my future more clearly even than my own past. I knew, from the miniscule odds of that meeting, that I would never step inside the narrow walls of Café 129 again.

 

From its appearance, there was nothing to separate Café 129 from the innumerable coffee shops up and down Hanoi’s raucous inner city streets, some little more than alleyways. Mai Hac De lies in a neighbourhood crowded with cafes, restaurants, boutiques and mini-hotels, pressed together between two main north-south traffic arteries, Ba Trieu and Hue. It’s the epicentre of old Hanoi, far less touristy than the Old Quarter, far more every-day-life and residential than the French Quarter. In 1995, the area around Café 129 was littered with cat toc nam bars, black opaque screen doors shielding the girls and customers from onlookers. With economic growth, the girly bars retreated to outlying areas of the city. By 1998, only one “ice cream bar” sat across from Café 129, the running joke being it did not serve ice cream.

The cat toc nam venues were replaced by regular hairdressers, and on occasion we would venture over for a face-and-head massage before our meal. Immediately across from 129, a house-owner of bitter disposition did his best to drive property prices down by blasting music from two enormous speakers, for hours on end. This fracas went on for years.

Within the safe-haven walls of Café 129, even the incessant noise of the street faded into the background. It was a narrow shopfront set into an otherwise residential building. A white plastic signboard advertised typical fare – coffee, cakes and yoghurt. A few short steps led to art deco floor tiles, upon which sat small stools and a few equally tiny tables – all of a dark natural wood that, after we wore them out, were replaced by plastic and Formica. The walls were bare except for a few electric fans. A French customer eventually hung bland photographs on the wall. The back of the café had a tiny bar, and a glass cabinet with fancy glasses and a few bottles of rum and vodka. No one drank alcohol at 129, and the bottles remained unopened year after year. There was, to the end of its days, absolutely nothing of any aesthetic value in the visage of Café 129. It was perfect for its ubiquity. It looked like nothing from nowhere.

There was only one visual cue to Café 129’s unique status – on weekend mornings it overflowed white people. And they would stay for hours. Bicycles squeezed between Honda and Minsk motorbikes. Latecomers double-parked or encroached on the neighbours’ property. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, the small tables could seat four in budget-airline comfort. A fifth could join at the head of the table, albeit with nowhere to put their plate. With five tables and rarely more than two sisters working at once, the café struggled to cope with even a dozen guests. We staggered our arrival times, with the most bleary-eyed latecomers inevitable suffering the wickedest hangovers. Somehow, everyone found space. A community formed, and to gain membership all you had to do was walk in and sit down. Customers were packed so close together that conversations between strangers were inevitable.

The menu started as a single, double-sided sheet of A4 paper in a plastic sleeve. Customers made requests that, if repeated often enough, would soon appear in print. By the mid-2000s it had expanded into a four-page booklet. From breakfast classics such as omelettes and hash browns, Nha added more lunch and dinner options, from salads to pasta dishes and beefsteak. My one and only addition to the menu came in 1998, shortly after returning from graduate studies in London. “Nha’s got a sandwich press now, it’s bloody brilliant,” said Steve, my colleague at the Viet Nam News, where we worked as copy editors. A day later, I ordered a grilled sandwich of tuna, sliced tomato, cheese, and mayonnaise. Nha threw that between two pieces of bread and into the press it went. She served it with her homemade chilli sauce. When ‘tuna melt’ appeared on the menu a few weeks later, I felt I had played my part in the development of closer fraternal relations between Canada and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. At least, my corner of it.

As the menu grew, so did our appetites. We ordered copious amounts of food, and Nha usually got the orders spot on (apologising profusely if she missed something). She brought coffee at the end of your meal, resulting in some guests specifically ordering both a before- and after-meal café sua nong. Nha served Vietnam’s black, over-roasted coffee beans. She wouldn’t brew it fresh, but would instead make a large batch in the morning and reheat it order by order. But she served it in a fine china cup, alongside a small cream pot filled with heated, fresh milk. The proportions were always perfect – you up-ended the entire creamer into the tall cup for a dense, hangover-fighting flat white. Until the late 1990s, only the better-known Café 252 on Hang Bong had coffee that could compare. But that place was infected with both tourists and pretension. The French-speaking owner hung a picture on the wall of himself, in a dashing beret, sitting alongside French actress Catherine Deneuve, who was in Hanoi during the filming of Indochine. Deneuve faced away from the camera, as if annoyed at the attention. If she wanted to be left in peace, she should have tried Café 129.

The sisters provided a bare-bones dining experience. Nha would smile when you arrived, then leave you alone unless you actively courted her attention. The service was not quick, but it was consistent. And Nha consistently served me last among my friends. I’d like to think she did this because she was fondest of me; her pet customer who wouldn’t complain, dearer to her than the others on account of my superior Vietnamese and amiable disposition. But that’s hubris. She served me last because she knew I was an inveterate consumer of dark-roast lattes and syrup-laden pancakes in a captive breakfast market. There was nowhere else to go.

 

Eric Davidson introduced me to Café 129 in early July 1995. We both rented rooms at the university guesthouse at A2 Bach Khoa. Eric was the only person I knew in Hanoi at the time. Without steady work and scrambling for visas, we were fellow travellers on the margins of expat society.

Café 129 had a menu I could not believe was real. I picked it up and stared at it, after the graceful, wispy proprietress dropped it on the table. “It was Keith Taylor that taught her how to make pancakes,” Eric announced. Pancakes? French toast, bacon, omelettes with ham and cheese. The menu was unlike any I had seen in Hanoi, city of endless pho stalls. Any student of Vietnam would know Keith Taylor by name, a Cornell professor famous for his research on the historical origins of Vietnamese nationalism. Odd that the first thing I would learn in Hanoi was that he introduced Nha to pancakes.

Eric ordered a plate of mashed potatoes covered with melted cheese. As I remember it, I didn’t order anything. I may have had no money on me, or perhaps I played the martyr and imagined the prices were a tad out of reach. “Have some,” Eric offered, spooning a generous chunk onto a second plate, the melted Gouda stretching into a gorgeous, gooey mess that he pushed toward me across the slender table. I was in love.

Eric was not my only dining partner in 1995. My colleague, Steven Boyle, from the newspaper shared my love of the place. A Liverpudlian with a gravelly voice to match his five-o’clock shadow, Steve and I had similar views on politics and history, though food was one of our main points of bonding. We rarely met at Café 129, however, as our dining schedules didn’t overlap. We just talked about it. Our love of Vietnamese cuisine never diminished the importance of comfort food as a means of surviving culture shock. Over work, as we rewrote bad English into comprehensible English, we would compare notes on new restaurants popping up around town. Working late into the evenings, we shared all manner of take-in meals, our favourite being the curries from Tandoor. But nothing surpassed Café 129.

It remained the gold standard when I returned to Hanoi in 1998. By then, I was joined at the café by a veritable clique of rewrite editors from print and radio, teachers and NGO staff. I never dined alone. A trip to 129 would include some combination of Bill Badger, Paul Gilliland, Julian Wainwright, Ruth Bowen, Lucina Schmich, and/or Anna Treasure. Within a year the regulars had expanded to include Peter and Diane Holdsworth, Simon Falush, Ben Anderson, Paul Davis and a number of fellow Canadians, including Cecilia Unite and my roommate, Alexa Dare. Many others I remember only by their first name, such as Marc, a posh English kid who was transformed by the culture shock brought on by his year in Hanoi. Dearest of all was Richard Pettit, the only one of our group no longer among the living. A Beatnik drop-out from California, Richard regaled me for years with stories of his misadventures stretching from California to Boston to Hawaii to Thailand and, finally, Hanoi. He passed away in 2002.

 

When I interviewed Nha for this story, she didn’t want me to focus on the family. “Write about the café,” she insisted. “But you and your sisters were the café,” I said. Nonetheless, I’ll respect her wishes and provide only the barest details.

The café was a family business. The boss was Tran Thi Nha, born in 1955, the eldest of five tall, elegant sisters. Nha has high cheekbones and a smattering of freckles, with the perfect posture and composure of an educated Hanoi woman. She wore flimsy pyjamas and flip flops while working, her hair tied in a bun. The simple attire couldn’t hide her class. She was beautiful, effortlessly.

The two next oldest sisters worked at the café. The younger two were rarely in sight, but would occasionally turn up laden with shopping bags full of groceries. A grandmother was in the kitchen almost all the time, rarely emerging to the front of the house. One of the husbands delivered drinks and cleared plates. He never smiled or revealed any discernible emotion. The other sisters who worked at the café, Hanh and Yen, were not prone to effusive greetings or inquisitive conversations with their customers. Unlike almost all other Hanoians, they didn’t seem to care how old we were, whether we were married, or how many children we had. They were happy to converse with customers who spoke Vietnamese, but otherwise would leave their guests alone.

Two children lived in the house, a baby joining later. We watched these children grow up – and grow they did, eventually surpassing their parents in height and build. The baby girl, Phuong Linh, is now 19 and studying English at university.

Nha was previously a teacher, but the family took advantage of the Vietnamese government’s decision in 1986 to open the country and the economy under doi moi, allowing small business to grow alongside state-controlled activities. Making money was no longer an evil, and it brought new prosperity to the country. “In 1992, we opened Café 129 in our father’s house,” said Nha in her song-bird voice. “The house was fairly large by Hanoi standards, so we could live there as well as have the café.” There was a bathroom at the back, behind the kitchen. Upstairs was off-limits, no one venturing into the family’s private space.

Nha said: “We had no business experience, and we had very little money. So the menu was very simple, just a few drinks.” The café sits near the south end of Mai Hac De, where it emerges onto Dai Co Viet Boulevard and the campus of Hanoi’s Polytechnic University, Bach Khoa. Among the early customers was Professor Keith Taylor, who in 1994 taught at the first CIEE program for American students in Hanoi. “He spoke Vietnamese very well and we liked talking with him. He helped us a lot, by bringing his foreign students and friends to the café.” Café legend was that it was he who brought pancakes to Café 129. The character of the café began to transform. “Many foreigners came to the café and suggested or taught us how to cook foreign dishes. They became our friends.”

Nha, asked to recognise her early supporters, and rattled off some names: Jonathan, an American student of Keith Taylor’s, got her some cookbooks and brought her to a tourist café in the old quarter to study the Western-style dishes there. William taught Nha to make an English breakfast, porridge and sandwiches. Daniel taught the sisters to make spaghetti carbonara, and another American named Steve brought syrup to serve with pancakes, instead of honey. And there was Canadian Dr Gerard Sasges, now at NUS in Singapore. “Gerard taught us the American and Canadian breakfasts, and he brought a Mexican student to show us some of his dishes.”

With time and prosperity, enthusiasm wavered among Hanoi expats for the small café near the bottom of Mai Hac De. “Hanoi has more restaurants with foreign dishes now,” Nha said. “Café 129 was so small, and business wasn’t good. Most of our customers lived far away, so only came on weekends.”

As Hanoi expanded and more foreigners arrived, they gradually coalesced into expat suburbs like Nghi Tam near West Lake. Restaurants and shops, often owned by other expats, opened to cater to this new market. While only Café 252 was competition in 1995, by 2005 competition was everywhere, including modern branded franchises like Highlands Café.

 

Keith Taylor didn’t teach me to make pancakes, Nha had told me, as if wanting to set the record straight. “Do you know who did? Me. I tried making them from scratch at first, but it took too long. So I just used the stuff from the yellow box.”

Nha’s pancakes, were, to be honest, in need of positive critique. She used the same pan for almost everything, so oil and bacon fat would accumulate. Pancakes soak that stuff up, which intrudes on their intrinsic neutral flavour. The browned exterior of a pancake should be firm, but not crisp – which oil-frying induces. Most people don’t realise that pancakes are best cooked in a pan that’s almost bone dry, with just a hint of butter to prevent sticking. I know this because fatherhood has made me a pancakes expert, like my father before me.

Nha also didn’t have maple syrup, just the high-fructose corn-based sludge in a plastic bottle. I’m Canadian and therefore a syrup snob. But I’m nit-picking. I remember Julian waving his cutlery over his plate, which had two flawless round mid-sized disks overlapping each other, syrup lapping at their edges. “These are perfect New York deli style pancakes,” he said. And that was probably true. They didn’t match my ideal, but comfort food doesn’t have to be perfect. If it’s 90 per cent of what you have back home, that missing 10 per cent is a reason to debate its merits, quietly reminisce on your native place, tell stories of your favourite childhood meals, or even save up and visit your family. You can tell them about the little café in the middle of nowhere that has almost the perfect Sunday brunch.

 

Word on the street is that Café 129 Mai Hac De has closed. Can anyone in Hanoi confirm? If so, my comfort food flag is flying at half-mast today …

And so in a July 2016 Facebook post by Julian Wainwright I learned of the café’s demise. Eight months had passed since my serendipitous meeting in November 2015. I contacted Nha and she confirmed it was true. She replied to Julian’s post, thanking everyone for their patronage over the past twenty-plus years. Nha herself was no longer in Hanoi. After drawing the attention of several potential suitors over the years, in 2010 she had finally married one of her customers, Rolf, and they moved to Germany in 2012.

Michael L. Gray is a writer, researcher and program manager who lived in Vietnam for over twelve years, beginning in 1995.

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