Nguyen Duy Bieu, the owner of Cafe Reng Reng, reminds me of an alchemist. He can be single-minded, fastidious, and obsessive as he strives to transmute simpler elements (coffee in this case) into gold. Also like an alchemist, he is rather secretive, and reticent to share the product of his work with too many until it has been perfected.
Nguyen grew up in Da Lat on his family’s coffee farm, and has been surrounded by coffee his whole life. He first began preparing coffee for others in 1996, and in 2012, he arrived in Hanoi and began serving his hometown’s beans from his bicycle (the name ‘Reng Reng’ comes from the sound of a bicycle bell). His aim was to bring single-origin, freshly roasted coffee to Hanoi.
For Nguyen, the bike was a convenient way to get his coffee to as many people as possible, but many saw only the quirky, bicycling coffee guy, and didn’t focus so much on just how much better the coffee was than what is commonly available.
Retiring the bike for a more permanent location, about two years ago Nguyen opened the current expression of his quest, the Reng Reng Cafe. Situated on a quiet, tree-lined alley near the Old Quarter (that is as much information as I am allowed to give), Reng Reng is just as much of a dynamic, ongoing, creative project as it is a coffee shop.
With no sign, no information about the address posted online, and almost zero social media presence, you have to do a little detective work to get there. But that is exactly how Nguyen want things to be – better that people have to find him, because those are the customers that really care about how good his coffee is.
I visited recently. Every seat was occupied. People were actually talking to one another (maybe it helps that there is no wi-fi). Upstairs, a shelf full of books, and jazz music quietly playing on the speakers. The smell of freshly-roasted coffee beans in the grinder.
The menu is simple. The coffee is prepared with an espresso machine, with the option of getting the shots ristretto-style in your americano, your latte, or other espresso based-drink. I got a double americano with the medium roast beans, and it would be very difficult to find another cup of coffee that fresh and well-prepared in the entire city.
You can also take the beans home, with the choice of medium, dark, and extra dark roasts, which Nguyen and his brother roast everyday near the cafe, available in 200g bags. If you bring your own container, you get a discount. The beans come with a roast date, and mine were roasted just two days prior, a crucial aspect of the quality Nguyen is striving for.
If You Brew It They Will Come
We spoke about the state of the coffee industry in Vietnam, with Nguyen saying that the process of drinking coffee needs to be connected with the process of growing, and that there needs to be a more comprehensive and regulated system of production in Vietnam that connects all aspects of the process, from the plant to the bean to your morning cup. People need to understand where their coffee comes from and how it is grown, and what things affect those beans all along the way.
There are other elements such as the fact that countries that do not produce coffee, like Japan per se, make most use of the best grinders, espresso machines and roasters, but why doesn’t Vietnam? Vietnam is one of the world’s largest coffee exporters, why can’t they make these machines as well?
When Vietnam focuses on higher quality production, and develops a transparent, well-regulated system of ensuring it, people’s awareness with naturally increase. It will be years before Vietnam’s beans are seen as near the quality as that of far older producers such as Indonesia or Brazil, but Nguyen is himself doing the ground work to make this happen, from the coffee plant to the coffee grinder. He is exclusively using higher quality, higher altitude arabica beans, while 97% of Vietnam’s output is that of robusta.
Nguyen emphasised that until people know what high quality coffee is, they won’t be too bothered trying to find it. When I asked him why he decided to open a cafe, mobile or not, he explained: “I grew up around coffee, and people drinking coffee, but what everyone was drinking was so low quality that I felt like it was almost my mission to show just how good coffee can be.” He added that people in Vietnam have the palate for much better coffee, but many are simply unaware that it exists. That is slowly changing, however, and Cafe Reng Reng has only grown since it opened.
I asked Nguyen about why, in an age so fixated on branding, he is so decidedly low key. He said that the work with the cafe and with his family’s Da Lat beans are like building a house, and he is still working on the foundation, so it would be a bit premature to put a sign up. “I want to be able to finish the house so that my family has a nice, beautiful place to live. But I am still laying the first stones.” He mentioned several times that he is engaged in an ongoing process of struggling to improve the coffee in every regard, and that it still isn’t where he knows it can potentially be.
When I laughed and said that he is already making some of the best coffee in the city, he smiled and thanked me. “It is a simple happiness for me to know that people appreciate these first efforts, are enjoying our coffee, and supporting us along the way.”
Nguyen, the seemingly infinitely patient and determined alchemist of Hanoi’s coffee scene, is playing the long game indeed, and Hanoians are fortunate to have access to the gold that he will be serving us with in the years to come.
But I wouldn’t expect him to put up a sign anytime soon.