Story: Nhat Minh
Photos: Nguyen Phuoc Bao Minh

When it comes to Hue, most people think of the former citadel’s colossal palace complexes, fantastic natural scenery, elegant court music and soulful chants, vibrant festivals and refined cuisine. Few visitors know about an integral essence of this area: Hue coffee.

Given its downtown population of 360,000 people, Hue might have the most cafés per capita in Vietnam, with roughly 1,000 cafés of different sizes. I was strolling around Hue with a friend visiting from overseas when he asked: “How can all of Hue’s cafés be packed all the time? Morning, afternoon, evening… It seems Hue people lead their lives in cafés instead of at home!”

No one knows when coffee was first imported into Hue, yet the habit of drinking coffee and meeting at cafés boasts a long history. In the early 20th century, when the French set up the western quarter to the south of the Perfume River, cafés began to cater for wealthy folk and intellectuals pursuing Western studies. These included the cafés at the Morin Hotel at the start of Truong Tien Bridge and the Sports Club (near the present-day Phu Xuan Bridge). At that time coffee was served in a French style and considered a luxury. It was not until the years between 1945 and 1975 that an appreciation for coffee began to trickle down to other social classes in the former citadel, thus boosting the number of cafés. In the early 1950s, Hue boasted the famous Phan Café near Gia Hoi Bridge. In the 1960s, the Lac Son Café in front of Dong Ba Market rose to fame. Despite having lost its status as the nation’s capital, Hue remained a major educational and cultural hub that attracted many intellectuals. Cafés became popular meeting places where students and academics exchanged ideas, listened to music, dated, and relaxed.

After 1975, and even in the tough economic times of the 1980s and 1990s, Hue’s cafés still flourished, by far outnumbering the city’s restaurants. At the time famous cafés in Hue included Song Xanh in Dap Da, 242 Chi Lang Café, Tigon Café on Nguyen Hue Street, and No. 6 Café and No. 8 Café on Tran Thuc Nhan, which was known as “Coffee Street”.

Most of Hue’s cafés were set in gardens, many of which featured garden houses. Genuine Hue coffee remains quintessentially French – it is filtered coffee left to slowly trickle into the cup, in line with Hue people’s belief that one should “be slow to be fast”. Sitting in a tranquil café in Hue during the rainy seasons listening to the rain and soothing music by Trinh Cong Son, you may understand why so many illustrious poets and composers hail from Hue.

In recent years, new cafés have been built to serve visitors, most of which are associated with historical sites or cultural landmarks. Some new cafés feature luxurious and creative interior décor. These include the No Concerns Worldwide café at Bac Khuyet Pavilion in the Imperial Palace, Peace Pavilion Café to the northeast of the Imperial Palace, Nen Cu Café in the memorial hall of the Empress Dowager Tu Cung, Phuong Nam Book Café on Le Loi Street, Old Vy Da Café on Nguyen Sinh Cung Street, Dat Café on Nguyen Cong Tru Street, and He Café on Le Ngo Cat Street.

Hue’s best cafés have an elegant and soothing ambience, with lush gardens, soft ballads and helpful wait staff. In these refined cafés, guests can find captivating documentary photos and memorabilia associated with deceased kings and aristocrats. Hue’s cafés are more than just meeting places. They are part of the city’s heritage.