On Hoan Kiem:
The small outdoor "Highlands Cafe" at the south end of Hoan Kiem Lake is a chain, but presents itself as a unique and pleasurable setting, and the coffee is all from Vietnam. The latte comes hot (a good start) delivered by perfectly well-mannered staff who seem yet unjaded by the high volume.
"It's all Italian technology," says the manager of the speedy, fresh service coming from behind the bar, And there's no doubt it's all made by careful hands because the steamed milk comes picture-perfect, even under the occasionally heavy Hanoi mist.
Highlands has everything going for it in location. In fact, it may technically be the best in town as far as lakeside cafes go. You are steps away from the water and surrounded by trees. At dusk, low lights reflect off the surface of the lake.
Address: Not numbered.
Where Ly thai Tho meets Pho Trang Thi.
Prices:: Mid to high range. (This is European calibre)
Take the latte for 23,000 dong.
Hours: 7am to 11pm
Just up Ly Thai Tho from the Lakeside Highlands is the Hoan Kiem mainstay, "Thuy Ta Cafe." It's impossible to miss and you will be sorry if you do. Just walk in and sit. There always seems to be a table despite the throngs on the sidewalk. The seating, on a large, sweeping terrace right on the water, is literally lakeside. Ngoc Son Pagoda ts practically in your lap and you are only steps away from popular Hang Dao Street.
But Thuy Ta doesn't try to be so much a cafe as it does simply to be among "the best of Hanoi," promising good Vietnamese staples. Bypass the daquiries and pasta. The hot tea is steaming, the cold beer ready at a moment's notice and served by proficient staff in tidy blue uniforms. On the premises is a patisserie of sorts second to none. Nothing behind the glass will disappoint And don't rule out the spring rolls, another specialty so simple yet so very satisfying.
Address: 1 Ly Thai Tho
Prices: Mid to high range.
Hot Black Tea w/lemon: 8.000 dong, Croissant: 5,000 dong.
(2,000 dong to park your motorbike if you have one)
Hours: 6am to 11pm
On Truc Bach
Up and coming in Hanoi is diminutive Truc Bach Lake, 10 minutes from Hoan Kiem through the Old Quarter. There are 36 establishments on the water at True Bach with the word "cafe" in their name, so there's no lack of choice.
'Tho Xuong Quan," along the north side of the lake, caters to an established Truc Bach clientele who mass in the afternoon at low bamboo tables to debate anything, with no small amount of interest, over traditional Vietnamese food. And while the special menu of locally made brandy may push the standard fare of a cafe, Tho Xuong Quan still manages to mingle "cafe" with hot breaded spring rolls.
Owner Quan says his uncle makes the brandy (or at least some of it displayed in the window), and judging by the taste, he's a master. Quan will even pour a 15-year-old house specialty all the way from Dien Bien Phu and Toast with you. The recipe is a secret but involves ginseng, fruit, and rice aged in glass.
Address: 158 Tran Vu
Prices: Mid to high range.
Brandy: 30,000 dong. Spring Rolls: 20,000 dong
Hours: noon to "sometimes late into the night"
according to Quan.
Toast: "chuc sue khoe" (health to you)
At the other end of the spectrum on Truc Bach Lake is "Cool Teen," also on the north side in the shadow of the Sofitel Plaza. Ignore the name. Ignore the lime-green bench coverings. Get the coffee. It comes hot, dark, and sweet. View is everything. Large picture windows block the hum of traffic on the ever-crowded Duong Thanh Nien nearby. If it's a hot day or you're toting kids, any of the gelati (also of quite loud colors) might restore you, and silence needy youngsters.
Address: 3 True Bach
Prices: Mid range. Coffee 9,000 dong, 20s to 30s
Briefly noted in Truc Bach: "Khanh Cafe" perches over the street on the south side of the Lake. There is only hot coffee and tea, difficult to fake. Enjoy the ionic columnae, and someone just spent a lot of money on new chairs. The egg sandwich (banh my trung) comes with onions and possibly fish sauce (or was that from the last meal) and chips. Not bad for 12,000 dong.
On West Lake
The first cafe to catch your eye as you arrive at broad West Lake, separated from Truc Bach by a causeway (Duong Thanh Nien), might not be a small spot with a low profile and unassuming fare. Tiny "Cafe Minimal" has two tables, hence the name. The ambiance is elegantly simple: white walls, black everything else. Even with a full house it's all yours to read or just look out the window across the water.
Despite close quarters, you don't feel cramped, owing to large windows. The menu has a distinctly post-modern attitude, offering fruit shakes and ultra-healthful juices made instantly on the spot. And they know jazz. Minimal is modern lakeside Hanoi at its best. They've been there for 6 months, say the staff, but menu is slated to change.
Note: Where's the bathroom?
Address: 9 Duong Thanh Nien
Prices: Mid-range. Carrot shake, 15,000 dong
Hours: 9am-ish to 10pm-ish
Continuing along the causeway northwest and out onto Duong Yen Phu is the upscale "Hanoi Club," with its cafe off the main entrance. This is the highest end, but lives up to its reputation. The lake gives everything a resort-feel without being affected, although the waterfront driving range could mar your view of the water.
The mango shake, from a menu with a clearly new-age flair, is utterly uniform in consistency and not too sweet It may even be just mangoes and ice blended to perfection. Apply that to the banana, pineapple, and papaya versions. Also look for buttery croissant and pain-au-chocolat of the highest Hanoi order.
Prices: If you have to ask, you can't afford it.
Aptly named "Hidden Hanoi" (associated with the popular cooking and language classes) is somewhat difficult to find. past the Hanoi Club, through weaving alleys in the shadow of the Sheraton Hotel. That may be a good thing, as tran-quility rules here. It's open to the air but shrouded in green, and you walk down a path of cement feet in pools to private, lakeside nooks, one table each. Enjoy the warm breeze off the lake. Or sit in a common area done in dark wood.
A cold drink suffices at Hidden Hanoi. If you're out here it's probably warm anyway. Beer or a soft drink will do. If you have the time, chat with a strange bird on your way out who has the mysterious ability to mimic you without actually saying anything.
Prices: Low to mid range. Hanoi Beer, 12,000 dong
On Thien Quang
South of Hoan Kiem about 10 minutes is tranquil, orderly Thien Quang Lake, just over the line in Hai Ba Trung district, still in the center of the city. Worlds collide, with a pleasing effect, at "XYZ," perhaps the avant garde of the Hanoi avant garde. There is flamenco on the CD player and the walls are hung with photos of German sports cars. The view of the lake is impeccable through large, swinging glass panels that open onto Nguyen Du Street. Enjoy the air conditioning and leather chairs.
XYZ's menu makes ample use of the best fresh Vietnamese fruit with frozen shakes from lemon to salted apricot The apple-custard smoothie has a sedative effect. If only they could muffle the traffic.
Address: 56A Nguyen Du
Prices: Mid-range. Smoothies. 12,000 to 20.000 dong
Hours: 7am to 11pm
Diagonally across Thien Quang from XYZ is moderate "Cafe Du Thuyen" jutting out into the water on a miniature peninsula. The natural wood interior, tame colors, and pop music make it seem like your own living room.
As Hanoi Cafes go, Cafe Du Thuyen is one of the least assuming. It's just a nice place on a lake serving decent food. Families come here. People come here alone. Tourists, of course, are welcome. It's nice in the sun or in the rain. Kids enjoy it. It's cheap and fast. And if it gets crowded it's probably only by other people who just want a few minutes respite from life over something chilled.
The coffee invariably comes delicious, but if you're hungry, go for the banh my, a loving adaptation of baguette and pate with fresh tomato and eggs splayed out on a platter, simple but effective despite the asking price.
Address: Near the corner of Tran Binh Trong and Tran Nhan Tong, across the footbridge.
Prices: Low to mid range, coffee 8,000 to 10,000 dong. Sandwiches 15,000 to 18.000.