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Ngõ Nooks: Reng Reng, a Welcome as Cold as the Coffee at Hanoi's Most Idiosyncratic Cafe

Reng Reng isn’t a friendly coffee shop.

Walking down a side alley in Hoan Kiem, you’ll smell it before you see it. Actually, if it weren’t for the enticing waft of roasting coffee beans, you might not be able to find Reng Reng Cafe at all. The shop doesn’t have any signs, which is appropriate for a place that doesn’t really seem to care if you visit or not.

Reng Reng’s dingy, bottom-floor interior is a cramped accumulation of squat, plastic chairs and tiny wooden tables crammed into a space that measures less than 30 square meters. Hong Kong apartments have larger closets. There’s neither room at Reng Reng for typing on a laptop nor the WiFi to support such an activity. The tight quarters can’t accommodate a circle of friends, the close proximity of adjacent guests makes it a poor venue for sharing secrets or breaking bad news, and it’s ill-suited for joy, as any animated conversation will quickly result in a staff member whisking over with a note saying, “may you talk gently.” Snacks and smoking are not allowed, and if you think it’s a great place to hunker down and read a book, I hope you have a large bladder because it doesn’t make its bathroom available to patrons.

The shop’s eccentric owner contributes to the cafe’s idiosyncratic essence. When behind the till or espresso machine, Nguyen Duy Bieu comes across as a kind, albeit somewhat aloof, man. His strict photo policy that bars anyone from shooting anything other than coffee cups and a random bookshelf suggests he might be a dour misanthrope. One would never guess that the art school graduate from Da Lat composes beautiful, quirky poetry under the pseudonym Bim. He even produced an illustrated erotic poetry book that he wrote in just two days because he considers himself to be a “stiff penis,” and as he explained, “one can make love for the whole of an hour, and in my personal experiences, it can be an hour and a half or two hours per time, but it never takes one minute to force sperm out of (or into) the body (of another).”

Photo by Chris Humphrey.

So why would anyone even think of going to this surreal, somewhat surly shop? The coffee! It’s easily some of the best in Hanoi. All of Reng Reng’s drinks use in-house roasted Arabica beans as opposed to the cheaper, lower-quality Robusta beans that are ubiquitous in the country. The difference is clear. Served in familiar, affordable Western styles such as espressos and cappuccinos, guests can choose from light, dark and extra-dark roasts that boast subtle notes of hickory, smoke, oak, tobacco, cherry, caramel, raisin, resin, moss and molasses. The shop’s specialty, bà nà, is a lavishly smooth and indulgent blend of espresso, cream and sweetened condensed milk that balances the complex coffee flavors with sweeter, softer elements. Every fan of the shop who Saigoneer spoke with admits the atmosphere can be strange, but it doesn't matter when the drinks are this good. 

Bieu’s untrammeled nature extends to his views on coffee. In his hometown of Da Lat, his family grew coffee but never considered it anything other than a simple cash crop. When he was in his early 20s, Bieu began questioning why Vietnamese people’s professed love of coffee doesn’t translate to them having developed more discerning tongues. After learning more, he made it a mission to introduce people to Arabica beans and established a coffee shop in Da Lat which quickly failed. He then moved to Hanoi and peddled around the city, selling iced coffee from the back of his bicycle. While he no longer sells it that way, the name Reng Reng, which mimics the sound of a bicycle bell, pays homage to his humble start.

Reng Reng's signature 'Bana' Coffee. Photo by Chris Humphrey.

Slowly teeth-shucking sunflower seeds, scrolling through Facebook pages and gossiping with co-workers: Vietnam’s love of going out for coffee often has nothing to do with the drink itself. Reng Reng is aiming to change that. If you visit Reng Reng, don’t expect a comfortable experience or charming atmosphere. It isn’t a place for long chats with friends or a backdrop for a cred-establishing social media selfie. It’s simply a hovel for some of the best coffee in the city. Quickly savor a cup or buy a pack of beans to make at home as long as you are not, as Bieu warns, a customer who doesn’t “care about the coffee they’re drinking.”


To Sum Up:

Taste: 6/5 

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 2/5

Friendliness: 2/5

Location: 3/5 


While Paul Christiansen loves Hanoi, he could never move from his home in Saigon because of the capital’s comparative dearth of durian.

Cafe Reng Reng

17 ngo, 12B Ly Nam De, Quan Thanh


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