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Ngõ Nooks: A Ngõ Cafe Houses Big Dreams for Buôn Ma Thuột Beans

A well-known singer from the Central Highlands city of Buôn Ma Thuột, Mai Trang is taking an extended break from show business to focus on her other passion: coffee.

“She has to taste a lot of coffee for her job,” Trang's husband tells me as the two of them take me on a coffee tour of the Old Quarter. “But the problem is she doesn’t just taste it, she drinks it.” I can testify to this. When Mai Trang invites me to her cafe, Mason Bee in Cầu Giấy, she not only has me try three different espressos and two egg coffees in under an hour, but matches me drink for drink.

“It doesn’t matter how much coffee you drink throughout the day,” she says, nodding towards a liquor shelf above the bar. “You can always get to sleep as long as you have enough whiskey or wine!”

The cozy counter at Mason Bee.

I take her word for it as I brave a palpitation-inducing amount of caffeine. But if getting wired on premium Vietnamese coffee is your thing, Mason Bee is the place to go. It has a simple, modern interior with stools lining a Japanese-style cafe bar. Bags of speciality coffee beans — all bought directly from farmers around the Central Highlands — surround a spaceship-like espresso machine, and tables spill into the dappled shade outside.

The more coffee Mai Trang drinks, the more she sings, and there is one particular line that comes up again and again: “Còn thương nhau thì về Buôn Ma Thuột / If you love me, come to Buôn Ma Thuột.” The refrain comes from an old song that Mai Trang covered, but she sings it so much — interjecting it at random intervals throughout our conversation — that it feels like a personal mantra.

Coffee is really the star here.

This is because Mai Trang’s passion for coffee is twinned with her love of Buôn Ma Thuột. While she loves her cafe, it almost feels like a vehicle by which she can help her home province and, perhaps incidentally, improve the international reputation of Vietnamese coffee.

Coffee was introduced to Northern Vietnam by the French but is actually best suited for the Central Highlands, particularly around Buôn Ma Thuột. After the French Vietnam quickly gained a reputation for exporting huge quantities of relatively low-quality coffee. This changed slightly as distributors, coming mostly from Taiwan and Japan, saw business opportunities within this emerging market. Many of these distributors helped to improve the technical quality of the coffee but left farmers with the same meager profits.

The housemade cà phê trứng.

Mai Trang wants to change this. From participating in the Buôn Ma Thuột Coffee Festival, to working with the Speciality Coffee Association to help provide coffee farmers with modern equipment and up-to-date knowledge, she is taking a hands-on approach to improving the industry in any way she can. “I am only one person,” she says as we drink what could just as easily be our third or tenth espresso of the day. “But what I hope is that the cafe improves as we help the farmers to improve their crop.”

“The first thing that we can change is the knowledge of the farmers, like how to control the quality of their coffee and sell it in a way that doesn’t depend on fluctuating market values, and also how to change the way to process the coffee. Coffee trees are like humans — they only need about 5–6 hours of sunlight a day — so don’t just plant coffee but create an ecosystem by planting many fruit trees to provide shade.”

The small indoor seating arrangements feature a few seats at the counter and tables along the wall.

It all comes together in Mason Bee. While the coffee is delicious, it is the story of how it got into your cup that is most interesting; knowing that the beans have been “reared” and sold not by a faceless distribution company, but by a farmer who knows and cares about what they’re growing and how they’re growing it, and who, most importantly, is receiving fair compensation for their product.

This is seemingly the main motivation for Mai Trang, and she affords this goal an impressive amount of energy despite her busy schedule. She seems to manage by compartmentalizing her different goals into alternate selves. There is the singer, the coffee lover, the strong highland woman, the elegant city girl, the mother, the free spirit; she switches between these personas at will, fully committing to each one in turn.

Coffee apparati on the shelves.

So, being caught between her alternate selves, as well as between her cafe and a number of producers enticing her back into show business, is there a Mai Trang that finds time to just zone out and relax?

“Oh, yes. Recently I love watching animated movies with my son. My favourite is that one with all the ice. It’s called… Fridge Girl!”

“Do you mean Frozen?”


Which mug do you fancy your coffee in?

Perhaps the only slight regret in all of this is that, before Mai Trang’s frustrations with the pressures of show business, she clearly found refuge in singing. Driving her car around Old Quarter and answering my questions in Mason Bee, she sings and taps along to an eclectic playlist, from Aerosmith, to Kissed by a Rose, to the Genshin Impact soundtrack, and finally to a refrain that I’d become intimately familiar with over the previous day and half.

“I wanted to record this song in a way that really captures the spirit of my people — their strength, their wisdom, their gentleness — and show it to the world,” she says. Then she begins to sing, both on the speakers and live in person, as the song breaks into its final entreaty: “If you love me, come to Buôn Ma Thuột.”

The rustic entrance to the cafe.

Again, it all comes together in Mason Bee. Despite Mai Trang’s best efforts to compartmentalize her conflicting selves, they are all on show as she sings about the Central Highlands while surrounded by personally sourced bags of coffee beans, and again when she talks about performing in Ho Chi Minh City as her son embarrasses me with a series of math questions. All her contradictions align in this space; all of them fuelled by a relentless energy that, miraculously, seems to have nothing at all to do with caffeine.

Mason Bee Coffee is open from 7:30am to 7pm.

Mason Bee Coffee

3 Ngõ 143, Trung Kính, Yên Hoà Ward, Cầu Giấy District, Hanoi


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