First published July 2022 | Words and photos by Biên Nguyên
Biên Nguyên is a contributing writer for Vietnam Coracle. Born & raised in Hanoi, he works as a Service Learning Officer at the United Nations International School (UNIS) in Hanoi. In addition, he’s a co-owner of Bancông Cafe in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Outside the office, he considers himself an environmental activist, a runner, a traveller & an amateur photographer….read more about Biên
I like to explore Hà Nội through cafes. I was born in the capital and still live there today. I visit cafes as a way to better understand my city and its people. Whether it’s a place with a lot of historical imprints or a place with modern architecture, Hà Nội’s coffee shops tell their own stories associated with the movement and development of the city.
BANCÔNG CAFE HANOI
A Nostalgic Coffee Shop in a Heritage Building
Strolling in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter, you’ll be struck by the yellow-painted French colonial-era villa at number 2 Đinh Liệt street. This mansion was once tinged with moss and a favourite place for photographers. In 2019, the villa was transformed into Bancông Cafe & Restaurant, but retained the original architecture and structure, making it an attraction for both Hanoians and tourists. I was part of the team that undertook this transformation. As co-owner of Bancông Cafe I wanted to help rejuvenate this grand old Hà Nội edifice; resurrecting it for a new generation of Hanoians while also retaining its heritage and connection to the past.
*Disclosure: Biên is a co-owner of Bancông Cafe, but this post is not an advertorial. Biên is a contributing writer for this website. When I discovered that Biên was the co-owner of such a cool and fascinating coffee shop, I immediately asked him to write about it for the site, because I wanted my audience to know about it. There is no sponsored content on Vietnam Coracle whatsoever. Tom
Bancông Cafe | Hà Nội
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Unlike a number of older French villas with sophisticated baroque architecture in Hà Nội, Bancông was built in the Art Deco style with spacious, square rooms filled with light. The name of this cafe reflects its architectural features: bancông means ‘balcony’. The villa has several airy balconies on which to sit, overlooking a bustling street corner.
Bancông Cafe still retains a nostalgic atmosphere of Hà Nội in the 1930s, a time when the lifestyle of the Tràng An people (an old way to call Hanoians) reflected both the novelty and innovation of French culture mixed with bold, age-old Vietnamese traditions. The walls are stained from nearly a century of time; the antique wooden tables and chairs, the old picture frames, the faded yellow paper books, the arrangement of trees outside and the small, old, pretty decorations inside, along with the French music from the 1920s to 1940s echoing off the walls, all conspire to create a unique vibe at Bancông. The cafe has become a place for Hanoians to recall their cosy and intimate memories of Hà Nội’s past, even though most of its customers were born long after the villa was built.
Throughout my life, Hà Nội has been changing rapidly. Every year, the skyline is different; fashions and trends come and go; people’s attitudes and pastimes change. Sometimes it can feel as if the city I knew – the place where I was born and grew up – has disappeared. Bancông tries to recapture a little part of an older Hà Nội, while also appealing to the new generation of Hanoians. When Bancông opened, the famous Hanoian actress Xuân Qùynh came here every day with her friends, because she loved how the place reminded her of her childhood.
Bancông has a lot to tell people about itself and the ups and downs of Hà Nội and its people. At one time, the entire building was a roof for seven different households. This was quite common with old French mansions in Hà Nội in the decades following independence, in 1945. The villa’s current owner, a Hanoian architect who loves the building, decided to buy the whole place from the other families in order to maintain it properly. The Bancông team rented the site with an agreement to preserve the villa’s original architecture and take care of it.
I love sitting on any of the balconies that Bancông offers, looking over the busy snail shop (quán ốc) opposite, or the bustling street corners below. I always feel comfortable being at the cafe: inside one of the cosy rooms on a chilly winter’s day listening to some 1920s jazzy melodies, or outside on the balconies full of lush plants and vivid flowers on a lovely, warm autumn afternoon.
Coffee is good at Bancông Cafe. They serve all different kinds of coffee – Italian style, Vietnamese style, and their own creations. I would suggest trying one of their signatures: “cà phê cốt dừa” (coffee with coconut milk) or “cà phê trứng” (egg coffee, a Hà Nội speciality). Of course, if you’d prefer something more familiar, all the typical espresso-based coffees are available, as well as classic Vietnamese cà phê đen đá (strong iced black coffee) and cà phê sữa đá (sweet iced coffee with condensed milk). On a hot summer’s day, the most refreshing option to cool you down is “dừa non lá nếp” (coconut with pandan leaves).
Bancông also operates as a restaurant, serving various cuisines. Quality is good and portions are generous. The best deals are set menus intended for small groups, but if you’re there by yourself, a single dish meal is perfect for a short stop during your city exploration. Don’t forget to have a tour around the villa before grabbing the best seat. The spacious balcony by the flower shop on the second floor is perfect for a couple or a group of friends looking for a little privacy.
Bancông’s staff are polite and friendly. They speak good English and have decent manners. The service is great in general, but during busy times your orders may be slow to arrive, so please be patient. Keep in mind that occasionally some groups of people take their wedding photos at the cafe. However, they are required to be quiet and respectful. You will likely find a tranquil corner in this massive mansion for reading, working, socializing or just chilling by yourself.
*Disclosure: All content on Vietnam Coracle is free to read and independently produced. Biên has written this post because he is a proud co-owner of Bancông Cafe and I asked he to write about it because I want readers to know about it. For more details, see the Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and About Page