Atop a narrow door on Ba Trieu Street sits a sign featuring a large photograph of the Brandenburg Gate and the name “Kaiser Kaffee” in that Gothic font that screams “German” as loudly as lederhosen.
Entering the restaurant requires a long walk down a corridor, the walls of which are lined with Teutonic visual chaos. At the end of the hall a door opens onto the restaurant’s first-floor dining room (there’s a second upstairs), a cozily low-ceilinged space that doubles as a museum of German trinketry, boasting a collection of at least 84 beer steins, four antique pistols, several broken clocks, a tiny blue model ship christened “Miriam,” and, for obscure reasons, a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln resting haphazardly on top of a few steins.
But by the time you sit down to begin perusing a menu, you’ve already passed the restaurant’s most distinctive feature – a refrigerator full of 15 different German beers. In affinity with Germany’s welcoming nature and open-door policies – there are also 12 Belgian varieties, four Czech types, two Italians, the requisite Vietnamese mass-market brands and a lonely Dutchman, Grolsch.
The refrigerator constitutes Kaiser Kaffee’s salvo in what might be termed a craft beer counterrevolution—though Kaiser Kaffee is at least a decade older than Vietnam’s craft beer mania.
At the very least, the refrigerator is a rebuke to the notion that “craft beer” constitutes Hanoi’s first or strongest niche golden liquid-swilling subculture. Kaiser Kaffee has been around since 2000. The Kaiser’s customers don’t want Pasteur Street’s Jasmine IPA or Furbrew’s Pho Specialty Ale on tap. They want German beers in bottles: Hofbrau, Warsteiner and Erdinger – for which Kaiser Kaffee is among the only purveyors in all of northern Vietnam, according to owner-manager Oanh Nguyen and her daughter-in-law Quynh Vu.
“You can’t just go along with new trends,” Vu said.
“When you think about German food, you think about Kaiser Kaffee. And when you think about Kaiser, you think about Erdinger beer.”
Nguyen does not particularly like German food. She does not drink beer. And yet, in the two decades since she returned home to Hanoi after six years living in Berlin, her business savvy, connections with Germany and intense commitment to her niche—and to German beer—have built one of Hanoi’s most popular – and only – German restaurants.
Her experience with Germany began in 1974, when her husband, Vinh Pham, moved to East Berlin to study. He was among thousands of North Vietnamese invited to study in East Germany, Vietnam’s socialist “brotherland.” After completing his degree, he traveled between East Berlin and Hanoi, running a business selling clothes and Vietnamese fruits in Germany. Nguyen joined him in 1990 with their two children.
By 1996, forces both macroeconomic and familial were calling the couple home. Market reforms meant that Hanoi promised tempting new business opportunities, and their parents were getting older and needed more help. The couple’s two children stayed behind in Germany. Their daughter is still there, living in Hamburg with her daughter, who is a German citizen.
In Hanoi, the couple opened their first restaurant in the Old Quarter, called Green Coco, serving mostly Vietnamese food to foreign tourists. By 2000, the menu had completed a gradual evolution towards German sausage, steak and potatoes, and Kaiser Kaffee was born. At first it was difficult: Nguyen had never eaten German food in Berlin and now had to teach herself in Hanoi. Pham, who recently passed away, was “the taster”. Nguyen recalls Pham sampling each dish and suggesting changes to enhance its authenticity. Now, after moving to the current location in 2005, the restaurant imports some ingredients from Germany in an effort to get the flavors right.
Meanwhile, their son made a part-time job of sampling German beers and passing recommendations to his parents in Hanoi. Pham tasted those, too.
“He wasn’t really like an alcoholic,” Vu said.
“…but he liked to drink German beer everyday.”
It’s apparent Kaiser Kaffee’s customers do, too. At noon on a recent Monday, every table on the first floor was occupied. Groups of mostly male, middle-aged Vietnamese professionals on their lunch breaks swigged half-litre glasses of beer and sliced into steaks and potatoes. Binh Cao Huy, a businessman, drank Erdinger with his friend Dieu Pham Vu on the second floor. Cao Huy has been a regular at Kaiser for a decade. Last year he attended Oktoberfest in Bavaria, and Kaiser’s food is not quite authentic in his opinion. But the restaurant’s “special style” keeps him coming back. Huy said he often brings friends here for a dining experience unlike any other in Hanoi.
And though the décor continues to evolve, as Nguyen packs curiae into her suitcase every time she returns from a visit to her daughter in Germany, not much else does. Not the food and certainly not the beer.
“We don’t want to change anything,” Nguyen concludes.