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Hide-and-seek at Reng Reng Café

By Quynh Trang   December 18, 2016 | 02:00 am GMT+7

Meet the elusive young Hanoi cafe owner who doesn't want you to know his address.

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Nguyen Duy Bieu in 2012 with his bicycle. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Quan.

Four years ago, newspapers all over Hanoi profiled Nguyen Duy Bieu, a young “coffee peddler” determined to sell the capital on his Da Lat Arabica.

Bieu called himself “Dried Pinecone” -- a nod to his origins in the evergreen forests that surround his hometown -- and spoke in grand terms about the humble bean.

The art school graduate had failed to open a coffee shop in his hometown, so he returned to Hanoi to sell cups of clean coffee from the back of his bicycle.

Back in 2012, the capital believed coffee should be cheap and readily available; a notion that consumers should look for anything else quickly raised eyebrows.

After three months of bicycling around the Old Quarter, Bieu raised enough money to open his first mobile stall, complete with tiny white stools.

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Bieu’s first mobile coffee shop. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Quan

His VND15,000 (67 cents) cup of plain-roasted Arabica appealed to lots of coffee enthusiasts.

Kids descended in droves on his adorable cart, determined to take selfies with coffee they had little interest in drinking.

So Bieu got rid of most of his stools and made his customers stand. Then, he started moving.

This August, Bieu relocated for the fourth time, leaving no address behind except for a notice on his shop’s Facebook page.

“Address only disclosed to friends and acquaintances,” he wrote, before discouraging check-ins and photographs.

After asking around, VnExpress International successfully found Bieu at a small house nestled in the alleys of the Old Quarter - seated among tiny tables and stools among potted daisies.

A sign read “Speak soft, laugh quietly”. The shop offered no wifi.

Sitting at Reng Reng Café -- the new shop -- Bieu spoke about his troubled coffee dream.

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Nguyen Duy Bieu at Reng Reng Café. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang

Are you still cycling?

I stopped. Back in 2012 people were paying too much attention to my bicycle and not enough to my coffee. There is an army of vendors on bicycles now. I don’t want to say their coffee is bad, but its origins are unclear.

Are you trying to keep this place a secret?

Not at all. My coffee shop is not intended to be a secret. I only want to eliminate customers who don’t care about the coffee they’re drinking.

I expect people to be objective when they taste mine. Don’t be fooled by all these hip, photogenic shops or by people who say the coffee is good.

If others say it’s good, it’s not necessarily so.

So what about all the people on social media who call Reng Reng “the best coffee in town”?

To be honest, after four years, I’m still not satisfied with the quality of my coffee. Compared to the Arabica you can find in other places around the world, I’d give our select beans three-stars out of five.

Why only three-stars?

In 20 or 30 years, we might succeed in achieving greater quality. For now, because of our coffee history, our cultivation habits and roasting techniques, Vietnamese beans are rather mediocre.

How would you describe our coffee history?

Derelict and disjointed. We were left with a legacy, but didn’t know how to properly cultivate it. Take the practice of mixing coffee with corn, soybeans, caramel and other additives. It’s normal nowadays, but it actually hurts the quality of the beans over time.

Does your family have a farm in Da Lat?

In the past, like every other farmer, we had no knowledge of proper organic cultivation. In 2009, I started to study coffee and research organic practices. Now our family farm produces Robusta coffee, tea and a small amount of Arabica.

Where do Reng Reng’s Arabica beans come from?

From farms in Cau Dat, Da Lat. The farms are located at higher altitudes where it’s more suitable for Arabica to grow.

What problems do farmers face in cultivating high-quality coffee?

First, there are a lot of historical, political and economic problems that affect the whole industry. I prefer not to go deep into those.

Second, coffee enthusiasts in Vietnam have limited academic resources. We learn all by ourselves without any proper education. I'd like to go abroad for training or have the chance to learn from foreign experts.

Third, the majority of local coffee drinkers are still unaware of what they are drinking. It’s a paradox: we take our health seriously, yet we drink harmful coffee.

So, are you pessimistic about Vietnam’s coffee scene?

No. After all, it’s quite a bright picture. I'm not alone; a number of other roasters are gradually emerging with different targets but the same goal: to serve high-quality coffee to Vietnamese people.

Take the Workshop, Shin Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City for example. They are doing well.

What is the plan for Reng Reng in the near future?

Over the past four years, a few thousand people have come to ask me about coffee. I think that’s a good sign.

Vietnam is already the third-largest exporter in the world. If we could ultimately control the quality, I believe we could step up our international game.

What does Reng Reng mean?

Reng Reng -- ding ding -- in English, is the sound of the bicycle that brings back serene memories of pedaling through the streets.

It also serves as a constant alarm to remind me that I should try harder to achieve my goal: genuine and honestly roasted Arabica.

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