Hot Chocolate at Moca Cafe, Hanoi, Vietnam

My guidebook, and several locals all told us to try Moca Café when I asked them for a good place for a hot chocolate. It is in a colonial era building very close to the St Joseph’s Cathedral and the Ba Da Pagoda.

When we got there, the place was empty. We grabbed a seat near the window and sat down. After a few minutes we looked around, and there were several staff at the counter, all watching us like we are the show. Finally we got up and ask for a menu and brought it back to the table.  After a few more minutes we decide that we must need to go up to the counter to order so we did and 30 second later our drinks were delivered.

The whole time we were drinking the staff kept staring at us. It was the strangest thing. Were we doing something wrong? In the background they were playing English love songs from the 80’s. There are some beautiful elements to this café.  Small white tables with dark wooden chairs and the old lamp shades give is a romantic feel. There is a large coffee roaster near the door and a range of coffee beans in wooden boxes along the back wall. Apparently this is the place for coffee and the Vietnamese love their coffee.

Moca Café doesn’t love their hot chocolate as much. Mine was a mug of hot milk with a squirt of sweet chocolate syrup. But I can imagine when this place is full, with the atmosphere on any other day I would have enjoyed it enough.

Verdict: If it wasn’t for the staff starring at us I would come back here, maybe not for the hot chocolate but I’d find something else. The view out of the window of the busy street is beautiful and the café has a slight nostalgic and romantic feel to it. In the afternoons and evenings it gets very busy with local youth and has a much more vibrant atmosphere.  Moca Café, 14-16 Nha Tho Street, Hanoi Vietnam

Hot Chocolate on the Ginger Junk, Halong Bay, Vietnam

I’ll start off by staying this was a terrible hot chocolate, really terrible. It is in competition for one of the worst hot chocolates I have ever had (and one of the most expensive relatively speaking, at 4$!). I don’t know if I was expecting to have a good hot chocolate this morning, it would have really been the icing on the cake, but regardless I had to order it because I wanted to be able to tell you about stunning Halong Bay.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site off the coast of Vietnam, which encompasses an area of 1,554 km squared including 3,000 islets most of which are limestone. The legend goes that when the Vietnamese started developing the country the gods sent a family of dragons to protect them from invaders. These dragons started spitting out jewels and jade which became the islands dotting the bay linking to form a wall against invaders. After winning the battle the dragons decided to live in the bay which is why it was named Ha Long meaning descending dragon. Today it is a very popular tourist destination and most find their way into dark wooden junks with bright orange sails.

We had planned to take an overnight boat trip around the Bay a day earlier, but the original trip was cancelled because of a typhoon warning. The next day we were able to sail and we chose a very nice boat to do the trip on, the Ginger. The Ginger is a beautiful “junk” and the staff are fantastic. We had so many problems with them before we got on the boat with reservations but once we stepped on board everything was perfect, including our room, the food, the service and the view. Even the weather, as although it never did clear completely and become sunny, it didn’t rain and that was an unexpected surprise considering the typhoon warning only a day before.

The Ginger is a beautiful wooden junk with three decks and ten sleeping cabins. These junks used to be a dark wooden colour, like you see in the brochures for the trip. However they are now all painted a sad, dirty white colour. We asked someone before the trip why this was the case. Apparently a local politician loves the colour white so he decided one day out of the blue, that he wanted all these romantic wooden boats to be painted white. A few incentives later, and all these traditional boats are now painted white on the outside and it looks terrible! Luckily for all of us though the inside has been kept as it was before so from the inside you still get a feel for how it has always been.

We were awoken at 6am the second day of the trip and treated to coffee and pastries before we were taken to a local island to learn Tai Chi on the beach. Sitting on the sun roof admiring the sunrise I asked for a hot chocolate and you already know what I got. I took a few sips and then was more than happy to leave it to take the boat to the island. But again, no one goes to Halong Bay for the hot chocolate, but a nice simple hot chocolate would have just made it such a perfect moment.

Verdict: Halong Bay is one of those trips you will most likely make if you plan a trip to Hanoi and it is worth it to spend a bit more and go on a nice boat. The Ginger was perfect. The décor was gorgeous, the beds comfortable and the food incredible. Skip the hot chocolatethough, and just enjoy the view instead.  Ginger, Halong Bay, Vietnam

Hot Chocolate at Baguette & Chocolat, Sapa, Vietnam

May was our fantastic guide for the day. She is a Black Hmong woman who learnt English by speaking with tourists and has now become a guide. She brings tourists to visit her local village, and we spent the whole day with her another couple of tourists from Australia. Our day was spent walking up and down the valleys, saying hi to the local women, many of who were carrying corn. She told us all sorts of incredible families about her family, her traditions, her beliefs. She was surprised to hear that we in our own countries have many of the same challenges and joys as she does in her small village but definetly the customs are very different. She tells us how the women in the village all learn how to make clothing on New Year’s Day and then will spend a whole year making their gorgeous and intriquite outfits from scratch. A group of young women pass by us giggling. They have just come from a funeral, and May tells us that it’s customary that “Young women are usually kidnapped by the local boys after gatherings like funerals. They then keep them captive for a few days and treat them really well because at the end of the three days they ask them to marry them”.

Back in Sapa after the tour, we go to visit the other Baguette & Chocolate afterwe visited the one in Hanoi a few days earlier. This restaurant is part of a training programme working with disadvantaged youth across the country. They are trained in cooking, hospitality and tourism and the service is fantastic.

We sat outside on the terrace. The restaurant is a little away from the hustle and bustle of central Sapa, up a long staircase right off the road. It is in a beautiful grand white house with red details around the windows and doors. There is a constant stream of tourists carrying guidebooks walking through the doors. Most go indoors where the décor is crisp and white with a section where guests are asked to take off their shoes before entering. Most are busy eating are a variety of the delicious looking French pastries available to order. In a corner of the terrace a tiny kitten is jumping around his mother, looking for things to do and see.

My hot chocolate is nice and a perfecting ending to a gorgeous trip to Sapa. It is easy to drink, and I could have one every day if I lived here.

Verdict: Even a quick 48 hour trip to Sapa will make you fall in love. It is a beautiful and stunning spot. This spot is doing some really great work to support underpriveledged youth in Sapa and the service and food are good. I would recommend the hot chocolate as well.  Baguette & Chocolat, Rue Thac Bac, Sapa, Vietnam

Hot Chocolate at Sapa Rooms, Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa isn’t the easiest place to get to but it is one of those trips where the journey there is part of the whole experience. It starts with an overnight train ride which leaves Hanoi at 8.30 pm and rolls into Lao Cao at 5am.  From here you then board a bus that takes you on a windy road up into the mountains for an hour and a half to Sapa. At the start things aren’t really as scenic as you probably expected when you decided to make the trip here but as you get closer to Sapa and higher into the mountains not only does the temperature drop to a more comfortable and enjoyable level but the scenery just gets more and more stunning. Every time you turn a corner there is another view of gorgeous rice terraces which surprisingly you never get tired of.

Sapa looks a little bit like a mountain retreat. Most of the buildings have views of the beautiful green hills surrounding the town. It is a Sunday morning and all the Black Hmong have come into town to meet, buy and sell their products . The women are easy to recognize with their deep indigo clothing. There are also several Red Dao women as well who are easily recognizable with their red turbans decorated with silver coins.

After a little look around, and some noodles in the market, we make our ways to Sapa Rooms. We aren’t actually staying at Sapa Rooms tonight but at one of their sisters hotels, Hmong Mountain Retreat. The retreat which is a few km outside of the city, is a series of 5 hill top bungalows each with surprisingly comfortable beds, rammed earth walls, bamboo ceilings and palm tree thatched roofs. Each bungalow has the most stunning and peaceful view of the Muong Hoa valley. From here you can watch people tending to their rice fields, water buffalo ploughing the land, you can watch the sun rise and sunsets and fall asleep to the sound of the water flowing down the river at the bottom of the valley. I highly recommend this.

Before we got transferred to the retreat we had a hot chocolate at Sapa Rooms. Sapa Rooms is a boutique hotel with a strong community focus, working quite a bit with local ethnic minority people in the Sapa area. The restaurant has very good and well priced Vietnamese food. What I loved most about Sapa Rooms is the décor in the lobby. The area is filled with interesting pieces of art, all hand crafted by local artists. There are beautifully hand dyed and hand woven blue, red and white fabric on the pillows and gorgeous wooden furniture. The walls are a rich dark blue, green, brown and while and several interesting yellow and red lampshades hang from the ceiling. There are several very intriguing art pieces, statues and vases that I spend several moments starring at. I wanted to buy it but no one could give me any indication of where it came from or where I could get more information about it unfortunately.

We sit down and ask the staff for a hot chocolate. At that moment, most of the staff are focused on the owners dog, a huge fluffy white pillow with legs that is the attraction for the staff and the locals alike. The hot chocolate wasn’t like the other hot chocolates I have had in Vietnam. Instead it was very sweet and not very chocolatey. But I absolutely love the décor here in Sapa Rooms and for that I would come back.

Verdict: I’d come back to Sapa Rooms for the food and the atmosphere. The food and drinks (especially their interesting combinations of fruit juices) are quite nice and of course Hmong Mountain Retreat is one of those once in a lifetime (and inexpensive) treats.  Sapa Rooms, 18 Phan Xi Pang St., Sapa, Vietnam

Hot Chocolate at City View Cafe, Hanoi, Vietnam

Early in the morning Hanoi seems empty but if you think that everyone is still sleeping, think again. They are all doing their exercise around Hoan Kiem Lake. There are groups doing tai chi, others doing dances with fans. A rather large group is dancing Merengue. There is even several lines of people giving each other standing up massages. The rest are walking around the lake, doing 3 km laps while watching the sunrise over the water.

Hoan Kiem means Lake of the Restored Sword. According to the legend the emperor handed a magic sword which brought him victory in his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty back to the Golden Turtle God in the lace. Apparently in these waters there is a giant turtle who is considered somewhat of a deity by the locals. Depending on who you ask the turtle is somewhere between the size of medicine ball to the size of a small car. His name is actually Cu Rua and he weights a healthy 200kg, is believed to be 600 years old and has a range of magical powers. He is also very special as he is one of only four Rafetus Swinhoei turtles in the world.  He has been through a lot. The lake has has quite high levels of pollution over the years and his health has suffered at time but he still lives on.

It is extremely good luck to see the turtle but despite intensely watching the waters for several hours this morning we didn’t see any evidence of this noble creature. We decided to move to higher groups to see if we had more luck and took the elevator up five floors to the City View Café. Here we sat on the covered terrace and looked for Cu Rua.

From up here you get a great feel for Hanoi. Below is a large intersection with motorcycles zipping by in all directions. Sometimes it is hard to figure out which way the traffic is actually supposed to be going. You can see the last few locals exercising around the lake.  The tourists have woken up and have started to visit the lake. Many tourists and locals alike take the little red Huc Bridge across to a small island in the lake that houses the Temple of the Jade Mountain erected in the 18th century.

I of course order the hot chocolate to keep me company while watching all of this. It comes in a tall glass with a couple of straws and a long silver spoon. It was very difficult to drink and was very sweet, so if you are a sweet tooth you will like this hot chocolate more than I did. This is one of those spots though that you come to regardless of the quality of the drinks because the view is fantastic.

Verdict: Fantastic view and a great spot for an early morning drink after a quick walk around the lake with the locals. In the afternoon they open the rooftop terrace on the 6th floor where I’m guessing you can get an even better view of the lake and the old Quarter on the other side. City View Café, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hot Chocolate at Baguette & Chocolate, Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam is a fascinating country, so much richer and deeper than I ever realised. There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam all with their own cultures and customs. The main group, the Viet, account for approximately 87% of the population. The remaining 13%, some 8.5 million people, spread out across the country have incredibly interesting and rich cultures that are celebrated at the very interesting Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi.

Museumas are a tricky thing when travelling. Everyone always tells you to go to Museums but most of time they are dark and dull spaces. This place is a highlight of Hanoi. The building is filled with information, pictures and displays introducing you to the different ethnic groups and their customs; everything from marriage, to how they raise their children, how they celebrate life and what happens when they die. Once you have explored the inside there is an even larger outdoor space where they have build copies of the traditional houses of many of these ethnic groups which you can enter and take a look around. It is a fantastic spot and one you could easily spend a few hours to a whole day in.

In the garden just between the main museum building and the open air gallery is Baguette & Chocolate. I read about this place before I cam to Hanoi and wanted to visit it. It is an initiative run by the Hoa Sua School for Disadvantaged Youth. Founded in 1994, this initiative recruits about 700 youth from around the country annually and trains them in 11 different programmes around either Hospitality and tourism or Embroidery and tailoring. Students in food and hospitality programmes are trained at a range of venues including several cafes and restaurants across the city. Baguette & Chocolate is one of them.

We take a seat inside on the terrace. It is hot outside but luckily there are several ceiling fans pointed directly at us. The service is incredible. A young lady comes up and asks us very politely what we would like and once we have told her she repeats our order to confirm. We order lunch, a few cold drinks and, of course, a hot chocolate. I figure a place that has the world chocolate in the title must be doing something right with its chocolate related products.

The hot chocolate is presented at the end of our meal. It is a bit watery but has a nice flavour and looks beautiful.

Verdict: A trip to Hanoi should include a few hours visiting the Museum of Ethnology and this spot in the garden makes a perfect rest stop to absorb all the interesting information. The service is great, the food is quite good and I enjoyed the hot chocolate. Plus you are supporting a very worthwhile project. Baguette & Chocolate, Museum of Ethnology, Nguyn Van Huyen st., Hanoi, Vietnam.

Hot Chocolate at Cafe Nhan, Hanoi, Vietnam

Today we met up with my friend An. An is from Hanoi but I met her in the US when we were both doing a course together there. That was in 2004 and I haven’t seen her since so it was so nice to see her again and to get a little introduction to Hanoi from a local perspective.

We spent a few hours visiting the Temple of Literature, the first national university in Vietnam. It was build in 1070 and is dedicated to Confucius. An tells us that this is a popular spot today for students studying for exams. She used to come here to ask for strength and wisdom to be able to do well in her studies. In one area of the temple there are 82 carved turtles carrying larges plaques. Each plaque has the names and birthplaces of the graduates engraved into them.

After visiting a range of spots around the area including the Craftlink stores that sell handmade traditional goods from the region, we made our way to Cafe Nhan. Cafe Nhan is one of the oldest, continually running cafe’s in Hanoi. It is quite a large cafe spread over three floors. On the first floor there is an interesting looking room with a giant fish tank , low tables and lots of pillows. Several small groups of teenagers have taken over this space so we continue up to the third floor.

It seems like they have done some decorating since the cafe first opened. Rather than the tiny wooden stools and tables I’m used to sitting on across Hanoi, this place has new tables covered in glass. In our section the tables have a green, yellow and brown checkered tablecloth that doesn’t feel very local but brings a burst of colour to the place. On the wall are some reproductions of famous paintings. The space is filled with locals sitting on large comfy red and green chairs, most talking on their cell phones while enjoying noodles and coffee.

Like many of the hot chocolates I have had in Hanoi my hot chocolate smells like coffee when it is first presented to me. It doesn’t help that both An and Rich have ordered coffee, as has everyone else int eh cafe, so the smell is in the air. But like the other hot chocolates I have had in Hanoi before, the smell quickly passes and I enjoy this one quite a bit. It isn’t as rich and creamy as others I have had here but the company and being able to catch up with An turned it into a really great hot chocolate.

Verdict: Cafe Nhang isn’t as traditional as some other coffee houses in the city, it has a bit of a strange decor but the drinks are good and it s a nice break from the busy streets in the old quarter. Cafe Nhan, 39D Ngo Hang Hanh Nha Tho Area, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hot Chocolate at the Sofitel, Hanoi, Vietnam

The Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi has a Chocolate Buffet. Yes, you heard me correctly; an all you can eat buffet celebrating chocolate. I found this out while doing my research on Hanoi and so we made a point to visit the Sofitel near the French Quarter one day at 3pm, right when it started.

The Sofitel is quite a stunning hotel. It is a gorgeous colonial style building. The hotel also has a very rich history and several information panels along the walls introduce you to some of the highlights of that history. Guests at the hotel also have access to a free tour guided by the hotel’s Ambassador of History.

The Chocolate Buffet takes place in the Club Bar, a beautiful gazebo with green white and light purple chairs. The staff give us a very nice table right next to the window which feels very private but still gives us a good view of the whole area. It has just started to rain outside and we can hear the rain drops softly falling on the glass roof above us. In the background romantic 1920’s jazz serenades us as the staff set our table with two crisp white cotton placemats and a glass of water. Inside the décor is all 1920’s inspired. It takes you to another world altogether. The other tables are filled with business men and women taking a break or meeting with clients. There is a group of Australian women expats all dressed up in fancy dresses drinking champagne. A few guests come in from the pool to enjoy the buffet and refresh with a fruity drink. Hanoi seems very far away, at least the Hanoi of today.

Which brings me to the chocolate buffet.  Believe it or not I am not a huge fan of chocolate. I find it too sweet (hot chocolate, of course is another thing altogether). But because of the French influence I was expecting that this chocolate buffet would be filled with beautifully delicate chocolate creations that would have the right balance of sweetness and of course look divine. It was exactly that. One large wall near the bar is covered in multiple layers of chocolate platters, each with a different delicacy. There are chocolate millefeuille, chocolate mousse, tiny chocolate éclairs, chocolate covered orange rinds, and a chocolate crème brulee in a large spoon. A whole area has lots of little chocolates filled with everything from bailey’s, coffee to different fruits. There are chocolate covered nuts, chocolate brownie with a raspberry on top, and chocolate cakes. There is an area where they can make you little chocolate filled crepes fried in orange juice and Grand Marnier which were incredible. And everything is in miniature, bite size serving. If you have had (and we never did) enough of the chocolate you also have access to a range of sandwiches, juices and fruits that have no chocolate in them to balance things out.

I was hoping they would have a hot chocolate as part of the buffet, and fortunately they did. They didn’t just have one hot chocolate, they had six different hot chocolates. There were 6 little glass containers with chunks of different types of chocolate, white chocolate, 70% dark chocolate, milk chocolate. I chose the Belgium Dark Chocolate. The chef takes a few chunks of the chocolate and puts them into a pot on a little stove right there in front of me. As the chocolate is melting she adds a little milk and stirs it all up. When it is ready, she takes a little cup, puts about a tablespoon of cream at the bottom and then fills the rest with the melted chocolate and milk mixture. She then places a little piece of the dark chocolate on the side.

I have been drinking hot chocolate for many years and I can safely say that up until this point, this is one of the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. It was so simple yet so delicious. It was thick but not too thick, sweet but not too sweet, chocolatey but not too chocolately, creamy but not too creamy. It just coats your insides as you drink it and seems to hug you from the inside out. I truly felt like I had been transported to another, very happy place. And it wasn’t the sugar high saying all this. I had a hot chocolate before I even started eating the buffet. The waitress kept asking me if I wanted tea and coffee because it is included in the buffet price. Who cares about tea and coffee! I have my hot chocolate.

The test of an incredible hot chocolate? I went back for a second one at the end of the day and enjoyed the second one just as much as the first one.  Is this the ultimate hot chocolate?  I’m not sure if after only writing this blog for 7 or so months I can already say I have found the ultimate hot chocolate. There have been a few over the past months that have come close.  But this one was just so good, that it’s tempting to give it the title.

Verdict: The chocolate buffet costs 25 dollars a person which seems steep at first but I can’t imagine anyone regrets it. We stayed there from when they set up at 3pm to when they stopped at 5.30 and loved every minute of it. Sofitel, Club Bar, 15 Ngo Quyen Street, Hanoi, Vietnam