Café 252

by Sarah Tilton, Dec 1, 1994 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Mr. Chi calls his yogurt Deneuve, after the French actress who ate it nearly every day while she was in Hanoi filming "Indochine." Catherine Deneuve knew a good thing when she tasted it. Cafe 252 is the place to go for fresh coffee, homemade pastries and some of the best yogurt and creme caramel in Indochina.

Chic new restaurants and bars appear almost weekly in the Vietnamese capitol, but Cafe 252 remains a favorite with expatriates and locals alike. It has a simple but welcoming atmosphere: no fancy prices, no fancy menu, no fancy decor and no air-conditioning. Just good food and hot coffee served on chipped but clean plates and always with a little bit of philosophy from the ever-watchful proprietor, Le Huu Chi.

A fourth generation Hanoian, Mr. Chi opened Cafe 252 in 1990, inspired by the government's economic reforms encouraging private enterprise. He predicted the changing environment would lead to an increase in tourism. So, the retired auto mechanic decided to supply the tired and thirsty tourists with a place to go.

Mr. Chi did not have any experience in the restaurant business. But he knew a lot about French cooking thanks to having spent more than 12 years in New Caledonia in the 1930s and 1940s. And now he has figured out the business part: "Business works like traffic, you have to keep going."

In the beginning, Mr. Chi and his wife did all the cooking. Now eight members of his family work in the cafe which has more than doubled in size over the years. His daughter-in-law bakes the cakes following recipes from old French cookbooks.

The cafe was originally named Kinh Do. "I decided to profit from the name of the cinema across the street," he explains, referring to Le Cinema Kinh Do, a landmark dating back to the French colonial days. But it soon became known as Cafe 252 due to its location at 252 Hang Bong Street in the heart of old Hanoi. Open daily from 6 am to 12 pm, mornings are typically the busiest time at 252. Diplomats leave their chauffeur driven cars running as they dash in to pick up croissants and raisin muffins. Fashionable young women, wearing opera length gloves and straw hats to protect them from the sun, stop by on shiny Honda scooters. They chat over pieces of fluffy white cake, the kind with elaborate pink roses on top.

Some of the clientele are in suits. Their jackets sweep the ground as they squat on the wooden stools around the 12 small tables. Others are in Tevas and have put down their backpacks so they can review their guidebooks and write postcards under the whir of the ceiling fans. Few people seem to notice the larger-than-life photos of Catherine Deneuve and posters of New Caledonia that decorate the pale yellow and green walls.

From French bread to green bean cake, the menu has something for everyone. Eclairs, cream puffs, donuts, pain au chocolate and brioche fill the display case in the narrow storefront. There is also a choice of hamburgers, omelets, sandwiches and steamed pork buns.

Everything is made by hand. "Maybe in five years we'll get some machines" considers Mr. Chi. And they use only the best ingredients: fresh milk and eggs, Australian butter (an improvement, he says, over the Russian butter that was once the only choice), and chocolate imported from Italy, Australia and France.

The coffee at 252 comes from a plantation in the south. Mr. Chi receives 20 kilos of beans a week and favors a combination of Arabica and Mocha. "I always have good coffee," boasts Mr. Chi. "My friend makes a blend for me. Other cafes mix good and bad and they mix it with corn. Our aftertaste is always coffee. In other places the aftertaste resembles tea."

Mr. Chi says his yogurt is the best because unlike his competitors he understands the taste of it. "Vietnamese like the sugared yogurt, but that's not real yogurt. No one has yogurt like ours." The yogurt at 252 is all natural, unsweetened and served with a miniature pot of honey on the side. And it's the yogurt that keeps customers coming back, according to Mr. Chi. "Madame Deneuve told me the yogurt was excellent. At first I thought she was just flattering me, but then she came back every day." In fact, the yogurt is not the only attraction. "I like the atmosphere. It's half Vietnamese and half foreigners - a mix. I like the food and there is always someone here I know," says Patrick Raszelenberg, a German student who comes to Cafe 252 to read and meet friends. "The entire foreign community drops in here once and a while."

When he was younger, Mr. Chi had visions of a quiet retirement spent with his four children and five grandchildren. But he clearly delights in his role as owner of one of Hanoi's most popular watering holes. "Friends tell me I should retire and enjoy my age, but instead of taking walks and going to museums, I have an independent life and I can help others."