Viet Nam News
I knew I would like Hưng as soon as I saw his striped, rainbow-hued socks.
A showman, you say? No way.
Nguyễn Cảnh Hưng is one of HCM City’s quiet, unassuming coffee masters whose business, the Bosgaurus café, specialises in serving a great product in the most transparent way possible.
In other words, he’s the real deal. He doesn’t have anything to hide, and he wants you to know it.
When he talks about “quality”, he knows what’s what.
Not all café owners in HCM City, which has seen a veritable boom in coffee shops in the last few years, can back up their branding spin.
Hưng’s product speaks for itself. Though he’s not averse to promotion, his approach is, as he says, “slow, natural marketing”.
As an authorised Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) trainer, Hưng holds cupping workshops for the public, lending his expertise to those who want to learn more about specialty coffee (as opposed to commercial coffee, which is processed on a massive scale, often with lower-quality beans).
Though he imports top-quality Arabica beans from Ethiopia, Honduras and elsewhere, Hưng also works directly with farmers in Lâm Đồng Province in the production of Arabica, a higher quality bean than Robusta, the bean that Việt Nam predominantly exports and drinks.
An engineer by trade, Hưng, 41, fell under coffee’s spell when he travelled to Europe for work.
“I’d always thought of coffee one way, but travelling really opened up my mind to other tastes,” he said.
In Việt Nam, he had been used to the ubiquitous café đá (iced) or café sữa đá (iced with milk), made with Robusta beans and condensed milk. It’s a strong, dark, and bitter brew.
But, at his café, Hưng uses only Arabica beans, including in the traditional café sữa đá, which contains a blend of Arabica from Đà Lạt and Ethiopia, processed in his giant Giesen roasters on the ground floor. (He stores his beans in a climate- and humidity-controlled room in the basement).
The Vietnamese drink is offered in three different roast styles: Tender, Fumée and The Big Smoke, at VNĐ60,000 (and VNĐ65,000 with condensed milk).
As I’m no lover of milky coffee, and have a preference for a darker roast, I chose the iced Fumée and was pleasantly surprised. Punchy, bright and a bit fruity.
In Europe, Hưng trained and studied with master roasters and learned as much as he could, saved up enough money to buy the best equipment, and then opened up his café in a villa in the Saigon Pearl complex in Bình Thạnh District.
The building, facing the Sài Gòn River in a setting so serene that you can hear birds chirp and feel the wind in your hair, is only 10 minutes away from the city’s chaotic central business district.
The spacious white interior, with lots of glass, stainless steel, slim black chairs, and the occasional grey beanbag, stands in contrast to other cafés around town, with their warm wood tones and smaller spaces.
The outdoor terraces facing the tree-lined river are great for a chat or for working or surfing on a laptop for hours.
Though the open, airy atmosphere appeals to foreign customers, locals often prefer a cozier spot with tables closer together, according to Hưng. Customers tend to be a mix of 60 per cent foreigners and 40 per cent Vietnamese.
To add a bit of colour to the minimalist space, Hưng is introducing his newly designed 250 gram coffee packages, based on a traditional Đông Hồ design, with detailed information: the date of harvest, the flavour note (body, acidity, finish and more), the farm note (location, altitude) and preferred brewing method (filter or espresso-based).
And soon, at an international coffee fair in Budapest, he will be introducing his roasted single-origin Ethiopian bean (heirloom variety, naturally processed) in the new Bosgaurus (named after Việt Nam’s Guar bison) packages.
For now, Hưng sells his bags locally to individuals and businesses. He roasts the bean according to their requested flavour profile and allows them to package it under their name.
“That’s a win-win for everyone, and besides, their tastes may not be my taste,” he said.
Hưng urged me to try one of his signature drinks, called Caramelly Rain, an espresso-based concoction (VNĐ90,000) made with milk foam via an ice-dripped method that has the flavour of salted caramel.
Although I shun sugar in coffee, only a dab of simple sugar syrup and a bit of whipped cream were added to the blend, and it was, indeed, wonderfully caramelly.
“The caramel flavour comes completely from the natural sugar in the coffee, which is extracted as the espresso stream drips onto the ice cubes,” Hưng said.
Besides coffee, the café has a full menu, with eggs benedict, omelettes and other breakfast items such as waffles and yogurt with oats.
He sticks to Western favourites such as Cobb and Caesar salads (VNĐ125,000), as well as three pasta dishes (carbonara and Bolognese are VNĐ135,000 each), developed from recipes by chef Jack Lee.
Organic and handcrafted teas and juices are also on offer, as well as craft beer, but you’re coming for the coffee, right? And the view’s not bad, either. In fact, it’s fabulous, and who knew that only 10 minutes away from downtown’s frenzy you could have specialty coffee in such a peaceful setting, delivered by Việt Nam’s top prize-winning baristas? VNS
Address: Saigon Pearl Villa 1D5, 92 Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh Street, Bình Thạnh District, HCM City
Hours: Open daily, 7am – 9pm
Offerings: specialty coffee made from imported and locally sourced Arabica beans; Western style breakfast, lunch and dinner served in a quiet riverside setting.