As foreshadowed in our last blog post, we will be discussing a recreational activity unique to the Hanoians, Tra Chanh Chem Gio (Banter Iced Tea) a.k.a Tra Chanh Via He (Street Iced Tea) a.k.a Tra Chanh Ha Noi (Hanoi Iced Tea). Whichever name you call it, it is quintessentially, undeniably, a Hanoian’s drink.
No one can pinpoint when exactly the drink was born and when it became popular, but I distinctly recall frequenting Tra Chanh spots almost every night nearly a decade ago.
The drink itself is simple. It is made with loose green tea, honey, liquorice, a few drops of lemon juice, a hint of jasmine, and ice with some variations depending on the recipe of the shop serving it. The taste is a combination of sweetness, sourness, and the peculiar astringent taste caused by the tannins in the tea, a taste which the French describes as “âpre”.
Popular Tra Chanh spot in Hanoi. Source: xahoi.com.vn
Customers sip on Tra Chanh while biting down on sunflower seeds or roasted peanuts. Easy to make and enjoy, and yet most Hanoians don’t make the drink themselves at home becausethe location is just as important, if not more important, than the quality of the drink. It is usually served on the sidewalk, hence the name Tra Chanh Via He which literally translates to Sidewalk Iced Tea. People sit on small, compact stools made of plastic, wood, or bamboo. The drink is placed on a make-shift table, usually another stool.
Years ago, it was not uncommon to see hordes of customers and shopkeepers scrambling to move their chairs, tables, and drinks whenever police was in sight because it was illegal to overtake the sidewalk for business. However, Tra Chanh has proved to be such a lucrative business that shopkeepers try to utilize every legal loophole available, some even employing illegal practices, to keep the business running and away from police hassle.
Originating in Hanoi, the popularity of the drink has spread to other major cities like Ho Chi Minh and Da Nang, albeit short-lived as the trend quickly died out within a couple of years in the fast-paced Ho Chi Minh city.
Fancier alternatives exist. These spots usually have tables and chairs, customers sit inside or outside, and it is usually not as crowded.
A more upscale Tra Chanh shop in Ho Chi Minh city. Source: dendau.vn
A hugely popular Tra Chanh spot in Hanoi is right next to the Cathedral in the Old Quarter. During the heat of the summer, it can get so crowded that not one more seat can be crammed in and shopkeepers have to turn people away.
People enjoy Tra Chanh during winter next to the Cathedral. Source: vietnamnet.vn
Youngsters make up the bulk of customers, although Tra Chanh itself is inexpensive so one can see people from all walks of life enjoying this refreshing drink. A prime location to start a Tra Chanh business would be in or around the Old Quarters; places with large open space where people usually gather to cool down and hang out with friends and family in the summer are also great.
Ask any person who frequents Tra Chanh spots, and I can guarantee they will tell you that they are not there for the Tra Chanh per se, but rather for everything that accompanies it. The same way French intellects gather at cafés to debate or the Englishmen huddle together over rounds of beers, the Hanoians come together around a cup of Tra Chanh. The experience of conversation in such a setting is evidently exposed, yet intensely private – remember, people sit in no apparent order, sprawled out on the sidewalk. At peak hours, you can be bumping knees with complete strangers. Conversational topics are varied, people talk about anything and everything, often making jokes and having a laugh with friends, hence the name “Tra Chanh Chem Gio” which literally translates to Banter Iced Tea. A hundred conversations happening at once, a beautiful cacophony of voices, glasses clinking, traffic noises, and yet it all seems to blend together in perfect harmony.