In 2006, Stacie John, a middle-aged Houston woman and self-proclaimed creative entrepreneur, ventured off to far-flung Vietnam to start the Love Chocolate Café. Accompanied only by her husband and her dog—and with no prior experience—Stacie started her own business. Armed with determination, a strong work ethic, and a little luck, she couldn’t comprehend the adversity she would face in such a seemingly quaint and surreal city as Hanoi.
Stacie graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in Advertising and Marketing; however, she quickly discovered it was not the career for her. Fifteen years ago, Stacie embarked on a journey that led her across twelve countries. With low taxation and cheap labor, Vietnam seemed an ideal place to start a business.
Love Chocolate Café is at the far end of West Lake, just off the north end of Xuan Dieu on To Ngoc Van Street. In the blazing sun, I find myself zipping through Thanh Nien Street, locally known as Lover’s Lane, a tree-lined boulevard squeezed between West Lake and Truc Bach Lake. A mini cavalcade of Honda scooter families, bicycle peddlers, and Vietnamese motorcycle deliverymen carrying giant refrigerators, two-meter-long bed frames, and clanking Halida beer kegs piled up high all zigzag through traffic. Here and there, nestled behind almond trees carved with tender loving words, couples perch on motorbikes clinging to each other while swan-shaped paddle boats float afar. Drooping willow trees silhouette the sun-lit water while restaurants are dotted around the lake redolent of lotus blossoms and incense wafting from Tran Quoc Pagoda. The gigantic countdown billboard, celebrating the 1,000-year anniversary of Hanoi, looms over the sky and red banners dangle over the cobwebs of electric wires.
Streaks of sunlight hit my eyes as I look up at the concrete skyscrapers and lakefront rental villas swallowing humble, matchbox-shaped houses around the lake. My Hanoi is now caught in a tug of war between the elegance and romanticism of the bygone French colonial era and the unforgiving brutality of modern urbanization. For a moment, I feel enclosed in a symphony of honking motor scooters, buzzing cicadas, drilling jackhammers, and the clanging bell of Tran Quoc Pagoda echoing to adjacent houses. Much to my surprise, it looks as though a part of Hanoi is whirling me through a makeshift circus tent.
Hanoi itself, like much of the country, is virtually unknown for the subtleties of fine confectionery—at least not yet. The French Colonists introduced baguettes, coffee, and chocolate into Vietnam in the late nineteenth century. Chocolate is commonly considered by most Vietnamese people to be a delicacy. I grew up surrounded by my mother’s sugarcoated tales of chocolate coins from the earliest days of the Subsidy Economy, between 1975 and 1986, in Hanoi. In the late 1960s, her oldest brother worked for a team of Russian construction and military experts as a full-time interpreter. Every afternoon he rode home on his red-clay Sterling bicycle with a leather briefcase attached to a handlebar. His briefcase was always filled with a cluster of assorted Pepsodent toothpaste, packets of Zolotoi Larlyk cocoa, bundles of Gallant cigarettes, and chocolate coins wrapped in a worn brown paper. Half a century is gone, but it is that smell, that taste of Soviet Russian chocolate—with its semblance of glittering gold coins—that lingers in my mother’s memory. To a larger extent, though, it is a tangible reminder of how Hanoi has changed and continues to change over time.
Hanoi is now becoming a burgeoning town that offers a wider selection of chocolate, ranging from the all-you-can-eat chocolate buffet at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel for $12 and chocolate desserts in Western-style bakeries, to organic fair-trade chocolate and imported chocolate on supermarket shelves. Although sold at comparatively cheap prices, domestic chocolate is not very popular among consumers given its lack of advertising and quality. Since the standard of living for the Vietnamese people has improved remarkably over the years, they have become more selective about their purchases.
Because the Vietnamese taste for quality chocolate is maturing, Stacie John says that the taste of chocolate is what determines whether people will choose her café over other local bakeries in town, and that her biggest challenge is quality control. “While they sell sweets, we sell real Belgian chocolate,” she says. “While they target the person who wants a chocolate birthday cake or a decorated cake, we target the person who wants rich pure chocolate. Maybe they use a little chocolate but we use a lot.”
Like most entrepreneurs, Stacie faced a series of events that dashed her original dream. The manager she hired quit working after the first couple of months, taking half of their sales with him, and that was only the beginning. The roof collapsed during the first heavy rain, the new coffee machine broke down, the main supplier only sold inferior chocolate, employees stole recipes, and waitress uniforms were lost at the cleaners.
By all accounts, Love Chocolate Café is now a success. Sales have been growing by ten to fifteen percent per month. The target market was supposed to be upper-class Vietnamese, expats, and Westerners. At first only ten percent of customers were Vietnamese but now the split is more like forty percent local and sixty percent foreign.
Stacie also views her business as a way to improve the lives of the people she has adopted as her own in Hanoi. The Motorbike Fund is perhaps what gives Love Chocolate Café an edge over other restaurants in Vietnam. Stacie matches the money that her employees save for a motorbike.
Love Chocolate Café is a manifestation of Stacie’s personality, particularly her obsession over details. “My husband says that I was born in the wrong time because I love the style of the 1940s and 1950s,” she says. The interior of her café demonstrates this. The green walls are adorned with paintings of girls with quirky quotes about chocolate in large speech bubbles above their heads: “Coffee, chocolate, men—the richer the better!”
When I arrive at Love Chocolate Café, the door swings open and I walk in, slouch into a window seat, and order a glass of frosted chocolate milk. The heat and humidity of daytime Hanoi is gone—at least for now. The alluring aroma of mocha coffee and chocolate cheesecake fills the entire room, teasing all those in its path. In the corner, a man speaks rapidly in a southern French dialect. A few tables away, a young couple crack a joke and feed each other spoonfuls of chocolate ice-cream. They are all hapless victims of a subtle charm and gravity that draws them in.