HANOI -- David Thai and Khoa Huynh share a lot: an ambition. A heritage. A love for mocha, double tall.
And as of last month, they share Hanoi's newest -- probably only -- espresso bar. It's a touch of America, their adopted home, and Vietnam, their native one.
Au Lac Cafe, which opened on picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake in April, is already a sensation among Hanoi's growing community of Westerners.
But for Thai, 23, and Huynh, 22, Au Lac Cafe is about more than satisfying the caffeine needs of expatriates and tourists.
"Here the wires connect," says Huynh. "What do you call them? The threads of fate."
They didn't meet until a year and a half ago, but Thai and Huynh have lived parallel lives, from Vietnam to Seattle to the University of Washington and finally Hanoi.
Thai was just 2 in 1975, when the Communists took over South Vietnam and made Hanoi the capital for all of Vietnam.
His father, a South Vietnamese naval officer, fled with his family, first to Australia, where he was a successful businessman, then to California, where he went broke.
Thai still remembers the years his father pumped gas and washed cars and his mother gave foot massages and pedicures. They had little time for their children and had to send them off for prolonged stays with friends and relatives.
"I think that's what drives a lot of the younger Vietnamese generation to excel," says Thai. "You came over and you watched your parents fail to see it happen, to see them take a smaller bite of cake so you can have a bigger one is really compelling."
At age 11, Thai had his own paper route. At 13, he sold candy door-to-door. At 19, after a brief career as a high school basketball star, he opened a painting and construction business.
Huynh's father, a banker, waited until 1980 before he loaded his family onto a wooden fishing boat bound for Malaysia. They ran out of drinking water on the second day but hit land on the third.
After six months in a refugee camp in Malaysia, the family emigrated to Seattle. His father found work as a janitor, his mother worked in a factory.
The fortunes of both families had improved by the time Thai and Huynh met as college students at the University of Washington. Both men felt estranged from their native culture and their parents' world.
That's what brought them together: They were both Vietnamese immigrants taking a class in their native tongue.
A few ideas bounced between them. A furniture business, a beer garden and an import/export company all sounded promising. But what they missed, and what they figured Hanoi needed, was a good cup of mocha.
An American investor cinched the deal by offering them a historic lakeside kiosk and $20,000 start-up money last December.
A few weeks later when they returned to Seattle, Thai and Huynh had firm plans and a third partner, a 23-year-old New Yorker named Marcello Bolivar whom they had met in a Hanoi dormitory.
As Thai and Huynh took a crash course in coffee brewing in Seattle, Bolivar oversaw renovation of the kiosk and lined up suppliers in Vietnam.
The three men reunited in Hanoi in mid-March. After just five weeks of planning, they opened Au Lac Cafe, named after the mythological first Kingdom of Vietnam. Au Lac also means "by the lake" in French, a happy coincidence because French tourists outnumber all others in Vietnam.
With its wide umbrellas, glass-topped tables and mostly Western customers, Au Lac has the look of a French cafe, or perhaps an outdoor coffee shop in Fells Point. The lake view, trees and streetside bustle are part of the charm.
The prices are also decidedly Western. In most Vietnamese cafes and restaurants, a black coffee runs about 2,000 dong, or 18 cents. A white coffee, sweetened by condensed milk, is just pennies more.
An Au Lac espresso is $1.36, a caffee latte $1.55, a mocha $2 -- about the average daily wage of a Hanoi worker.
But there are perks. The owners cheerfully and flawlessly speak both English and Vietnamese. And the ice in the iced coffees is made from mineral water, a luxury because most Vietnamese ice comes from unpurified tap water, a source of gastronomic grief for travelers. Outside of pricey foreign hotels, Au Lac Cafe is a rare find for a tourist with a thirst for iced mocha.
Thai, Huynh and Bolivar run the business from a round, turn-of-the-century kiosk, now decorated with painted steel lattice work and polished granite counters. Inside they have an espresso machine, two grinders, a refrigerator and a laptop computer. The latter is for keeping in touch with friends by e-mail, a service they may soon offer to customers.
With or without Internet access, Au Lac Cafe already looks like a success. Dressed down Westerners outnumber dressed-up Vietnamese, but both are coming.
The owners estimate they served 100 customers their first day.
With only word-of-mouth advertising, that number has grown since. Business is good enough to keep the three partners working 15-hour days, even with six employees.
Quick success has the young entrepreneurs planning to open two more espresso bars and a wholesale coffee business. They may soon offer tours for foreigners, a sidelight for many local cafes.
And for Thai and Huynh there are other rewards as they rediscover a home they long heard of but bearly knew.
Even Thai's father, the former South Vietnamese soldier, has visited his son in Hanoi.
"It's for you, Dad," Thai explained to his father, "but it's also for me."
Pub Date: 5/09/96