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As the second-largest coffee producer and exporter in the world after Brazil, Vietnam holds a unique status in the coffee world. Vietnamese coffee culture is not just apparent in the variety of drinks or the countless coffee shops that pepper the streets of Hanoi. In Vietnam, coffee itself is a way of life.
Vietnamese coffee was the thing I looked forward to in my trips to Vietnam. I love coffee but it wasn’t just the flavors that charmed me. For curious travelers like myself, the rich history and culture behind it are gripping and fascinating.
Are you like me and you’re gung ho about Vietnamese coffee culture? Read on and find out what makes this delicious pick-me-up special, what to order, how to drink like a local, and how to make Vietnamese coffee at home.
History of Vietnamese coffee
From 1887 to 1954, Vietnam was part of the French Indochina, a French colony that also included Laos and Cambodia. Almost seven decades later, traces of French colonization remain. Along with baguette and French colonial architecture, Vietnamese coffee culture is one of the many legacies of the French.
Coffee was introduced to Vietnam in 1857 by a French Catholic priest who brought an Arabica tree. By the 1890s, the French had created a booming coffee industry in the Annam region (Central Vietnam). In 1950, a commercial processing plant was established and Vietnam became Asia’s top producer.
Production slowed down during the Vietnam War in the 1970s. But thanks to the economic reforms of 1986, Vietnam opened for trade again and Vietnamese coffee culture once again flourished. By the 90s, Vietnam rose to be the second-largest exporter of coffee in the world.
What is Vietnamese Coffee?
The French may have introduced coffee to the Vietnamese but they have truly made it their own. From the type of beans to the preparation process, several factors make Vietnamese coffee special.
Vietnamese coffee often uses Robusta coffee beans.
True to its name, Robusta is a robust coffee species. It is easier to grow and better able to resist disease. Compared to Arabica, it tastes sharper and more bitter. It also contains more caffeine but has lower acidity and more antioxidants.
About 97% of Vietnamese coffee beans are Robusta and overall, Vietnam contributes to over 40% of the world’s Robusta production.
Most Vietnamese coffee plantations are in Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands), where most of Vietnam’s plateaus are. The region’s climate and soil quality provide optimal coffee-growing conditions.
Buon Me Thuot City in Dak Lak province is one of the largest Robusta coffee-growing areas in the world. Da Lat City in Lam Dong province produces both Robusta and Arabica. Son La in North Vietnam is also famous for its Arabica coffee.
Vietnamese coffee is traditionally roasted dark, making it more intense. Historically, producers roast Vietnamese coffee beans in a caramel-like oil (with sugar, vanilla, or cocoa) to give them a sweet coating and unique flavor.
These days, most roasters use butter, which is why coffee in Vietnam can sometimes produce an oily texture.
Phin, the Vietnamese coffee filter
The most common way of brewing coffee in Vietnam is with a phin, a small cup with a filter chamber, a filter press to even out the coffee grounds, and a lid. The phin is one of the most distinct elements of Vietnamese coffee culture.
The Vietnamese like their coffee nice and slow, and Vietnamese drip coffee is one of the slowest ways to brew coffee.
Coarsely ground beans go into the filter chamber, tamped slightly by the press. Water is slowly poured, dripping into the glass over several minutes.
Common types of Vietnamese coffee
Because of the intense flavor of darkly roasted Robusta, milk and sugar were needed to create a more balanced flavor. But fresh milk was scarce so the French and Vietnamese began to use sweet condensed milk, which is now a hallmark of Vietnamese coffee culture.
The Vietnamese, being creative and resourceful, also came up with alternatives to milk and many variations of coffee drinks. Take note, unless you want to risk being overwhelmed by the menu in Vietnam coffee shops.
Coffee with condensed milk (ca phe nau or ca phe sua)
There are a few ways of ordering traditional drip coffee in Vietnam. Let’s break it down first.
Ca phe means coffee in the Vietnamese language. Den is black, and the words for milk are nau in North Vietnam and sua in the South. Da means iced and nong means hot.
The most common cup of Vietnamese coffee is ca phe nau or ca phe sua. Unless you specify, your coffee will come with condensed milk and ice.
- Iced coffee with condensed milk – ca phe nau da or ca phe sua da
- Hot coffee with condensed milk – ca phe nau nong or ca phe sua nong
- Iced black coffee – ca phe den da
- Hot black coffee – ca phe den nong
Egg coffee (ca phe trung)
A Hanoi invention, ca phe trung is made of egg yolk whipped with condensed milk to create a custard-like layer or creamy mousse on top of freshly brewed coffee. It may sound crazy but this is the most popular Vietnamese coffee among tourists.
This Vietnamese coffee recipe is said to have been invented by Café Giang in Hanoi in the 1940s due to the scarcity of milk.
Yogurt coffee (sua cha ca phe)
Vietnamese coffee culture indeed calls for ingenuity. Who would have thought yogurt pairs up nicely with coffee?
Yogurt was also originally brought to Vietnam by the French. This rich and creamy concoction is often topped with fruits and fermented sticky rice, with coffee drizzled and stirred into it.
Coconut coffee (ca phe cot dua)
A favorite among locals and tourists alike, including myself, ca phe cot dua is a blended coconut slushy made of coconut cream or coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, and ice mixed in with Vietnamese coffee.
I cannot emphasize enough how good this drink-slash-dessert is.
It’s unclear whether this Vietnamese coffee is an old recipe or if Cong Caphe, a popular café chain in Vietnam, invented it. More local coffee shops are serving this now and it has truly become one of the icons of Vietnamese coffee culture.
Fruit and coffee smoothie (sinh to ca phe)
As a Southeast Asian nation, Vietnam is also replete with tropical fruits like mango, avocado, watermelon, and banana. Juice and smoothies using these fruits are perked up by adding coffee, creating caffeinated and refreshing drinks.
How to drink coffee, the Vietnamese way
Vietnamese coffee culture is not just evident in how coffee is produced and brewed, but most importantly in how it’s consumed. Here’s how you can enjoy Vietnamese coffee like a local.
Take it slow
Unlike the Italians who down their espresso at the counter, the Vietnamese savor the experience. Not surprising at all, given that the French also like to linger and people-watch in cafés.
Unless you’re in the bustling Ho Chi Minh City where takeaway coffee is common, you shouldn’t rush your coffee. Slow drip via phin filter is just one proof of how the Vietnamese love to take their time. They slowly sip their drinks, nibble on sunflower seeds, read the morning paper, play chess or chat with friends, and watch people and scooters go by.
When ordering coffee, especially in a Vietnamese coffee culture hotspot like Hanoi, be like the locals and prepare to camp out for an hour or two.
Embrace the milk, sugar, and extra toppings
Traditional Vietnamese coffee culture involves sweetened condensed milk, which has both milk and sugar, while some recipes call for coconuts, fruits, and even rice. You can take your coffee black but few people do this.
Vietnamese coffee is not exactly for the calorie-conscious. Although the coffee itself has no calories, condensed milk and the extra ingredients do.
But if you want an authentic Vietnamese coffee experience, do as the locals do and just burn the calories by jogging or walking.
Visit local coffee shops
Another thing that stands out in Vietnam coffee culture is the healthy mix of traditional and modern coffee shops. Like in Italy, small, independent coffee shops dominate Vietnam.
All over Vietnam, you can find sit-down indoor coffee shops, casual street-side stalls with little plastic stools, and more recently, artsy modern cafés that the younger crowd loves. There are also homegrown coffee chains like Highlands Coffee, The Coffee House, Cong Caphe, and Trung Nguyen Legend.
There are global chains like Starbucks in Vietnam, but they don’t do as well as the local shops that provide reasonably priced and delicious coffee and a truly Vietnamese experience.
How to make Vietnamese coffee at home
Nothing beats having ca phe sua da after roaming the streets of Saigon. But thankfully, making Vietnamese drip coffee is straightforward. Even if you’re not a coffee connoisseur, you can enjoy a dose of Vietnamese coffee culture at home!
What you will need
- 2 tablespoons of Vietnamese coffee grounds. Some of the best Vietnamese coffee brands include Nguyen Coffee Supply, Trung Nguyen, and Chestbrew.
- Phin. For the best Vietnamese coffee makers, you can check out Nguyen Coffee Supply, Gladiator, or Thang Long.
- 1-2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk. Any brand will do.
- Glass of ice
- Boiling water
Tip: To save time looking for Vietnamese coffee grounds and phin, get this lovely starter kit from Nguyen Coffee Supply.
Steps to make Vietnamese coffee
1. Pour the condensed milk into the bottom of the glass. You can start with a smaller amount and adjust to your preference.
2. Remove the lid and press from the filter chamber and add the ground coffee. Gently place or screw the round press on top of the grounds. If you are using coarse grounds, press tighter so that the water doesn’t drip too fast once you start brewing.
3. Set the plate/lower filter and chamber over the top of your glass or mug.
4. Pour just a small amount of boiling water over the filter, allowing the grounds to “bloom” or release CO2. After about 30 seconds, fill the chamber to the top, and cover it with the lid.
5. Wait for about five minutes for the brewing process to complete. If you wish to dilute the coffee a bit more, you can add more water.
6. Remove the filter and stir to mix the coffee and condensed milk.
7. Pour ice and serve.
It’s that easy!
However, if you’re not ready to invest in Vietnamese coffee beans and a phin just yet but want to try Vietnamese pour-over at home, Copper Cow Coffee’s pour-over sets are for you. They’re perfect for travelers, too!
Vietnamese coffee culture is as rich and interesting as the drink itself. It’s a national symbol, a way of life, and a delicious treat.
I hope this piece inspired you to plan a trip to Vietnam, or even try Vietnamese coffee at home. And if you want to know more about Vietnam, do check out this list of things Vietnam is famous for, this collection of books about Vietnam, and these tasty Vietnamese snacks.