Coffee Culture in Vietnam – Mychi’s Travel Blog
Posted on August 17, 2019
Note: This is Mychi’s first time as a guest blogger!
Coffee Culture in Vietnam, By Mychi Nguyen
Even though I’m not a daily coffee drinker like Alex, it’s easy to fall in love with the vibrant coffee culture in Vietnam. Tons of cute coffee shops tucked in small alleyways, in old apartment buildings, or springing up on crumbling sidewalks. From street-side cafes where you see the plastic stools being spread out and stacked up again to the quirky indie cafes to the mega chains, each with its unique atmosphere, decor, and interpretation of a good cup of ca phe. For many locals and expats, it is an integral part of social life in Vietnam. It’s a place to chill, escape from the hustle and bustle of a chaotic city, catch up with old friends or make new ones, sit solo and people watch, or type away for the digital nomad and the fun-employed. For us, it’s a place to get out of the heat and get our Vietnamese language study on. Too many cafes in Saigon aka HCMC to ever visit them all. The fun is exploring and trying them out…
Some Fun Facts
- Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer in the world after Brazil.
- Coffee production is mainly in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
- Most of the coffee beans are Robusta beans rather than Arabica like we are used to drinking in the States. The Robusta beans are more resilient, cheaper to produce, easier to grow and cultivate in Vietnam’s climate and soil. The Robusta beans have a higher caffeine content (almost 2 times Arabica) and a strong smoky bitter punch.
- The way that coffee is roasted, brewed and enjoyed in Vietnam is what makes it so special. No Keurigs or communal coffee pots here. Here it is the individual portion and traditional ca phe phin (drip coffee). A phin is a small metal cup with a filter chamber and a lid on top. Neatly perched over your cup, the phin allows the coffee to be slow brewed at a low temp in the chamber and drip very slowly drop by drop down into your cup creating a concentrated dark brew. It’s a process not to be rushed. That’s the beauty of taking the time to sit, relax, and savor the process. You only get a small amount of liquid coffee from the phin process. It’s a small volume that packs a deep flavor and strong kick. Have it with sweetened condensed milk, mix, and pour over a nice tall glass of ice and you have a delicious ca phe sua da (iced milk coffee) my fav. From sweetened condensed milk to yogurt, coconut milk to egg, there’s so many ways to enjoy coffee.
Alex likes to keep it simple-a hot black cup of coffee straight from the phin. No sugar, no condensed milk, no fresh milk, no ice. Nada. It’s harder than you think to get it just right. You can’t add too much water then it becomes diluted. 100% unsweetened robusta coffee is not for the faint of heart. It is incredibly bitter. When drinking it unadulterated and plain, if the coffee is not good to begin with you know it right away. There’s no masking it with added sugar or milk. With the blazing heat and humidity outdoors and the many add ons and ways to have your coffee, most of the time Alex will get a puzzled look from the server when he orders especially when he tries to order in Vietnamese. Plain “hot” black coffee (not the black sweetened iced coffee version that is also popular) seems an odd request when beads of sweat are pouring down his face. Alex is a hardcore daily coffee drinker and keeps it classic. I need mine with all the bells and whistles. Condensed milk, yes!, ice yes!, coconut milk why yes! I don’t drink much coffee in the US, but when in Vietnam I have been enjoying the coffee culture and the extra caffeine rush. Worth the sleepless nights.
As a food lover, it’s so cool to see and learn how the food culture has developed and the history behind it. For a century, Vietnam was under French control. The country’s leaning towards coffee came from the habits of its French rulers. After the Vietnam War in 1975 (called the American War here) devastated Vietnam’s economy, the government instituted aggressive agricultural reforms including coffee production. By the 1990s, Vietnam’s coffee industry was booming and is still going strong today.
(Images of the French decor of the Vintage Emporium in District 2)
The coffee plantations, villas and buildings with European architecture, and the cafes are remnants of years of French colonization. When French colonists first introduced coffee into Vietnam in the late 19th century, fresh milk was hard to get. So the Vietnamese people began to use sweetened condensed milk which keeps much longer. Bonus is that the sweetened condensed milk helps balance the bitterness of the Robusta coffee and to my detriment (heart still palpitating) masking its high caffeine content.
(Images of the famous “Egg Coffee” at the Loft Cafe in Ho Chi Minh City)
Egg coffee has also become famous. Originating from North Vietnam, egg yolks replace milk during the 1940’s when milk was in short supply and eggs were readily available. Voila egg coffee was born. The egg adds a creamy froth texture and rich buttery flavor to the coffee. It is egg yolk beaten and mixed with sugar/condensed milk and added to the coffee like a fluffy merengue topping that makes egg coffee so creamy. You can even add additional butter and cheese to it if it moves you. It’s so rich and heavy and given the extra calories per cup, I’m saving room for just the right place to try another one. I’m still searching for the perfect egg coffee here in HCMC, it’s hard to come by. Hope we don’t have to venture all the way up to Ha Noi to find the original egg coffee from Cafe Giang in the Old Quarter.
There’s also the infamous “weasel coffee” (ca phe chon) where the seeds of the coffee bean are eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. The weasel coffee is supposed to have a distinctive fragrant taste. We had bought the weasel coffee beans on our last trip, but have yet to try it. Maybe one day when we’re feeling bold. My mind and tastebuds can’t get over the fact that a weasel pooped it out.
(Images of Alex’s Vietnamese Black Coffee in a “phin,” a traditional drip coffee, and a random photo of a Vietnamese lime and matcha fusion drink from Kamakara.)
Some roast the coffee beans plain while most will add butter oil and a little sugar to the roasting process to create that dark roast (sacrilegious for the coffee purists). There’s some famous names in the coffee field. Yes, Starbucks has made it out here, but if you’re in Vietnam it would be a crime not to try the independent local spots or patronize some of the Viet chains. There’s Trung Nguyen, Phuc Long, Thuc Coffee, The Coffee House, Highlands Coffee. Highlands is owned by a Vietnamese-American (also known as Viet Kieu “overseas Vietnamese”) whose vision was to have a Vietnamese coffee brand similar to Starbucks on every corner. There are specialty cafes introducing roasting onsite and focusing on gourmet arabica beans and international blends. Creating not only a place to relax and sip some coffee, but also a whole drinking experience.
We’ve been lucky to enjoy coffee (and other delicious beverages) in some nice swanky places and get work done. The caffeine and sugar has helped fuel our studies. Learning a new language is hard and super rewarding. Learning to read and write and truly learn the Vietnamese language from the beginning is bringing me closer to my roots and making it easier for me to be immersed in life here. With HCMC as the economic hub and capitalism in full swing, it seems like everyone is hustling to make it here. The injection of both local and foreign money is growing the middle class, however the wealth inequality is still ever present between rich and poor. In some small way, coffee seems to be a great equalizer. Young and old and different social classes can enjoy and partake in this coffee culture and that’s pretty cool. Day or night there’s a cafe open for business ready to meet the needs of this bustling metropolis and its people.
(Images of various coffee shops in Ho Chi Minh City)
Here are some pics of the cafes and coffees we’ve tried so far in the past month. Can’t wait to see what is in store for us in the next 5 months. Enjoy! Feel free to let us know if you have any recs for us while we cafe hop in HCMC. * Recommended
*Cong Caphe. Vietnamese themed coffee chain with military decor, propaganda posters, quirky quotes on walls, large painted pink roses, dim lighting and soft music, and servers wearing green outfits. Old tables and chairs, rustic wood and brick walls with pops of red pattern colored seat cushions and lampshades contribute to the retro 70-80’s vibe. (Their signature drink- iced coconut coffee pictured below.)
(Image of Cong Caphe’s signature drink- iced coconut coffee)
*L Usine. Large chic french bistro and cafe with good coffee and drinks. This is one of Alex’s favorite spots.
*Vintage Emporium. Inspired by Vietnam’s French colonial era. Two locations one is a small cafe in hipster neighborhood of Da Kao and the other set in a large beautiful Villa fronted by a trellised arch in District 2 in the expat enclave. Bonus is they serve brunch all day. Yummy French Toast at the Vintage Emporium in Da Kao neighborhood (Pictured Below). My fav spot so far. Blend of French and Vietnamese vintage elements in their decor. Classic blue-and-white patterned floor tiles and fresh flowers on the tables. Upstairs is an airy light filled space. Staff are incredibly kind.
The other location in D2 is visually stunning and feels like you are in a fabulous villa of a really rich Auntie or Uncle. Swimming pool in the back included. Hard to believe you are in a coffee shop. They have really good smoothies here.
(Image of Vintage Emporium’s yummy French Toast in Da Kao neighborhood)
*Kamakura. Japanese style cafe. The staff speak both Japanese and Vietnamese. Pull the curtain back near the front door and you’ll be transported to a cool and relaxed coffee and dessert shop in Japan. It has a whimsical and neat vibe with colorful origami Koi fish ornament on the wall, long wooden tables, and a black pine wall and the word Kamkura neatly spelled out with linear lines of colored yarn. Lots of good natural light. There are lots of Japanese and Korean expats living in HCMC especially in expat District 7.
Loft Cafe. With its black and white analog clock overlooking the streets of Saigon it’s instagram famous #somewhere in Saigon. A cozy cafe located on the second floor of an old apartment building. In order to find it you will have to go through a local gallery on the first floor where local artists are painting and displaying their artwork and go up an old stairwell. The romantic lighting and quiet ambience makes it a nice place to hit up if you’re in the hectic tourist area near the Saigon Post Office and Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral. I had my first egg coffee here. Still searching though…
*Shalom Just Coffee. Extremely comfy seats, pillows and benches as if you are in a cozy living room cafe. My bottom thanks the designer. Quiet and relaxing atmosphere. Good place to set up for the day to work on your laptop or read a good book.
The Snap Cafe. Nestled in the back among boutique shops is a popular play cafe for the expat crowd with kids because it has a large play structure and sand pit. Mix of western and Vietnamese cuisine and doesn’t hurt to have a little ice cream truck inside.
Mori Coffee. Small boutique gourmet specialty coffee shop. Very cool vibe with stylish interior. Serves their cold coffee in wine glasses and hot coffee in gold cafe phin. A bit pricey.
We did meet up with someone at a Starbucks. Nothing much to report, it looks the same inside. Starbucks has lots of stiff competition in Vietnam. The local Viet chains and indie cafes know who their target customers are and tailoring their brand to match. Vietnam has a relatively young population and this means that there will be plenty of coffee shops popping up to attract these millenial customers.
More images of our coffee adventures!
Next on our list to try out. At this rate we’ll need to hit up 2 coffee shops per day! So many spots, so little time. We won’t be going to any cat cafes (Alex is allergic), maybe lizard cafe? In addition to great coffee and cool ambience, we are also looking for comfy arm chairs to park ourselves for the day. Also up for grabbing a red or blue plastic stool and enjoying a drink next to the Saigon River and grabbing a quick bowl of noodles before class. Stay tuned…
- M2C Cafe – Coffee and lunch
- Shin – Egg coffee
- Cafe Eon – Coffee with a sky-high view
- The Old Compass Cafe and Bar – Good coffee and drinks
- Maison Marou – Chocolate, coffee and dessert yes!
- i.d Cafe – Old school retro coffee shop