In Vietnam, coffee is enjoyed at all times of the day, from the first glass at breakfast, to meetings, dates or social gatherings with friends and family. Coffee has a special place in Vietnamese culture, and this simple drink forms the epicenter of daily life. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a coffee demonstration when cruising aboard a luxury boat with Emperor Cruises, on the pristine Bai Tu Long Bay. The presentation allowed me to really understand the origins of coffee in Vietnam, the steps involved in making the perfect cup coffee, and the various regional differences in how people enjoy their coffee from North to South.
The Origin of Coffee in Vietnam
Cà phê, café or coffee, depending on which language you speak, originated in the West, and the French have been importing it into Vietnam since colonial times. Back then, coffee was a drink reserved only for the nobility, French officials or intellectuals. Gradually, coffee has become a favorite drink in the lives of all Vietnamese people. In the 1870’s, the first coffee trees were planted at churches in Ha Nam, Quang Binh, Kon Tum Province by monks. In 1888, the first coffee plantation was established in Ke So, Tonkin by the French residing the riverside area. As it became more popular, other plantations were created in highland areas such as Phu Quy, Nghe An, Dak Lak and Lam Dong. Today, Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of coffee beans and has developed its own distinct coffee culture. Across the country, cultivation focuses on three main types of coffee: Arabica, Robusta, and Excelsa (also known as Liberian coffee).
The sophistication of coffee is reflected in the drinking style of Vietnamese people, who each have their own unique way in which to enjoy it. They don’t consider it a quick caffeine fix to wake you up in the morning like in America. Instead, they sip a cup of coffee and think about life in the same way you might indulge in a good glass of Scotch. The beans are mixed in different ways to create various flavors. The three main coffee styles in Vietnam are filtered, iced, or with condensed with egg or coconut to enhance the taste.
Coffee in Vietnam is often brewed in small metal filters known as a “phin” (which comes from the French word, “filtre”). The Vietnamese filter is akin to a tiny coffee pot that looks like a hat sitting atop the cup or glass. Inside is a chamber for the ground coffee beans, which are placed inside, and hot water is added and allowed to percolate through the small holes. The process can take up to fifteen minutes to complete, and this harks back to the Vietnamese ritual of taking one’s time over coffee.
Iced Milk Coffee
Iced milk coffee (Cà phê sữa đá) consists of filtered coffee with condensed milk, which adds a sweet taste to the typically bitter coffee. Iced milk coffee and iced black coffee are the two most popular types you will find in coffee shops or at home. Vietnamese iced milk coffee was voted one of the 15 best coffees in the world by the renowned American travel magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and is also considered one of the top 10 most unique and delicious coffees of the world by Bloomberg.
While adding an egg to your coffee appears very strange to foreign visitors, egg coffee is a favorite of the residents of the country’s capital, Hanoi. Egg coffee is made up of coffee, eggs, and milk—three simple ingredients that when mixed, create a unique flavor. This coffee must be enjoyed as soon as it has been mixed and is still hot. In Hanoi, egg coffee is famous as a culinary specialty, first appearing in the early 20th century. The most famous coffee shop is Giang Café.
Differences in Coffee Culture
Different regions in Vietnam have their own distinct way of preparing and enjoying a coffee. For example, Southerners often wrap ground coffee in a thin fabric bag and cook it in an earthenware kettle, preferring to drink iced coffee. Northerners usually choose filtered coffee and black or brown coffee beans that have a very strong flavor. All coffee shops have their own unique character and styles, and many have been operating from generation to generation.
For the Saigonese, iced coffee is a popular drink for all ages. When you say “Coffee?,” it is an excuse to invite friends for good conversation. The cups of coffee become the link between two or more people. You will see men who are drinking coffee with the daily newspaper, sitting on low plastic stools on the sidewalk, while the coffee shops are full every morning. “Cafe bệt” is a humorous term used in Saigon, where everyone sits freely on the ground to drink coffee. Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica is the ideal place for this type of coffee. Here, black coffee and milk coffee are not brewed using filters, and they are often served in plastic cups with straws so you can drink on the move.
One of Hanoi’s oldest cafés, Cafe Lam Hano is a one-room establishment that is practically a historical monument. Its proprietor, Nguyen Lam, provided coffee, and often loans, to the city’s impoverished artistic community during the war. Rumor has it that he is sitting on an art collection now worth a fortune. He serves Vietnamese-style hot and iced coffee to a crowd of faithful regulars. Many of the great names in Vietnamese painting have passed through here: Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Van Cao and Bui Xuan Phai, a veritable collection of masters in Vietnamese art culture.
Cafés in Hanoi are commonly named after the owner, and many streets are devoted to coffee shops, such as Hoe Nhai, Phan Dinh Phung, Nguyen Huu Huan and Trieu Viet Vuong. In Hanoi, coffee is the most favorite drink of artists, the elderly and businesspeople. They consider drinking coffee as an art that hides a long story.
Hanoians have a much greater variety of names for their coffee compared to the Saigonese. One regional specialty is brown coffee (cap phe nau). It is served with condensed milk without ice, and is considered far more bitter than the Saigon version. Because of its small size and dense population, Hanoian coffee shops are simpler than in Saigon, and locals prefer to drink in small cafes in the Old Town or on the sidewalk.