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Exploring the Coffee Culture of Vietnam

Published 14 June 2016

Christopher Atkinson

When I first arrived in Vietnam I was desperate to satisfy my taste buds with some local culinary offerings, but coffee was at the back of my mind. I imagined hot steaming bowls of pho, slurped down with a cool Saigon beer, but it wasn’t until I arrived in Ho Chi Minh city that I realised the importance of coffee to the South Vietnamese culture.

Over the past decade, southern areas of Vietnam have established themselves as some of the world’s finest coffee producers. Coffee was imported during the French Colonial period, and coffee plantations soon followed, most of which operate from the steeped hills of Da Lat. The microclimate of the south has succeeded in making perfect conditions for coffee plants to thrive, creating a taste unique to Vietnam.

The sweet smell of coffee floating through the energetic streets was already getting me eager to try my first cup.

©Christopher Atkinson

The calming coffee experience

Sitting down in a partially covered café on the main street of Hàm Nghi, with the slow pace of service inside and the speeding, weaving mopeds outside, made for an interesting contrast. Unlike the coffee culture of the West, this is an experience that takes time; it cannot be rushed and is definitely a ‘sit down’ experience.

Not knowing anything about how a Vietnamese cup of coffee is made, my first experience can only be described as intriguing. The brew was made in front of me using a traditional filter system called a Phin. This is a gravity fed system dating back to the early 19th century where ground coffee and boiling water are mixed together as they trickle down into the cup, leaving behind the medium ground Vietnamese coffee. As milk and dairy produce in Vietnam is in small supply, this potent mixture is lightened with condensed milk, not only sweetening it, but thickening it too. This is a unique drink, making it unlike anything I had tried in coffee shops back home.

The reminiscence of tea

Another surprise I found is that coffee is commonly served with a cup of jasmine or green tea.

This fusion of old and new cultures came about because tea was once the common drink that dominated cafes, markets and streets. When I travelled north to the country's more traditional capital, Hanoi, tea culture was still practiced in the streets of the old town. Here tea pots are kept in silk lined boxes and accompanied by blends of green or jasmine tea.

Cooling down with café sua da

On the warmer days, which Vietnam is not in short supply of, the coffee is transformed into an iced delight called café da, or café sua da.

As a rather new Vietnamese coffee enthusiast, I learned the difference between these two coffees through trial and error. On the day I ordered a café da I was given an intensely flavoured iced black coffee. The strong, bitter taste lingered on my tongue and the coffee buzz stayed even longer. To my relief, my travel companion was holding what he called a “Vietnamese frappe”, I quickly ordered a café sua da from the nearest market seller. This was an earthy, bold iced coffee which was mixed with condensed milk to transform this southern staple into a cooling and refreshing summer drink; the perfect caffeine fix for another day of exploring this fascinating country.

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