Coffee makes my soul sing. I love everything about it; the ritual of making it, the glorious smell that fills any space in which it is being brewed, the rousing first sip of it in the morning, the deliciously moreish taste.
It therefore comes as no surprise that I love Vietnam – a country that takes its coffee very seriously. As the world’s second largest exporter of java after Brazil, the love of joe obviously comes naturally to the Vietnamese.
In Saigon, coffee treats await you on every street corner – whether it’s at one of the many street side food stalls or the myriad quirky independent coffee shops that are popping up everywhere, at any given time of day you’ll be able to pick up a cup of brew for prices as low as less than a dollar.
But what is it about Vietnamese coffee that makes it so bloody good? And how do the Vietnamese like to drink their java?
Perhaps you’ve just arrived in Saigon or elsewhere in Vietnam and you have no idea where to begin your coffee journey. Or maybe you’re just intrigued by the way in which the Vietnamese like to drink it. In either case, we’ve put together a guide on Vietnamese coffee, and more specifically, the Vietnamese coffee scene in Saigon to help get you started.
What makes Vietnamese coffee so special?
I still vividly remember my first sip of Vietnamese coffee. Ankit and I had just arrived in Hoi An and we were having breakfast while enjoying the endless views of rice paddies. We were slightly jet lagged and in need of a kick, and as one of the things we were dying to try first was their coffee we decided to order an iced one each. Let’s just say, I wasn’t instantly enamoured – it tasted bitterly strong, and to make things even more unbearable, I discovered that it was served with sickly-sweet condensed milk.
Certainly not for the fainthearted.
Despite our taste buds’ initial resistance, however, with each sip both Ankit and I found ourselves exclaiming “this isn’t bad, actually.” By our second round we were both hooked on its caramel-like tastiness.
As I’m not exactly an expert on Vietnamese coffee and I cannot really say much other than “it tastes bloody good,” I decided to reach out to someone who knows a lot more about the subject. Barbara Adam moved to Vietnam in 2007 and now runs food tours in Ho Chi Minh City with her Vietnamese husband, Vu; she is also the name behind the successful food and travel blog The Dropout Diaries. She explains how the chocolate notes that are found in Vietnamese coffee come from roasting the beans with butter and fish sauce – doesn’t sound appetising, but we can assure you the result is a good one.
“This explains why sometimes you can see a bit of an oil stain on the top of freshly dripped coffee,” says Barbara. “The first few times I noticed it, I figured it was just a dirty cup.”
Barbara also explains how Vietnam is the world’s largest producers of Robusta coffee beans, which are considered to be inferior to Arabica ones. “It seems you can improve anything with a bit of butter and fish sauce, though,” muses Barbara.
What are the varieties and how do I know what to order?
Vietnamese coffee can be a bit mind boggling when you first encounter it. Luckily we’re here to help you through the maze! The main varieties you’ll see in coffee shops and at street stalls are as follows:
Cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk)
Cà phê đen đá (iced black coffee)
Cà phê sữa nóng (hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk)
Cà phê đen nóng (hot black coffee)
Our personal favourite is the iced coffee with condensed milk – it’s delicious and really has a kick to it. If you cannot take the sweetness, you can ask for it with fresh milk instead. Barbara also says that you may need to learn the phrase khong đường (no sugar) because if you order black coffee thinking it has less sugar, you’ll be in for a bit of a sweet shock. “Unless otherwise specified, black coffee is usually served with several teaspoons of sugar,” she elaborates.
Barbara explains that there’s also yoghurt coffee, which is something we’ve yet to come across, and egg coffee, which is a speciality of Hanoi that allegedly tastes like coffee-custard. Yes, you heard right – custard. I must try this out when I’m up north! Jodi from Legal Nomads who is based in Vietnam and writes mainly about the food she encounters during her travels wrote a little bit more about this delicacy and also offers a recipe that’s worth checking out.
How is it served?
A lot of the times the coffee will be served to you in the phin (the filter used to brew Vietnamese coffee), so you will have to wait for the ‘drip’ process to be completed before pouring the shot of coffee over your ice and condensed milk (in the case of an iced coffee). I remember Ankit and I fumbling around with it when we were presented with one because we had no idea what to do!
Where are the best places to try it in Saigon?
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is teeming with great coffee shops that not only serve great Vietnamese coffee, but that also offer a mean Italian coffee, too. You can also try the coffee for less than a dollar at the various street stalls around the city.
Here are just some of the places that we personally love:
This fashion boutique/café/art gallery serves up some of the best Italian coffee in Saigon. Although it’s rather a shame to be drinking lattes and cappuccinos while in Vietnam, sometimes you’re just hankering for one! This is where I had my best latte in the city, but they also do a great iced Vietnamese coffee.
And their baguettes? Well, they’re phenomenal. Try the mushroom and olive stuffed chicken sandwich.
By far my favourite place in Saigon, this ultra chic and inviting café has the most beautiful décor – the upstairs terrace, for example, has foliage growing up the walls and is adorned with fairy lights, while inside there are loads of inviting sofas and cozy corners for you to get lost in a book in while you sip on your coffee.
Their Vietnamese coffee offerings are exceptional, and I’ve sipped on many cà phê sữa đá while here. For those looking for something a bit different, I recommend the Sand Dune, which is two shots of espresso mixed with Baileys, Kahlua and rum – it certainly puts the I in Irish coffee. It’s the most delicious thing I’ve tried in a while.
Another great find, M2C Café’s décor is what I loved the most about this place; think copper lamps, exposed brick walls, concrete floors and comfy sofas. The WiFi here is also the best that I’ve found so far in Saigon, and the staff are exceptionally warm and friendly.
On the coffee side, I had another great iced Vietnemse coffee experience here. Java aside, I also recommend that you try the signature shrimp soup – really cheap and thoroughly filling.
If you’re looking to get some work done, this may not be the best of places for you – the WiFi was terrible when we visited, and the low lighting made me feel incredibly sleepy. However, I really do like this place and it serves a great Vietnamese iced coffee with milk.
Trung Nguyen is the Vietnamese version of Starbucks (only it serves much better coffee) – you’ll find one on pretty much every street corner of Saigon. You may think it doesn’t look like much from the outside (and to be honest, it actually isn’t much inside either), but appearances aside these places serve, in my opinion, the best Vietnamese coffee I’ve tried while here. Skip the food and everything else and just stick with what they do best – coffee.
On every street corner in Saigon.
How can I make it at home?
Ankit and I loved Vietnamese coffee so much that we made sure we bought a phin and a bag of java to take home with us to Dubai. Sure enough, we made it through that bag in less than a month and were then left hankering for more.
If like us you want to try and replicate the magic at home, you’ll need to buy yourself the filter, which can be found pretty much everywhere in Vietnam. Barbara advises to avoid the touristy places and the fancy looking coffee and phin packages that you’ll find in most stores, and to head to a supermarket, buy a bag of Highlands or Trung Nguyen brand coffee and the filter.
If you’re making the coffee while in Vietnam, she says you should also buy a can of Ông Thọ (Mr. Longevity) condensed milk. “You need three or four teaspoons of coffee in the phin to get Vietnamese-strength coffee and a good dollop of Vietnamese condensed milk in the cup underneath the filter,” she advises.
For a thorough tutorial on how exactly to brew the coffee, Trung Nguyen have put together a picture-led guide that works well.
Even if you’re not planning a trip to Vietnam in the near future, you can buy the phin online from Amazon. I absolutely love the look of this Vietnamese coffee starter kit that comes complete with a phin, Trung Nguyen coffee and condensed milk. If you cannot find Vietnamese coffee where you live, one of the coffees that is said to work well as a substitute is French roast, medium-coarse ground coffee.
Did you know?Culi or weasel coffee is made from beans that have been eaten and then pooed (that’s right – pooed) out by a loris or a civet cat. Barbara explains that around Da Lat there are many tourist cafes that serve culi coffee made from the resident civet cats. I think we’ll be giving that one a miss somehow...