From the introduction of the first coffee plant to Vietnam by the French in 1857, coffee production grew steadily, all through numerous wars to today. A century and a half later, Vietnam is now the 2nd largest coffee producer in the world, after Brazil.
The coffee culture in Vietnam is incredible. While we generally think of coffee as a morning affair, with the aim of waking our brains up for a busy day at work or enjoying a Sunday morning in bed, to the Vietnamese, coffee is more of a very casual, almost have-it-at-any-time-of-the-day thing.
Small coffee shops, each with its own unique style, and simple vendor carts dot every sidewalk and every corner. Plastic child-sized stools and low tables spill out onto the sidewalks, with people wearing casual outfits to suits and ties, socializing over a cup. Either that or they are alone, watching the busy traffic pass by. It’s a strange, yet interesting sight.
The vast majority of the beans grown in Vietnam are Robusta beans. These are more bitter than the globally popular Arabica beans, which says a lot about what you can expect from a good cup of Vietnamese coffee. Robusta beans grow at lower altitudes, have higher yields, hold less acidity, have a higher caffeine content, and are two times as strong as Arabica coffee, yet less expensive. Vietnam is also the world’s largest Robusta producer and exporter, accounting for 40% of the world’s Robusta coffee.
If you like your coffee strong and bold, order yourself a ca phe den. Here, the word ‘den’ means black and I assume you can figure out what ‘ca phe’ means. So this is a simple black coffee without any sweetener or milk.
To make a ca phe den, the Vietnamese use what is called a phin filter. A phin filter is enough to make a standard cup of coffee and is generally made of stainless steel or aluminium. It comes in 4 pieces: the filter cup, the base, the filter press and the lid.
You place the lid-less apparatus over your glass, add ground coffee into the filter cup and press over it with the filter press. The bottom of the cup and the base have holes, through which the coffee drips out as warm water is added. The lid is placed on top to keep the heat.
The whole process may take some time, but you are guaranteed a perfect cup of hot coffee, especially if you use an aluminium phin because they hold in the heat better and help you brew a more balanced cup. If you use a glass instead of a mug, you can watch as the brewing take place. It is definitely more interesting than watching paint dry.
After the brewing is done, add some ice to this and it becomes ca phe den da. Da means cold. Black coffee with ice is especially loved in Vietnam because of the hot tropical climate. If you want to make absolute sure you’re ordering a hot black coffee, then say ca phe den nong.
This is my absolute favorite. This is black coffee sweetened with condensed milk (sua). It is made in the exact same way that a ca phe den is, except the glass already has a layer of sweetened condensed milk in it. Once the brewing is complete, ice is added. If you want this without ice, simply ask for a ca phe sua or ca phe sua nong. Adding in some condensed milk really balances out the strong and bitter robusta coffee.
Why condensed milk you must be wondering and why not fresh milk? During war times, there was not only a lack of fresh milk, but it was also difficult to store fresh milk for many without a fridge or electricity. This resulted in the use of canned condensed milk which you can store for much longer in dry room temperatures.
If you want the milk to coffee ratio to be a bit higher, or some extra fresh milk in it, ask for a bac xiu. I warn you though, this is extremely sweet. Both of these are the perfect refreshment on a hot and humid day.
Now things get weird. This is a cup of coffee with an egg (trung) cracked into it. When I first heard about it, I really thought it was a prank because all my friends know I am extremely gullible and fall for anything. But no, this really is a cup of Vietnamese drip coffee with a layer of whipped chicken egg yolk along with condensed milk and sugar on the top. The creamy texture is best described as liquid tiramisu. Let that digest while I explain more.
Story goes that egg coffee was invented in 1946 by Nguyen Giang who is the founder of the famous Cafe Giang located at 39 Nguyen Huu Huan in Hanoi. When he came up with it, he had no idea it would become a thing, as he simply just whisked in an egg into a cup of coffee because he ran out of milk. When the blender came about, the recipe got popular.
To make this, first drip coffee is made. Then, an egg yolk, some condensed milk and a spoonful of that coffee is poured into a bowl and whisked rigorously until it becomes frothy. This layer of froth is then poured over the traditional black coffee. When you are ready to drink, make sure you use a spoon to mix the creamy top layer of froth into the dark and bold coffee that lies underneath. Or else it might taste a bit…eggy. You will find your egg coffee served with a flame underneath or sitting in a bowl of hot water to keep the temperature and texture.
Dua means coconut. To make a delicious cup of ca phe dua, you simply mix drip coffee with a little bit of condensed milk and coconut milk (or coconut yogurt). To this, a lot of ice is added. It may sound sweet, yet it is quite a strong drink. If you come across a Cong Ca Phe during your time in Vietnam, make sure to try this out as it is their signature drink.
Now we add in some fruit. Sinh to means smoothie and you will come across many smoothie stalls and shops as you walk around Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. You can point your way through the various fruits you want in your sinh to ca phe such as banana, avocado, dragonfruit, mango and more. Mix your choice with black vietnamese coffee and you have this strange drink.
By now you should be accustomed to hearing about weird ingredients being added to a simple cup of coffee. Ca phe sua chua is another unique drink where creamy yogurt blends divinely with black coffee to form a delicious concoction. The yogurts tanginess really accentuates the bitterness of the coffee, making it a rollercoaster of flavors in your mouth.
Simply add a spoonful of salt to your ca phe sua da and it becomes a ca phe muoi. The salt brings out the smokier flavors in the coffee, and balances out the sweetness of the condensed milk. I’m not sure how I feel about this one though.
This is a little controversial. This is one of the most expensive coffees in the world and you can only find it in a few countries: Indonesia, East Timor, the Philippines and of course, Vietnam. So what is it?
Ca phe chon is weasel coffee. Essentially weasels are fed coffee berries, digesting the flesh, and excreting the pips. They are then washed and processed carefully, and then sold worldwide as a luxury item. It may cost around $500 USD per 1kg.
The controversy here is because of how these weasels can be raised. Many are kept in very poor conditions and force fed coffee berries without a proper balanced diet. There is a high mortality rate and this practice also poses a conservation risk. Many animal welfare groups are making it a priority to act against this practice.
While it’s great to be open to trying new things, you should also be mindful about how certain things come to be and if any animal or human being is harmed in the process. Do your best to travel ethically.