C is for Cà Phê: Vietnamese Coffee

1 Hue style coffeeWhenever I leave Việt Nam for an extended time, I pack as much of my favourite coffee from Huế as I can carry, usually several kilos. It’s never enough. Upon returning, going out with friends for a glass of cà phê sữa đá (iced milk coffee) is one of the first things I do no matter what time of day it is.

Hue Garden Coffee

The metal filter for brewing Vietnamese coffee is called a phin (from the French  filtre). Though some cafés prepare the coffee in advance, I like it best when they bring my order to the table with the filter full of coffee and boiling water perched on top. I almost always choose the cà phê sữa, so my glass contains a spoonful or more of condensed milk. The coffee trickles down hypnotically, a spreading chocolatey blot on the pool of ivory milk. The flavour is chocolatey too, a characteristic that comes partly from the blends of coffee used in Việt Nam, and partly from the long, slow, low-temperature roasting process. Sometimes oils infused with cocoa or other flavourings are added during the roasting.

preparing sidewalk coffee

Most Vietnamese I know prefer their coffee with either condensed milk, or sugar for a cafe đen (black coffee). Vietnamese sugar can be fairly coarse, so either way, you can’t get away with a cursory swirl of the spoon; you have to give it a proper stir. In every café, the chorus of ringing spoons accents the hum of conversation.

cafe hanoi-photo by mBug-

In some cafés, all the chairs face the street. You never know what will pass by. Thanks goes to my friend MBug for letting me share this great photo.  

Coffee culture is huge and coffee shops spring up everywhere: inside art galleries, in old war bunkers and bookshops, on river banks, hidden in tiny courtyards, and in restored pavillions where kings once relaxed. Việt Nam has plenty of upscale cafés that serve espresso-based drinks and coffee with fancy latté art, but the filter-drip method is still the most common.

SG style cf in Hue-Saigon-style coffee comes to the table in two parts: a tall glass filled with ice and another glass with the filter. You wait for the water to drip through, stir the coffee and pour it over the ice.

In Huế, in the central region, the glasses are much smaller and the ice comes in a bowl on the side. It tends to be much less sweet than a Saigon milk coffee. Not a fan of sweet things, I always ask for just a tiny amount of condensed milk. Once in Châu Đốc (in the Mekong Delta on the border with Cambodia), I made my usual request but received what looked like milk with a few drops of coffee added. The kindly seller noticed I wasn’t drinking it and made me another one. The new one was no better. When I tried to drink it but gave up, one of my companions insisted on trading his black coffee with the faintest breath of sugar for my condensed milk on ice. Now, when I’m in the mood for a Saigon coffee I ask for a black one, which comes with sugar on the side to be added according to individual taste.

Hot milk coffee 2

Hanoians drink theirs in small glasses too and in both the central and northern regions, where winter often brings persistent rains and single digit temperatures, hot coffee is not just for tourists. To keep the drink hot, sellers place the glasses of coffee in bowls of hot water.

Cà phê trứng (egg coffee), Hà Nội’s contribution to the tourist coffee scene, comes hot or iced. It’s not my favourite but if I must drink it, I find the hot version more enticing, reminding me of a light coffee zabaglione floating atop a shot of black coffee. Unlike Scandinavian egg coffee, where ground coffee mixed with egg is simmered with the water (the egg serving to bind with the grounds and clarify the drink), this can be prepared right in the cup. Most of my Vietnamese friends tell me they’ve never tried it and are not planning to. I’ve seen it in only a very few cafés in Huế—it really is a tourist thing—but it seems to be catching on among students.

Sidewalk cf HaNoi-mBug

My friend MBug snapped these guys drinking cà phê bụi (“dust coffee” or sidewalk coffee) in Hà Nội, but sidewalk coffee is popular everywhere. In Huế, one of the places we frequent for an early morning brew with friends is on a little side street where there is no obvious coffee shop. Groups of people sit on randomly placed plastic mini stools. When we arrive, a man pops out from a doorway to take our orders.

Cà phê bệt (sitting-on-the-ground coffee) takes the sidewalk style a step further. It’s inexpensive and perfect for hot weather. In Saigon, in the cool, greenish light of sun filtered through trees in one of the parks, I watch for one of the roving vendors carrying trays full of glasses of iced coffee. I choose the glass with the least amount of added milk and find a spot on the grass among the students and office workers taking a coffee break from their busy schedules.

Travellers from western countries sometimes say Vietnamese coffee is too small. The serving is barely more than a thimbleful.  Even the generous-looking Saigon coffee is mostly ice. But you can always have two. For me, one is enough but then I face the dilemma of sipping it slowly to make it last or drinking another mouthful, and another—instant gratification—and then it is gone and I want more.

In the West, we often drink coffee in solitude, mug in one hand, newspaper in the other, oblivious to our surroundings. In Việt Nam, friends invite us out before breakfast, after work, or after a night on the town. Until you’ve enjoyed it in the community spirit, you really haven’t had Vietnamese coffee.

About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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14 Responses to C is for Cà Phê: Vietnamese Coffee

  1. D. D. Syrdal says:

    Eeesh, who knew coffee could be so complicated? Fascinating how every culture puts their own spin on it.

  2. Thanks for sharing this – so delicious to read, especially with the photos. Like a little mindtrip. Here in Germany coffee is called “Kaffee”, and one of the first things everyone buys for their kitchen is a coffee machine: eine “Kaffeemaschine”… and typing this i remember that i once posted a little video with it, let me see… here it is: http://virtual-notes.blogspot.de/2013/01/monday-morning-coffee.html

    • Chris says:

      I remember that video! And loved it…a little morning moment. I have fond memories of coffee in Germany too. Sitting in the Munster Platz in Freiburg and watching the musicians and market women…thanks for that memory!

  3. spitballarmy says:

    Reading this post makes me want to break my daily protocol and have a second cup of morning coffee! The aroma is wafting right off of the screen,,,

  4. Thank you, Chris. Loved this post. Coffee is huge in Oslo, but I think I’d like to experience the Viet Nam coffee culture after reading this. Fasinatibg how different the traditions around coffee drinking is around the world. I’ve experienced it in both Ethiopia and Egypt. Lovely photos too.

  5. How interesting. Coffee has become such a universal drink, yet so many places have put their own local stamp on it. I love that.

    • Chris says:

      Dorothy, it’s amazing, isn’t it? I guess it’s similar with tea as well. So many methods of preparation and different ways of drinking it.

  6. Rose Hunter says:

    What you say re the community spirit makes me think about Mexican café de olla, “pot coffee” – which is made in a big (huge!) earthenware pot and with cinnamon, and scooped out with a ladle, like soup.It gives it more of a social feel, (as well as being delicious). Ah…

    • Chris says:

      Rose, I’d love to try café de olla sometime; your description reminds me drinking maté with South American friends out of a communal gourd with a metal straw.

  7. If you are in HCMC at the moment and want to visit some wonderful coffee places look here http://www.liliencronlovescoffee.wordpress.com … I’m about to explore the phantastic coffee scene there!

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