Whenever 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. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is.
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, which sometimes includes oil infused with cocoa or other flavourings.
Most Vietnamese prefer their coffee with either condensed milk, or sugar for a cafe đen (black coffee). Vietnamese sugar is 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.
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 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 everywhere in the country.
Saigon-style coffee comes to the table in two parts: a tall glass filled with ice, and another one 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 and received what looked like milk with a few drops of coffee added. I couldn’t drink it, so the kindly seller offered to make 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.
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 coffee scene, comes hot or iced, but I find the hot version more enticing. Imagine 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, like the Sicilian version. I’ve seen this in only a few cafés in Huế, but it seems to be catching on.
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, we often go out for an early morning brew with friends on a little side street where there is no obvious coffee shop. Crowds of people sit on randomly placed plastic mini stools. When we arrive, a man suddenly 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, it seems as if roving vendors roam almost every park, carrying trays full of glasses of iced coffee. I love to sit in the cool, greenish light of sun filtered through trees and watch the people while I sip.
Travellers from western countries sometimes find that 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. I usually find that one is enough, but I always face the dilemma of sipping it slowly to make it last, or drinking another mouthful, and another—instant gratification—but 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.
Please check out the other A to Z blog tour participants’ blog posts too:
Jo Thomas – Mousie the stuffed mouse tours Thurnscoe, South Yorkshire
Dorothee Lang – Playing with language
Rose Hunter – Place/Memory
Jane Hammons – Random topics
Fred Osuna – “My South.”
Margrét Helgadottir – Growing up as a cross-cultural kid