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 no 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. Sometimes oils infused with cocoa or other flavourings are added during the roasting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.