If you have travelled to Vietnam, you would have seen the numerous coffee shops dotted around the big cities and probably would have been tempted to try the infamous ca phe sua da - the Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. If you haven’t had a chance to visit Vietnam, you will be intrigued to know that Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world, just behind Brazil. Yet, while the coffee culture is so prominent in Vietnam, it still largely remains undiscovered in many other parts of the world.
A French inspiration
The Arabica coffee plants were first grown by French missionaries in their gardens in the north of Vietnam in the 1880s, but initially it wasn’t a huge success. It wasn’t until the early 1920s, the French colonists discovered that the combination of the rich soil and climate in the Central Highlands of Vietnam provides the perfect conditions for growing coffee. During the French colonial era, whilst lasted up until the 1940s, coffee production was a booming business with several coffee varieties being introduced including: Arabica, Liberia and Robusta. Of the three varieties, Robusta quickly became the favoured due to its robust characteristics (hence the name Robusta), low maintenance and the ability to grow at low altitudes. Today Robusta makes up to 96% of Vietnamese coffee production.
Fast forward to today and you can still find some remnants of the French influence in Vietnamese coffee culture. Firstly, the Vietnamese coffee beans are typically roasted to resemble dark roasts favoured in French coffee, giving similar taste profiles between the two. Secondly, the phin – the traditional Vietnamese coffee filter – was also introduced by the French and the Vietnamese word phin is derived from the French word filtre – meaning filter. Lastly, the introduction of condensed milk in Vietnamese coffee is also a French invention. The story goes that the French were missing their café au lait during their time in Vietnam, but at the time fresh milk was non-existent in the country, inspiring them to substitute fresh milk for condensed milk.
The traditional Vietnamese coffee
A traditional Vietnamese coffee is brewed using a phin – a Vietnamese coffee filter made of metal that brews coffee through a slow-dripping method. This works very similarly to a pour-over tool like V60 or Chemex with some extra benefits including its environmental friendliness, and its compact and travel-friendly size. When brewing, medium ground coffee is first placed inside the main brewing chamber of the phin, then hot water is poured over slowly, and the perforated filter allows the coffee to drip through. It takes around 5 minutes to prepare a cup of coffee with the phin, and the Vietnamese people enjoy both the taste of the concentrated cup of coffee this produces as well as the traditional ritual of watching each drop of coffee dripping through the phin.
Once the coffee is prepared, condensed milk can be added. This sweet tasting milk perfectly balances out the intense flavours of the dark roasted coffee beans and is the most well-known type of Vietnamese coffee. In the North of Vietnam this is called “Ca Phe Nau” - meaning Brown coffee, while in the South this is referred as “Ca Phe Sua” - meaning milky coffee. Additionally, as a result of living in a tropical and humid climate, Vietnamese people also enjoy their coffee iced, and you can find “Ca Phe Nau Da” or “Ca Phe Sua Da” – meaning iced milk coffee – in every corner of Vietnam.
From pavement to the Instagram-able coffee shops
Whilst during the French colonial times, coffee was a luxury reserved only to the upper class and the French colonists, this changed significantly after the war. Many coffee shops with a more casual setting were introduced in the 1950s and they still remain today. “Cà phê cóc” – the Vietnamese name for pavement coffee shops – became popular and became the image of the Vietnamese coffee culture. Typically, these coffee shops are small venues on a street corner with minimal decorations and even without a shop name. Their guests will sit on small stools perched on the pavement enjoying the coffee whilst watching the passers-by. When visiting Vietnam, you can find these small coffee shops everywhere, from a busy street with a couple of dozen seats to a quiet alleyway with only one or two wooden stools.
Recently with the introduction of Western coffeeshop culture and social media such as Instagram, more upscale coffee shops are being introduced and becoming popular amongst the millennials in Vietnam. People no longer visit coffee shops just to drink coffee, but also to enjoy the ambience of the shop as well as the excellent service from trained baristas. This adds more diversity and excitement to the coffee scene in Vietnam, and needless to say when someone is in Vietnam, they’re never far away from a caffeine fix.
More than just a drink
However, coffee in Vietnam is not just a drink to get your caffeine fix, it’s a whole culture that has evolved over the past 100 years. Coffee shops play such an essential role in the Vietnamese’s social life, and one can draw some similarities with the British pub culture. The Vietnamese go to coffee shops to meet with friends, catch up on gossip, or even to spend a romantic date. When we say “đi uống cà phê không?” - directly translating to “do you want to grab a coffee?”, it means “let’s catch up”.
In Vietnam different types of coffee shops are popular at different times of the day. In the early morning you’ll typically see people drinking coffee on a side corner shop while reading a newspaper or catching up on the news on their way to work. During the day you can spot many businessmen working or having a meeting in a more formal coffee shop setting. Late afternoon is the time for office workers to gather around in an informal coffeeshop with some outdoor sittings and catch up about their workday. In the evening, you can see many couples on a date in a romantic, upscale coffee shops, or groups of friends and family socialising while taking some Instagram-able photos for their social media. Needless to say, in Vietnam, there will always be the perfect coffee shop to cater to your needs at that time of day.
Sitting in a coffeeshop and slowly sipping coffee is such a nationally treasured pastime that takeaway coffee has never really taken off in Vietnam. There’s something calming in sitting back and watching the bustling streets with the motorbikes honking and whizzing by, whilst waiting for your cup of coffee to brew and drip through the Vietnamese phin filter. Drinking coffee is a way for the Vietnamese to unwind and escape the hustle and bustle of city life and take time for themselves. It’s not just the coffee itself, it’s the state of mind, or shall I dare to say, the Vietnamese version of finding zen.
Enjoying Vietnamese coffee at home
At Vi Asia, we believe enjoying coffee is a great opportunity to slow down and be present, to take time for yourself or to share time with friends and family.
Our Vietnamese coffee experience box is designed to bring this coffee experience to you, wherever you are. It includes all the necessary ingredients including Vietnamese traditional coffee, condensed milk, and the “phin” filter, so you can easily replicate the authentic taste in the comfort of your home.