Memos from Asia

Vietnamese Coffee Culture – Then and Now

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Vinh Long, Vietnam

Being the world’s second-biggest coffee exporter, Vietnam owns a respectable coffee culture that has lasted for over a century. Vietnamese people treat their coffee as a jewel on the queen’s crown and it will never change. Rain or shine, you will see us flocking to the nearest pavement in the neighborhood just to get that coffee fix!

To help you understand this remarkable coffee drinking culture in Vietnam, I have compiled this article on behalf of all Vietnamese coffee fans out there. Let’s get started!

History of Vietnamese Coffee – A Ticket to the Past

The very first coffee beans were introduced to this tropical humid land of Asia in the 17th century. They followed the Spanish and Portuguese preachers during the missionary journey in Vietnam.

However, coffee was still treated as a bizarre foreign input to the Vietnamese. Not until the French colonists officially set their protectionism all over Indochina was coffee planted on a wider scale.

Since 1927, coffee beans have been grown in various plantations across the Central Highlands in Vietnam. This region in the country was believed to nourish the coffee beans in full swing. And therefore, the coffee would reach its best quality and prosperity.

(Coffee beans in Vietnam)

From then on, many French cafeterias were opened as a sole dedication to the noble and high-class colonists. Those cafeterias were decorated with a vibrant, luxury, and vintage style.

During the 20th century, a chain of open-air coffee shops lined the streets of Rue de Catinat. Some of them remain in the hearts of the Vietnamese oldies such as La Pagode, Givral, Brodard, and Hotel Continental. These spots were granted with stunning views of the best corners of Saigon like the Central Post Office or Notre Dame Cathedral.

(Saigon Central Post Office at dawn)

Fast forward to the 60s and 70s when the Vietnamese war elevated following the split of the two Vietnams, a huge number of Americans and the Western allies entered the Republic of Vietnam. As a result, big cities in South Vietnam such as Saigon witnessed a booming of acoustic coffee shops.

During those days, the Vietnamese coffee culture was usually associated with famous Vietnamese artists chanting melancholy love songs.

Unlike the French cafeterias in the 20s and 30s when coffee and croissants made a perfect company for a chat by the street, the modern coffee shops during the Vietnam war became entertainment centers.

Ever since, this bitter black beverage has become an energetic drink for most Vietnamese, especially white collars and workers who need a kick to get their day started. After a century, the love for coffee has gained a significant notice in Vietnam.

(Modern Vietnamese coffee brewing style)

The Coffee Drinking Culture in Vietnam

According to the Institute of Applied Marketing (I.A.M), 65% of the Vietnamese people drink coffee seven times a week (Vietnam Economic News, 11/23/2018).

Coffee is not only existing as a choice of beverage, but also a daily catchphrase whenever we want to ask someone out.

“Getting coffee eh?” – This brief, neat and lovely catchphrase seems to be a perfect replacement for “Hello! How are you?” in Vietnam.

(A famous coffee building at 42 Nguyen Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

The habit of going to a coffee shop for a meeting, a chat, a date, or even a workplace has created a more youthful coffee culture in Vietnam. More than just a quick energy boost, coffee is an excuse to sit back, relax and bond with friends.

(Working by a glass of iced coffee)

Despite how coffee has evolved in Vietnam, the most basic and common style is watching each drop of coffee distilled out of a filter.

The way that coffee is roasted, brewed, and consumed in Vietnam sets it apart from the rest of the world. Vietnamese coffee is all about high octane. We want that kind of smell and flavor which will caress our mouth, wake up our taste buds and stimulate our brain cells.

(Drinking coffee on the streets)

In Vietnam, coffee is slowly roasted for at least 15 minutes under low heat, then grounded and stored in well-covered jars. Whenever an order is placed, two tablespoons of grounded coffee slide into an aluminum filter, fused with boiling water, 10 minutes waiting for the dripping juice, and you’re good to go!

2 Most Common Types of Vietnamese Coffee

I encountered with Vietnamese coffee at a very young age. During my childhood, I realized that men usually went for black coffee (either hot or iced) while women preferred adding a bit of condensed milk to balance out the bitterness.

(Coffee in Hanoi, Vietnam)

Condensed milk was a special creation in Vietnam. There was a lack of fresh milk during the Indochina war against the French. Therefore, sweetened condensed milk was used as a wise alternative that turned out to be a perfect pairing with coffee.

The strong and significant bitterness and aroma of coffee make it a heavenly pairing with the deep and full-bodied flavor of sweetened condensed milk.

How Does Northern Vietnamese Coffee Culture Differ from Its Southern Counterpart?

Even though black coffee and coffee with condensed milk are the mutual joy across Vietnam, there are some variations in terms of names and ingredients.

In Northern Vietnam, there are three main coffee styles:

  • Ice black coffee (cà phê đen đá).
  • Hot black coffee (cà phê đen nóng).
  • Coffee with condensed milk (cà phê nâu).

Other than these three, we have yogurt coffee (sữa chua cà phê) and egg coffee (cà phê trứng – this is a real yum!) as two other sensational hot sellers.

Yogurt coffee comes out in a creamy texture backed by a sweet and delicate sourness, which seems to be an odd companion with coffee. In fact, the fusion of these flavors enhances the overall tasting profile of the drink and makes you crave for more!

Meanwhile, egg coffee was born in Vietnam as an equivalent for French cappuccino. The egg coffee genuinely resembles egg custards. Its creamy, thick, rich, and foamy texture of egg yolk and condensed milk sits atop a bed of hot black coffee. What you want to do when drinking this delicacy is taking a tiny sip of the golden egg portion first, then mix the rest with the coffee underneath and slowly enjoy.

Now let’s move on to the South! Southern Vietnamese coffee is somewhat cheaper and also served in a bigger class. People in the South prefer more ice and sugar in their drinks. The Southern Vietnamese coffee is usually ready-made when served while in the North, you need to wait for the juice to be distilled from a filter.

Speaking of the titles, coffee with condensed milk in the South is locally referred to as “cà phê sữa đá” or “bạc xỉu”, while it’s commonly known as “cà phê nâu” (or brown coffee) in the North.

Writing about Vietnamese coffee always puts a smile on my face. Vietnamese cannot live without coffee just like the way the British people adore their tea and how Russians love Vodka. Being a traditional tea-drinking country in Asia, Vietnam still adopts this lovely bitterness and has turned it into an essential part of our daily life.

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