December 7, 2015

Time to Slow Down and Rediscover Vietnamese Coffee?


Sometimes you make unexpected discoveries that change the course of your life. For me, that discovery was Vietnamese coffee.

My main job in Vietnam was as a hotel manager, but I became stuck on this unique coffee and developed a serious passion for it. And it’s now my goal to share it with the world. How? Through my work as a coffee roaster.

SEE ALSO: Riding The Third Wave: What I’ve Learnt From Coffee Professionals Across The Globe

Vietnamese Coffee: A Traditional Taste

There is a deeply entrenched coffee culture here that I experience daily. There’s just one catch: despite being the second largest producer of coffee in the world, Vietnam isn’t known for producing quality coffee. That stereotypical dark, bitter “cup of joe” that costs less than a dollar? That’s probably Vietnamese coffee.

Not only that, but the roasters in Vietnam will often fake coffee by adding other ingredients such as soy beans, starch, artificial flavors, and even steroids. It’s all about low margins and high profits here.

Funnily enough, Vietnamese people are used to this taste – and actually enjoy it. Even I have it every once in awhile. How can you not, when it’s being served on every street corner and at every sidewalk café in town? For visitors to Vietnam, it’s worth visiting these places just to experience this generations-old coffee tradition.

But, in the end, it’s just not real coffee. It’s far from it. Thankfully, that’s all beginning to change.

street coffee vietnam

A typical morning in Vietnam’s roadside cafes. Credit:

Coffee Traditions Are Changing

Vietnam deserves great coffee. In fact, we can grow great coffee – it’s just a lack of knowledge and funding that prevents us from reaching our potential.

Fortunately, there’s a small but growing specialty coffee community who invest in proper processing and sustainable growing methods. It is these people that are beginning to change the traditions surrounding coffee in Vietnam.

For example, a friend of mine opened Break Time Coffee in the heart of the touristy area of Ho Chi Minh. Is his shop only full of tourists who crave Western-style coffee? Not at all. His café mainly attracts Vietnamese workers from the local area who crave that caffeine kick you get from proper coffee.

Another successful specialty coffee entrepreneur has opened Phuc Long Coffee and Tea. Phuc Long is essentially the Vietnamese version of Starbucks, but much better because the owner is an expert in locally grown coffees and teas. This café was one of the first to introduce Westernised drinks like cappuccinos, espressos, and blended iced coffees to Vietnam. Where other chains introducing similar drinks have failed, Phuc Long Coffee and Tea has succeeded.

But what makes them different? If you ask me, their recipe for success includes an understanding of local culture and tastes (as well as their affordable prices).

Slowly but surely, Vietnamese tastes are shifting away from fake, additive-filled coffee to the real deal. The press is also helping, with newspapers exposing scandals about the production of fake coffee. Even advertising and Western media like movies and TV shows are helping change people’s views on what kind of coffee they should be drinking.

Before, sanctions and strict Communist rule in Vietnam prevented people from having access to anything different than what they knew. Now modernization, globalization, and the far reach of international media have opened the doors to let new things in. Vietnamese people are demanding a piece of this globalization, and they certainly have a right to it.

With all of this rapid change, you might think that Vietnam is leaving behind its long, unique history of coffee. Luckily, that isn’t the case. Looking at the past and future of coffee in this country, we can begin to see the bigger picture.

Les Saigonais Fashion Coffee

Les Saigonais Fashion Coffee at 77-79 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Credit: Dietmar Vogelmann

The Real Meaning of Coffee in Vietnam

To see where Vietnam is going, we should see where they have come from. So what exactly is traditional Vietnamese coffee and what makes it so special?

It’s a super concentrated shot of coffee – around 25 g of coffee with a small amount of water – and served with sweetened condensed milk. It can be enjoyed hot or cold, and this preference can vary from region to region.

vietnamese iced coffee

A traditional Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê sữa đá). Credit: Tauno Tõhk, Flickr

Yet to me, it’s so much more than that short description. It’s about socializing, communicating, and savoring both your coffee and your time.

It’s easy to believe that Saigon has the highest amount of coffee shops in the world. They are everywhere, in every color, theme, price range, etc… But the one thing they all have in common is the ritual of taking the time to prepare and savor your coffee.

First, on entering the cafe, you sit down and relax. The waiter serves your glass with a little sweetened condensed milk on the bottom and a stainless steel filter on top. The coffee is in the filter, ready for you to prepare. You pour a little hot water on top of the coffee and allow it to bloom, with its flavours and aromas beginning to release. Once you pour the rest of the hot water, you can sit back and watch your coffee brew, falling into the condensed milk drop by drop. This part of the ritual can take a few minutes, allowing you time to relax in a busy and bustling world.

coffee advertisement

Sidewalk cafe advertising “Free wifi, great coffee”. Credit: Dietmar Vogelmann

The Vietnamese coffee ritual is almost a revolution against our fast-paced modern lives. It goes against takeaway coffee culture, rushing in and out of shops to sip your coffee in environmentally unfriendly cups. Vietnamese coffee isn’t for people who just want a caffeine hit. It’s for everyone who understands that good things take time. It makes you take a step back and enjoy the little things. This is at the heart of every cup of Vietnamese coffee, and the reason why it will stay the same no matter how much it changes.

flavoring coffee

Vietnamese coffee is often flavored with things such as French butter or rum. Credit: Dietmar Vogelmann

Stay tuned for our next article about Vietnam and its coffee culture. Perhaps brew yourself a good cup – and savor it – in the meantime.

Edited by K. Beard.

Perfect Daily Grind.