In Saigon, coffee treats await you on every street corner – whether it’s at one of the many street side food stalls or the myriad quirky independent coffee shops that are popping up everywhere, at any given time of day you’ll be able to pick up a cup of brew for prices as low as less than a dollar.
But what is it about Vietnamese coffee that makes it so bloody good? And how do the Vietnamese like to drink their java?
Perhaps you’ve just arrived in Saigon or elsewhere in Vietnam and you have no idea where to begin your coffee journey. Or maybe you’re just intrigued by the way in which the Vietnamese like to drink it. In either case, we’ve put together a guide on Vietnamese coffee, and more specifically, the Vietnamese coffee scene in Saigon to help get you started.
What makes Vietnamese coffee so special?
I still vividly remember my first sip of Vietnamese coffee. Ankit and I had just arrived in Hoi An and we were having breakfast while enjoying the endless views of rice paddies. We were slightly jet lagged and in need of a kick, and as one of the things we were dying to try first was their coffee we decided to order an iced one each. Let’s just say, I wasn’t instantly enamoured – it tasted bitterly strong, and to make things even more unbearable, I discovered that it was served with sickly-sweet condensed milk.
Certainly not for the fainthearted.
Despite our taste buds’ initial resistance, however, with each sip both Ankit and I found ourselves exclaiming “this isn’t bad, actually.” By our second round we were both hooked on its caramel-like tastiness.
As I’m not exactly an expert on Vietnamese coffee and I cannot really say much other than “it tastes bloody good,” I decided to reach out to someone who knows a lot more about the subject. Barbara Adam moved to Vietnam in 2007 and now runs food tours in Ho Chi Minh City with her Vietnamese husband, Vu; she is also the name behind the successful food and travel blog The Dropout Diaries. She explains how the chocolate notes that are found in Vietnamese coffee come from roasting the beans with butter and fish sauce – doesn’t sound appetising, but we can assure you the result is a good one.
“This explains why sometimes you can see a bit of an oil stain on the top of freshly dripped coffee,” says Barbara. “The first few times I noticed it, I figured it was just a dirty cup.”
Barbara also explains how Vietnam is the world’s largest producers of Robusta coffee beans, which are considered to be inferior to Arabica ones. “It seems you can improve anything with a bit of butter and fish sauce, though,” muses Barbara.
What are the varieties and how do I know what to order?
Vietnamese coffee can be a bit mind boggling when you first encounter it. Luckily we’re here to help you through the maze! The main varieties you’ll see in coffee shops and at street stalls are as follows:
Cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk)
Cà phê đen đá (iced black coffee)
Cà phê sữa nóng (hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk)
Cà phê đen nóng (hot black coffee)
Our personal favourite is the iced coffee with condensed milk – it’s delicious and really has a kick to it. If you cannot take the sweetness, you can ask for it with fresh milk instead. Barbara also says that you may need to learn the phrase khong đường (no sugar) because if you order black coffee thinking it has less sugar, you’ll be in for a bit of a sweet shock. “Unless otherwise specified, black coffee is usually served with several teaspoons of sugar,” she elaborates.
Barbara explains that there’s also yoghurt coffee, which is something we’ve yet to come across, and egg coffee, which is a speciality of Hanoi that allegedly tastes like coffee-custard. Yes, you heard right – custard. I must try this out when I’m up north! Jodi from Legal Nomads who is based in Vietnam and writes mainly about the food she encounters during her travels wrote a little bit more about this delicacy and also offers a recipe that’s worth checking out.
How is it served?
A lot of the times the coffee will be served to you in the phin (the filter used to brew Vietnamese coffee), so you will have to wait for the ‘drip’ process to be completed before pouring the shot of coffee over your ice and condensed milk (in the case of an iced coffee). I remember Ankit and I fumbling around with it when we were presented with one because we had no idea what to do!
Where are the best places to try it in Saigon?
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is teeming with great coffee shops that not only serve great Vietnamese coffee, but that also offer a mean Italian coffee, too. You can also try the coffee for less than a dollar at the various street stalls around the city.
Here are just some of the places that we personally love:
By far my favourite place in Saigon, this ultra chic and inviting café has the most beautiful décor – the upstairs terrace, for example, has foliage growing up the walls and is adorned with fairy lights, while inside there are loads of inviting sofas and cozy corners for you to get lost in a book in while you sip on your coffee.
Their Vietnamese coffee offerings are exceptional, and I’ve sipped on many cà phê sữa đá while here. For those looking for something a bit different, I recommend the Sand Dune, which is two shots of espresso mixed with Baileys, Kahlua and rum – it certainly puts the I in Irish coffee. It’s the most delicious thing I’ve tried in a while.