Without a doubt, coffee culture in Vietnam is more than just an easy jolt of energy to get through a long day of work or school – it’s a part of everyday life. Countless coffee shops line the urban streets of Saigon and Hanoi as well as small town roads, and no matter the time of day, they are a prime locale for socializing and relaxing.
And so it’s hard to believe that, at the turn of the 20th century, coffee was virtually non-existent in Vietnam. Like their Chinese neighbours to the north, the country instead had a strong tea-drinking tradition. Fast forward to the new millennium, and Vietnam is now second in terms of worldwide coffee exports (after Brazil).
Alongside national dishes such as pho (noodle soup) and banh mi (baguette sandwich), Vietnam’s ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk) is also gaining in popularity across the globe.
HISTORY OF COFFEE IN VIETNAM
The first introduction of coffee was documented in 1857 when a French Catholic priest brought an Arabica tree to northern Vietnam with hopes of establishing a small-scale venture. Though successful in his endeavours, it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the Robusta bean made its way to the country’s central highlands, where the region’s climate and soil provide optimal coffee-growing conditions. Over the coming decades, the industry would boom as plantations sprung up all over Dak Lak province and its surrounding areas.
But what really propelled Vietnam onto the world stage of coffee were the ‘Doi Moi’ economic reforms of 1987, which greatly opened the country for trade. Shortly after, Vietnam would overtake Columbia to become the world’s second largest exporter of coffee.
Today, Vietnam accounts for 20% of the world’s total production of coffee (and 40% of the world’s Robusta beans), exporting over 1,650,000 metric tons each year. And an estimated 3 million citizens depend on agricultural coffee industry — not including the employees of the tens of thousands of coffee shops nationwide.
CONDENSED MILK AS A SUBSTITUTE
Of course, one cannot overlook the origins of ca phe sua da’s other ingredient, condensed milk. Because dairy was (and arguably, still is) virtually non-existent in Southeast Asian cuisine, French nationals living in Vietnam had to import it from their mother country.
However, the sheer volume of fresh milk and a brief shelf life make transporting large quantities of it impractical. Both of these aforementioned problems are remedied by removing water from cow’s milk, resulting in a thick and highly sweetened liquid which can survive long voyages and be stored for many years.
And as luck would have it, sweetened condensed milk makes an ideal pairing with Vietnamese coffee by balancing out its intense Robusta flavours.
TYPES OF DRIP COFFEE AND THE SIGNATURE CA PHE SUA DA
Robusta accounts for 97% of all beans produced in Vietnam and is used in the country’s famous drip coffee. Not only is it stronger in flavour, but Robusta’s caffeine content is also nearly double than that of Arabica (roughly 2.7% vs 1.5%). Therefore, Vietnamese drip coffee is famous for putting the ‘robust’ in Robusta, with many first-time drinkers likening it to rocket fuel.
Coffee is made with a single-serving Vietnamese coffee press, known locally as phin. Coffee grounds are placed inside the phin, which sits atop a drinking glass. Hot water is poured over the grounds, which then soaks up the essence of the coffee beans as it ‘drips’ slowly into the glass over several minutes.
As for the main types of drip coffee, let’s first break down their literal translations:
|Vietnamese Word||English Translation|
When somebody orders a coffee in Vietnam, they typically ask for: coffee + [black/milk] + [hot/iced]
For example, ‘ca phe sua da’ literally translates to ‘coffee + milk + ice’ (iced coffee with milk) while ‘ca phe den nong’ means ‘coffee + black + hot’ (hot black coffee).
The former, ca phe sua da, is undoubtedly the favourite among Vietnam’s international tourists and rapidly gaining a foothold worldwide. Condensed milk is preferred for the smoother taste, while ice keeps travellers cool in the sweltering heat.
And in addition to traditional drip coffee are several other varieties including coconut coffee, ‘weasel coffee’ and egg coffee (which we will cover in a future article).
MAKING VIETNAMESE DRIP COFFEE
Though waiting for the dripping process requires a bit of patience, making Vietnamese coffee is relatively straightforward and can be made anywhere in the world provided one can find the ingredients.
To brew ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk) at home, you will need:
- Vietnamese coffee grounds: The two most prevalent brands are Trung Nguyen and Café Du Mond. Both can be found in Asian supermarkets as well as online retailers such as Amazon.
- Sweetened, condensed milk: Any canned brand from the grocery store will do
- Vietnamese coffee press (phin): Like coffee grounds, coffee presses are relatively inexpensive and can be found online or in an Asian market. They come in four pieces (plate, cup, press, lid), are reusable and machine washable.
For a single serving, prepare:
- Coffee grounds: 2 tablespoons
- Condensed milk: 1-2 tablespoons, to taste
- Boiling water: 150-250 ml (6-8 oz.)
- Glass of ice
- Pour the condensed milk into the bottom of the glass. You may start with a smaller amount (1 Tbsp.) and add more later to adjust sweetness levels.
- Place the plate/lower filter over the rim of the glass. Then put the cup/upper filter on top of the plate.
- Put coffee grounds into the filter. Gently place (or screw) the round press on top of the grounds.
- Pour just a small amount of boiling water into the filter. This allows the beans to expand and release C02. After about 30 seconds, fill the filter to the top with hot water, cover with lid, and wait approximately 5 minutes or until water stops dripping. (If you wish to dilute the coffee a bit more, you can add more water to the filter and repeat the dripping process)
- Remove filter and stir mixture with a spoon.
- Pour over ice and serve.
DISCOVER VIETNAM ON A HERITAGE LINE CRUISE
For those wanting to experience Vietnamese coffee first-hand, Heritage Line offers luxury cruises along the Mekong River in southern Vietnam as well as the spectacular Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay in northern Vietnam. On board, our baristas will happily prepare a signature coffee for you at any time of day! And while on land, make sure to pick up some coffee beans and a Vietnamese coffee press to take back home with you.