Coffee in Vietnam is as rich and convoluted as its culture – locals sip it from morning through night and gulp it down in a myriad of locations, whether that be in in old colonial cafés, elbow to elbow on makeshift street stalls with tiny plastic stools or on the front porch of open houses. The act of drinking coffee is a gathering for all ages and has become a custom deeply woven into the everyday fabric of Vietnamese society.
Along with paté, imperialism and baguettes, coffee sailed to the Vietnamese shores in the 19th century, where the vast mountainous regions scattered across the spine of the country provided the perfect setting for planting coffee beans. Initially, colonialists saw coffee as a lucrative endeavour rather than a product of enjoyment, and land was quickly turned to cash crops after their arrival. The Vietnam war, however, disrupted coffee production, and while the areas where coffee was growing remained largely unaffected, the people were not so lucky. Given the circumstances, the coffee industry was halted temporarily until around 1986 due to government restrictions. After the bans were lifted, privately owned coffee enterprises began to appear, and by the 1990s the coffee industry was in full flourish.
Despite coffee being a relatively recent addition to the menu in historical terms, Vietnam’s famously resourceful people have taken on pieces from their conquerors customs and moulded it into something entirely their own. And judging by the country’s exports of over a million tons of coffee every single year, it’s safe to say that their brews are a hit with coffee lovers worldwide.
The diversity of climate, landscape and altitudes found in the countryside means that the country is the perfect host for almost any species of coffee to grow in their ideal habitat. For those willing to dive down the coffee-nerd rabbit hole, there are two main approaches to the brew, and that simply depends on the origin of beans: a single origin (meaning only one type of bean species) versus a multi-original blend. The latter is ultimately superior, as blending a variety of beans adds a more complex and broad flavour to the final cup, giving a longer and more satisfying aftertaste. With Vietnam being such a melting pot of cultural influences, historical singularities and characteristic individuals it only makes sense for its coffee to reflect that enriched blended experience too.
The country’s main export comes from the Robusta bean, which has double the caffeine of the more widely available Arabica strain, and also explains why to the uninitiated Vietnamese coffee can feel like drinking a cup of straight rocket fuel. It is possibly also why it’s a nation of people that are dizzyingly busy at all hours. Despite the frenetic pace of life here, on any given street corner the preferred drink of choice is ca phé den (black coffee) – a slow-drip method that uses a small metal filter chamber called a phin to strain the liquid directly into a patiently waiting coffee cup. You’ll often find individuals perched on wooden stools in the afternoon, lingering for hours over a single cup – this is how you drink coffee in Vietnam. It is a time of reflection and a rare moment of pause while the world spins vertiginously around you. If you think that the traditional phin looks small it’s because it is. Only individual portions are squeezed out of the filter – this is no place for venti-sized monstrosities. Watching the caphé den slowly form drip by drip in front of you encourages slow-sipping, and when the coffee is this good you’ll want to make it last.
French colonialists may have introduced coffee to Vietnam, but the drink had to adapt on eastern shores to survive. Fresh milk was a scarcity during the 19th century and like the inventive geniuses they are, the Vietnamese flavoured the bitter black coffee with condensed milk, yogurt or fruit instead, all of which are now staple combos in many cafés. One of the cooler concoctions born out of this period of scarcity is the ca phe trung, that consists in whipping raw egg yolks and condensed milk together resulting in a rich and creamy drink that will send you straight into dessert-flavoured nirvana.
With a coffee culture that is as alive and buzzing as its own vibrant cities, like pretty much everything else in Vietnam, the coffee industry is in a state of constant change. Within the last few decades the country has become one of the world’s leading exporters of coffee, only coming a close second behind Brazil. The recent influx of economic growth has fuelled an enormous expansion in population, and the up and coming Vietnamese youth have a thing or two to say about coffee. Sleek and stylish coffee chain powerhouses are beginning to mushroom all over the country’s major cities, where waiters with hipster haircuts and colonial inspired uniforms will serve you endless variations of caffeine-milkshake medleys. For all of their Pinterest soaked atmosphere, the cafés still somehow manage to feel distinctly Vietnamese.
Some may worry that rising modern coffee trends might eventually swallow previously kept traditions in one swift gulp, however the Vietnamese are notorious experts in intertwining the two, and one stroll amongst any café-laden street will prove how. The sight of a couple of old men crouched over a game of checkers with a cà phê sữa đá in each hand is as equally as enchanting as stumbling upon a gritty and artistic hip café that still has hints of nostalgia in its every corner. One can only hope that Vietnamese coffee remains as it is today: powerful in both its stories and its caffeine.