Vietnam is fueled by coffee.
And it’s not just the roast that delivers a great coffee experience here, it’s the setting you’re in and the people who surround you that create memories. I’ve had the pleasure of drinking it in just about every corner of this lovely country. I’ve sat alone in front of a fire in the pre-dawn chill of a Hmong homestay in the Ta Van valley near Sa Pa, waiting patiently for the drip drip of the coffee to stop so I could enjoy my first cup of the day.
I’ve been handed an icy cold milk coffee from a boat vendor at sunrise on the Bassac River in the Mekong Delta, smiling with her as I showed her photos on my phone that I took of her when I was there the year before.
I’ve also shamelessly enjoyed the cheap instant coffee that’s prevalent in every hotel room. And just this morning an elderly woman joined me at my table at a coffee cafe tucked in an alleyway, where we sat in friendly silence, enjoying the tranquil escape from the noise of the morning traffic. I sipped my iced coffee. She petted her old dog. I showed her photos of my family on my phone.
French colonizers brought the coffee plant with them when they invaded Vietnam in the 1800’s. Vietnam is now the second largest exporter of coffee in the world, with most of their beans making their way to Europe. The majority of the coffee is grown in the Central Highlands area of the country. The climate here is suitable for the Robusta variety, which in general has a higher level of caffeine and is a bit harsher in taste, almost grainy. However, the slow drip brewing process used in what is called a Phin (coffee filter) helps to mellow out the flavors and reduce the caffeine level. That, combined with the creamy and silky addition of sweetened condensed milk, creates a heavenly drink that is unique to Vietnam.
The basic Phin (drip) coffee
There are a few basic styles of coffee in Vietnam, and to order like a local, it’s important to know these words. All you have to do is combine them to order what you’d like, in this order: Coffee, black or with milk, hot or cold.
Cà phê – coffee
Sữa – milk (sweetened condensed)
Đen – black
Nóng – hot
Dá – ice
Cà Phê Sữa Dá / Coffee with Milk and Ice
Cà Phê Sữa Dá is very popular, and is by far my favorite coffee drink here in Vietnam. Super strong drip coffee is layered in a glass with sweetened condensed milk and ice. All it takes is a little stir, and you’re on your way to coffee bliss!
Cà Phê Sữa Nóng
For a hot version, you just need to order Cà Phê Sữa Nóng. It was my go-to on this trip when I stayed in a little bungalow at the An Bang Purple Homestay near Hoi An. Don’t expect it to be hot when it’s done brewing, though! It can take 10 minutes or more to finish, but it’s well worth the wait, and a great exercise in patience.
Cà Phê Đen Nóng
Straight hot coffee in Vietnam is serious business, but since coffee is always served with a cup of tea by its side, it’s not too shocking to the system. I enjoyed this little glass one morning while watching local kids on their way to school. Best part? Only 7k dong, which is $.33 usd. Location: 58 Chế Lan Viên, Bắc Mỹ An, Ngũ Hành Sơn, Đà Nẵng 550000, Vietnam
Cà Phê Trứng / Egg Coffee
The ultimate in decadence is Cà Phê Trứng or Egg coffee. It’s made by beating egg yolks with sweetened condensed milk for a long long time, then pouring over hot Vietnamese coffee. It’s a very unique and divine treat that’s rich with flavors reminiscent of creme brûlée or Tiramisu. The best place to find Egg Coffee is in Ha Noi, especially at the adorable Giảng Cafe, where it originated.
Coconut coffee is a fun drink to enjoy on a hot afternoon when you’re looking for a caffeine and sugar jolt. There are a few different versions, and I especially love the frozen style. Thick coconut cream, sweetened condensed milk and coffee are blended with ice, and topped with toasted coconut chips. At the Coco cafe in Da Nang, a little dish of toasted coconut is served on the side as well. Coco Cafe: 50 Chế Lan Viên, Bắc Mỹ An, Ngũ Hành Sơn
Instant Vietnamese coffee has saved the day for me many times. You’ll find packets of G7 in just about every type of accommodation in Vietnam. It’s a classic instant coffee, available in black or “3 in 1” with non dairy creamer and sugar. It’s rich and sweet, and packs a serious punch. They can be found in Vietnamese grocery stores in the US, or online.
Cà phê Chồn / Civet Cat / Weasel Coffee
Weasel coffee is another Vietnamese specialty, mostly in the Central Highlands area. Called Cà phê Chồn, or civet cat coffee, it’s a special brew that costs up to $30 per cup in cafes, and around $100 usd per pound. Phil and I tried it last winter in Da Lat, and while it was actually very tasty, with unique hints of chocolate and smoke, I do have to admit I’m a bit squeamish about the process. Civet cats like to eat the best coffee berries they can find. They don’t completely digest the beans, but their enzymes ferment them slightly. They excrete the beans into little clusters that look like PayDay candy bars. These are then gathered, cleaned, processed and sold as Weasel Coffee. It’s a delicacy that is appreciated by a lot of folks, and if you’re in Vietnam and want a full experience, then by all means give it a go!
Single Origin / New Generation Coffee Shops
More and more new coffee shops are opening around Vietnam with a focus on single origin roasts from around the world. It’s easy to find boutique cafes in larger cities that offer a variety of coffees brewed in many different ways, including Chemex, French press, Aeropress, syphon, Clever, or Moka pot. I found a delightful coffee shop in Da Nang called Gold Star, where the walls were covered with awards and recognitions of the owner’s accomplishments as a champion aromaster. Their single origin Ethiopian Guji was one of the best cups I’ve had anywhere, in a long time. So don’t feel that you’re relegated to strong Robusta brews in Vietnam. Definitely seek out the new generation of roasters.
Brew Your Own!
It’s easy to brew Vietnamese coffee at home. All you need is a Phin, which can be found at Asian grocery stores or online, some Vietnamese ground coffee, sweetened condensed milk, and hot water.
3 Tablespoons ground Vietnamese coffee (Trung Nguyen is a popular brand)
6-8 ounces hot water
3 Tablespoons (or more!) sweetened condensed milk
Spoon milk into a heat proof glass
Place filter over glass, add grounds
Bring water to just below boiling
Pour 3 tablespoons of water over grounds to allow them to bloom
Wait 1 minute, then pour remaining water into filter.
Cover and allow to drip.Drip speed can be adjusted by turning the center rod with the lid of the cover.
Stir and enjoy!