In modern Vietnamese society, the presence of coffee permeates the lifestyle and culture of nearly everyone. Elderly men congregate early in the morning at cafes to sip on a few cups of coffee while discussing politics or the daily news, and during lunch hour many office workers stop by their neighborhood coffee shop to get a boost of energy for their afternoon shift. In the evenings and throughout the night, youth and adults alike gather with friends and family to hang out at coffee shops to socialize or even sing karaoke.
But although it may appear that coffee is an essential part of the traditional culture, the beverage has only been popular since it was first introduced by the French in the mid 1800’s. Today, Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee, and the local population demands an abundant supply.
Most coffee grown in Vietnam is of the Robusta variety. The beans are normally roasted over low heat for a long period of time until they turn dark and oily, and the French roast gives it a rich full-bodied vaguely chocolaty flavor.
Vietnamese coffee is often brewed in something known as a phin (from filter, with the ‘l’ pronounced as an ‘n’), a simple device that’s essentially a single cup metal strainer. The coffee grounds are placed at the bottom of the cup and pressed down firmly with a perforated tamp before the metal canister is filled with boiling water. The liquid slowly percolates through the tamp, through the grounds, and trickles into the cup below. The slow, drip-drip-drip allows the hot water to fully extract the flavor and caffeine from the beans, resulting in a thick, jet-black liquid.
Rather than adding fresh milk, cream or sugar, Vietnamese coffee is enhanced solely with a few spoons of sweetened condensed milk straight from the can. The condensed milk is added to the base of the glass before the coffee is dripped on top, remaining separate until given a swift stir to combine the two ingredients. The combination can be ordered in both hot and cold form, but the cold version, served with a cup of ice cubes on the side, is the prominent local favorite.
While many consider coffee to be synonymous with espresso, Americano, or cappuccino, you won’t find any of these familiar beverages in a local Vietnamese coffee house. Instead you’ll discover a selection of coffee choices that have been created to fulfill a Vietnamese taste - thick strong brews that are distinctly creamy and often served over ice.
From chaotic street-side cafes, to peaceful indoor social parlors, coffee shops in Vietnam are omnipresent and vital to the day-to-day social life of the average Vietnamese person. Learning to enjoy coffee the Vietnamese way is not only a valuable way to learn about the culture of Vietnam and build relationships, but also an irresistible treat for any coffee lover.