Cà Phê is a phono-semantic matching of French café – “coffee”. In Vietnam, coffee is more than a beverage; it’s a way of life. The people there know how to drink, to appreciate and take the coffee culture as an integral part of their daily life.
One of the best things to do in Vietnam is about drinking coffee from a street vendor. It is considered as one of the most unique features in Vietnam street food culture.
Think of coffee and you will probably think of brazil, Colombia, or maybe Ethiopia. But the world’s second-largest exporter today is Vietnam. The coffee industry in Vietnam now employs about 2-3 million people, with beans grown on half a million smallholdings of two to three acres each.
Around the year 1890, the French were successful in creating a booming coffee industry in the Annam region (a long stretch of mountainous plateau extending through several countries). By 1950, a commercial processing plant was established and Vietnam became serious about coffee production. Although other countries in Southeast Asia (like Laos and Cambodia) were earlier contributors to the coffee trade, it was Vietnam that ascended the ladder to become the continent’s top producer
Unfortunately, the war left the country’s economy in shambles in 1975. When the Vietnam war ended in 1975, collectivising agriculture proved to be a disaster, and economic policies did nothing to help. In 1986 the Communist Party carried out a U-turn-placing a big bet, on coffee. Coffee production then grew by 20%-30% every year in the 1990s. Since then the market share jumped from 0.01% to 20% in just 30 years.
Vietnamese Coffee Culture
Vietnam is a country that adores its coffee. It’s not just a drink, but a social aspect of life, particularly in the capital city, Hanoi. Morning, noon and night, Vietnamese cups of coffee, the streets lined with quirky independent coffee shops, some fancy, others basic, the pavements outside filled with tiny plastic stools that are stacked and unstacked as people come and go. It’s a pretty remarkable sight, and this creates an electrifying atmosphere, coffee is for people of all ages and all classes, in this country it brings people together.
Coffee is brewed differently in Vietnam. It’s sort of a mix between the French press and pours over methods and despite producing great coffee, it’s surprisingly “low tech”. You won’t see any chem-lab looking siphons or giant blown-glass drip towers. Coffee is brewed in a little metal filter called a “phin”. Grounds go in, water goes in, and coffee comes out very slowly drips down into the cup. It’s quite simple actually but the resulting coffee has flavour and depth that is anything but simple. During the 19th century, when French introduced coffee to Vietnam, they struggled to get fresh milk like they were used to it, hence the use of condensed milk which didn’t go bad and was easily acquired.
In Vietnam, there are several coffee bean varieties; robusta varietals make up 97% of the country’s coffee output.
This abundance of variety is due to growing regions spaced throughout the country so that many different growing climates are utilised. As a result, the country offers a varying multitude of one-of-a-kind coffee blends. The final result is a mixture of superior taste, bolder flavours, and a lingering satisfying aftertaste.
High-end coffee shops in Western countries mainly buy Arabica coffee beans which contain between 1% to 1.5% caffeine. Vietnam has become an important source of the hardier and slightly more bitter Robusta bean which has a caffeine content between 1.6% to 2.7%.
Vietnamese coffee roasting preferences have been established for many years with many different methods implemented throughout the country.
Historically, Vietnamese coffee beans were roasted in a caramel-like oil (often mixed with sugar, vanilla and/or cocoa), which enveloped the coffee beans with a sweet coating- giving the coffee a rich unique flavour. The coating also darkened the colour of the beans during the roasting process, without burning them, which gave the batch as a whole a more uniform look and taste.
Modern-day Vietnamese coffee growers do not usually use the above method and rather roast their coffee beans in a “butter oil”, which helps the beans roast more evenly.
In Vietnam, the main climate-related concern is increased instances of extreme weather, especially droughts. Experts predict that rainfall will decrease by as much as 20 mm annually and that the dry season will be up to 3 months longer than usual by 2050. These disruptions to weather patterns are particularly dangerous to the coffee industry, as farmers rely on precise timing to maximise yield and quality. For example, coffee farmers must plan so the coffee plant flowers at the height of the wet season.
Furthermore, rising temperatures are predicted to reduce the area suitable for growing coffee by 50 per cent by 2050. The warmer climate could shift the Coffee Belt north and leave much of Vietnam outside the belt. The changing climate and uncharacteristic weather patterns will also make pest control much more difficult. Any further warming will lead to an explosion of pests and pesticides, which farmers would need to combat.
The coffee price in the world market fell to its lowest point since 2016. It’s hard for farmers to make profits as a result. Many households in Đắk Lắk province have scaled-down investments, destroyed old coffee gardens which give low yields and have shifted to grow durian and other crops which can bring higher value. The income of coffee farmers is 40-50 per cent lower because of the increased input materials and labour costs.
To minimise climate-related damages Vietnam’s coffee industry, Vietnam needs to diversify the types of coffee grown in Vietnam. The industry currently specialises in one species of coffee: robusta. This homogeneity puts the coffee plants at risk of damage if a pest or disease were to attack the plants. Something as simple as helping farmers to switch to more drought-resistant varieties of the coffee crop could protect livelihoods and prevent hunger. Introducing new types of coffee could make the industry more resilient to pests, which is crucial since pests proliferate in the new, warmer climate.
Diversification would also be beneficial to the soil. The current homogeneity means that the same nutrients are being stripped from the soil season after season, leading to bare and arid soil and dangerous run-off. Because their soil is depleted, many farmers are over-fertilising their fields, causing even more run-off and pollution. A more diverse coffee crop could change the nutrients that the plant consumes, giving the soil a chance to replenish the nutrients.
It is important to train farmers to use cover crops in coffee’s off-season. Cover crops would hold the soil in place, prevent run-off, and put essential nutrients back into the soil. The farmers could also harvest and sell the cover crops, thus getting an extra source of income.
It’s also recommended that farmers plant canopy trees in their coffee plantations. These trees would provide crucial shade to coffee plants, as drought and heat become more severe. The canopy trees would also play a similar role to cover crops and prevent run-off and keep nutrients in the soil. Many farmers in Vietnam already employ this technique and use fruit-bearing trees, such as the Durian Tree, to provide shade for their coffee trees, and as a second source of income by selling the durians.
Protecting water supplies – and making sure that water is not being wasted – will be vital in a changing climate.
And to do these, Vietnam needs to set out “concrete solutions” and an economic plan.
Some coffee styles that you should not miss!
Coffee in Vietnam is dark roasted. Very dark. It has its roots in the French colonial occupation of Vietnam but has evolved into an entirely different beast. If you want to drink like a local in the cafes of Vietnam, there are only two drinks you need to know – cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with milk) or cà phê đen đá (iced coffee, black). Vietnamese coffee is fairly bitter because of a combination of factors. The high percentage of robusta beans in most blends, the darkness of the roast, and the cool temperature of the brew all contribute to bitterness. This is balanced with milk and or sugar. Hot coffee is available but, for the most part, locals stick to the iced stuff because it’s usually hot enough outside to boil the water for your coffee on the sidewalk. The other problem with ordering hot Vietnamese drip coffee is that by the time it finishes dripping 4-5 minutes later, you just end up with a warm-ish cup of coffee. In Vietnam, the only drink that makes you look more like a local than iced coffee is iced beer.
Saigon and Hanoi locals have their special coffee styles that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. If you are a person who has a sweet tooth, “bạc xỉu” of Saigon is worthy of trying. With the main ingredients are milk and condensed milk, just a little of coffee, it is sweeter than cà phê đá and has its unique taste. In Hue is the salty coffee cà phê muối.
In Hanoi, egg coffee called cà phê trứng is a signature of Hanoi coffee culture. This is a cup combined of egg yolks whipped with condensed milk, black coffee, and is drunk while still hot. The latest trends are yoghurt coffee–sữa chua cà phê and iced coconut coffee-cà phê dừa.
Hidden down narrow alleyways, tucked away in forgotten colonial villas, or concealed in enigmatic old apartment buildings, there’s a whole subculture of ‘indie’ cafes in these cities like Huế, Sài Gòn and Hà Nội. These coffee shops offer a unique kind of ambience, décor and intimacy that are worth a visit. Below are our recommendations:
100 Trần Huy Liệu Street, Phú Nhuận, Sài Gòn
4th Floor, Old Apartment Building, 14 Tôn Thất Đạm Street, District 1, Sài Gòn
NGÔI NHÀ SỐ 7 CAFÉ
7 Ngô Thời Nhiệm Street (alleyway 17), District 3, Sài Gòn
GHẾ ĐẨU CAFÉ
28 Hoa Mai Street, Phú Nhuận, Sài Gòn
NGÁCH 160 COFFEE SHOP
160/29 Bùi Đình Tuý, Phường 12, Quận Bình Thạnh, Sài Gòn
CÀ PHÊ 81
28 Nguyễn Hữu Cầu, Tân Định, Quận 1, Sài Gòn
142 Đặng Thái Thân, Thuận Hoà, Thành phố Huế
13 Dinh Tien Hoang, Hoan Kiem, Hà Nội
2nd Floor,8 Chan Cam, Hang Trong, Hoan Kiem, Hà Nội
2nd Floor, No.1, Ta Hien Street, Hoan Kiem, Hà Nội
HIDDEN GEM COFFEE/ QUÁN CÀ PHÊ TÁI CHẾ Ở Hà NỘI
3B Hàng Tre (in the alley – trong ngõ) Hà Nội
THE HANOI SOCIAL CLUB
6 Ngõ Hội Vũ, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
35A Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội