When I first visited Vietnam a decade or so back, I had no idea about Vietnamese coffee. After a couple of days of ordering an espresso and being sadly disappointed, I was ready to give up on coffee while in Vietnam. That’s when a fellow traveler told me, “You haven’t had Vietnamese coffee? Oh my God, you have to get it!”
That’s when I tried a Vietnamese coffee and was instantly converted.
How Vietnamese Coffee Is Prepared
Traditional Vietnamese coffee is brewed in a small drip filter device called a phin. The coffee is pressed into the phin and water is poured over that. The coffee drips into the cup below.
In that cup is, invariably, about a tablespoon of sweetened condensed milk.
I have to admit, that when I came home to Australia, extolling the virtues of the delicious coffee, most people were horrified by the idea of sweetened condescended milk in cofee. It’s something you have to try to appreciate how good it is.
As simple as this brewing process looks above, when I came home and experimented on my own, I found it deceptively hard to do well. I wavered between a brew that dripped so slowly it was cold before I got to drinking it. Or it dripped quickly but was weak and mean to drink. (I found I got my best results when using a French press.) The coffee is pressed into the phin by a small tin lid. Getting the right amount of coffee and the right pressure eluded me. Eventually, I gave up, using a French press to brew my Vietnamese coffee, and more lately an Aeropress.
How Vietnamese Coffee Is Roasted
This varies a lot from one roastery to another. Vietnam now grows some of the best coffee in the world. The area around Dalat is ideal for growing Arabica beans. But until recently much of the coffee grown was Robusta. This was roasted with sugar or clarified butter to remove the bitterness inherent in this coffee. The resultant caramelly chocolatey coffee mixed perfectly with sweetened condensed milk to create the special and delicious brew that is Vietnamese coffee.
The video below by Best Ever Food Review Show gives a good insight into what gives Vietnamese coffee its distinct flavour.
Vietnam is now the 2nd highest producer of coffee worldwide. This increase in coffee-growing has mainly been in robusta beans, but has also spurred the growth of some of the world’s best arabica in the highlands. The arabica beans aren’t roasted in the robust fashion you see in the video above. They roasted with the same care and attention to details your favourite coffee roaster in Australia lavished on their beans.
What's Happening With Coffee In Vietnam These Days
In Vietnam these days, it’s not unusual to see espresso machines. I’m a “when in Rome” kind of person, much preferring an expertly prepared Vietnamese coffee over second-rate espresso. Even ordering Vietnamese Coffee can be a bit fraught though, with the new-fangled espresso machine being celebrated for use in brewing the coffee. This amalgam of Vietnamese and Western styles doesn’t make for a great experience.
In many places though, they’re embracing their own coffee culture and growing that tradition. This is true in small boutique coffee shops and large coffee chains like Highlands Coffee. Hoi An Roastery is, like it sounds, a series of cafes in Hoi An. They specialise in making Vietnamese coffee. While not the best coffee I enjoyed in Hoi An, it’s a solid choice for very acceptible coffee if you don’t want to take a punt on some random cafe. (Hint: try the small shops until you find that truly exalted coffee, then stick with it. My favourite Hoi An coffee shops were Phin Coffee and Faifo Coffee. I’ve had amazing coffee all over Vietnam (and some disappointing), from the big chains to street coffee sipped while sitting on those ubiquitous tiny plastic seats they use in Vietnam.
I’ve also experienced the flipside of that, which is Nescafe instant coffee. Coffee in Vietnam was for many years the pursuit of tourists and a few locals with money to afford coffee. The rest drank tea. I’ve experienced the most delicious fresh-brewed coffee at tiny roadside stalls. But with many Vietnamese quite new to coffee, they’re not experienced with the flavours, and a bit of Nescafe is considered pretty good by many. It’s always disappointing to travel thousands of miles to end up in a market stall drinking instant coffee. Sadly, instant coffee and articificial coffee flavourings and so normal to many Vietnamese, they’ll actually prefer these flavours to more complex flavours of your gourmet coffee.
If You Love Vietnamese Coffee...
Or Just Want To Give It A Try
At quan 55 they make Vietnamese coffee just like what you’d enjoy anywhere in Vietnam. They use Trung Nguyen coffee brewed in phin, with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk. You can serve this over ice, for an iced coffee, or drink it as a hot coffee. If you’ve had Vietnamese coffee and you’re hankering for that flavour, then book a table or drop in for a meal and finish with a coffee.
This video (to the right on desktop, above on mobile) is from the quan 55 Instagram feed. As you can see, they use the traditional phin filters to make their coffee. Once it has filtered through, enjoy it was some sweatened condescned milk or as the most delicious iced coffee you’ve ever had.