Vietnam is a country that runs on coffee. There is a cafe on just about every block in Saigon and Hanoi and they’re packed most of the day with a mix of locals leisurely sipping away enjoying the day and others grabbing a quick fix on their way to wherever they’re headed. The cafe culture in Saigon is why it’s one of our favorite cities in the world. To see the list of our favorite Saigon cafes, check out our post on it.
Coffee is brewed differently in Vietnam. It’s sort of a mix between the French press and pourover 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. It’s quite simple actually but the resulting coffee has flavor and depth that is anything but simple.
This is dark roast coffee. 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 ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk) or ca phe den da (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. (read more about bitterness in coffee here) Hot coffee is definitely 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 really 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.
I’m sure by now you’re thinking “But… I was told not to have ice in Southeast Asia. Isn’t the ice going to make me sick?” No. These days, if you’re eating out in a cafe or restaurant in a big city, the ice is clean and totally safe to drink/eat. So, order up.