One of what my travelers like the most in my street food tours is the Vietnamese coffee experiences. Some like hot coffee, some like it with ice and other would definitely go for the most popular version of it - caphe sua da (coffee with sweeten condensed milk and ice), regardless of what they try, they are all happy with it. Beside the image of the black coffee dripping through a tin filter into the condensed milk at the bottom of the cup, here is what I love to share with my travelers about Vietnamese coffee today.
First, Background of Coffee Beans in the World.
There are several species of coffee that are grown on the global, including Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa and Catimor. However, Arabica and Robusta are two main kinds of coffee beans being purchased around the world. In which, about 70% of the global coffee production is the Arabica bean, as Arabica coffee has smooth flavor and slightly sweet in taste, less caffeine (around 1.5%), more sugar content (twice as much as Robusta beans), and it has about 60% more lipids. It’s harder to grow the Arabica bean, and it’s produced mainly in Latin America and Central Africa.
Only 30% of the global coffee production is the Robusta bean, of which Vietnamese coffee contributed about 95% - making it the 2nd largest producer of coffee in the world (after Brazil). The Robusta coffee has bitter flavor and a bit harsh with a grainy taste, more caffeine (around 3%), and it is often used to make instant coffee. Robusta coffee is easier to grow, and commonly seen throughout Southeast Asian, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Therefore, because of the taste, Arabica beans are used more widely than the Robusta, which has often been described as tasting bitter or like “burnt rubber”. That leads to the fact that the Robusta makes up only 25% of coffee available in stores around the world, and usually blended with the Arabica to improve the flavor.
Second, Coffee Production in Vietnam.
With that said, Vietnam produces a huge amount of coffee, we are currently the world number one producer and exporter of Robusta coffee, second only to Brazil in term of volume. However, to be honest, our Vietnamese coffee is strong and quite bitter!
Due to the vast availability and reasonable value, even the only Robusta crop that lasts from November to February, the country has become an important source of Robusta coffee for many large coffee roasters in the world.
If we have a closer look to the geography of coffee production in Vietnam, we will see that about 80% of Vietnamese comes from the central highlands, in which 45% of the national coffee output originated from Dak Lak province. Most of our coffee plantations are small and medium sized owned by local growers, the state owned Vinacafe group owns some large areas but only accounting for about 5% of all plantations.
Our ripe coffee cherries are hand-picked by farmer between November and February. After picking up, the cherries are dried in the sunshine, or by using mechanics, before being packaged in bags and stored for later sale.
In 2018, Vietnam exported nearly 2 million tons of coffee, mostly to Algeria and North Africa, other markets are North America and Europe. In which, Robusta coffee makes up more than 85% of the total import value. Today, coffee exports account for nearly 10% of the country’s total shipment of agro-forestry-fisheries.
Third, Vietnamese Coffee Culture.
For centuries before the arrival of the French, who brought with them coffee in the 1890s, Vietnamese were mostly tea drinkers. Teapots and cups are the must-have at every household, and when someone visiting our family, the first thing we do is to invite them to drink some tea. But, right after gaining the independence, the Vietnamese turned the French baguettes into the famous Banh Mi, and French coffee into the well-known Caphe Sua Da.
Caphe Sua Da, literally translated as sweetened condensed milk with iced coffee, is the most popular way of drinking coffee throughout Vietnam, from the streets to the high-end cafe lounges. The drink is called Nau Da in Hanoi, which is understood as iced brown coffee. As mentioned above, Robusta coffee are strong and bitter. So the use of sweetened condensed milk with a dark roast Robusta coffee proved the perfect combination that turns our coffee from something serviceable to something truly outstanding.
Everyone can find Caphe Sua Da at almost anywhere in Vietnam, if you are trying not to drink sweet drinks, then go for Caphe Da – which is coffee with ice (aka Den Da – iced black). Beside black and brown coffee, you will also find that Hanoi is famous for the Caphe Trung, or the egg coffee.
One of the first thing a traveler notices on the streets of Vietnam, beside a sea of mopeds, is the endless appearance of coffee shops. So the best way to culturally immerse is to sit down with the local at a sidewalk coffee. This way you will be surrounded by hundreds of other local perching on plastic stools, and sip through a cup of Vietnamese coffee like a Vietnamese does.
At Trung Nguyen Coffee, the Vietnamese equivalent of Starbucks, with some 800 coffee shops throughout Southeast Asia. Fellow patrons were largely beatnik-inspired youths, government officers and businessmen. Coffee is taken seriously here, with beans from Italy, Brazil and Ethiopia, but it was carefully blended and roasted in authentic Vietnamese deep butter-roast, so it deserves more exploration.
At Highlands Coffee, founded in 2002 by a Vietnamese-American and sold to the fast food giant Jollibee in 2012, Highlands Coffee now owns 230 cafes mostly in well-known buildings and malls in big cities. Highlands Coffee reflects the hand-selected seeds on each best quality coffee beans, roasted fresh daily, and serves a modern Vietnamese lifestyle.
At Cong Caphe, one of the most uniquely designed cafes in Hanoi and other big cities, the ambience recalls the old days of youth brigades state ownership with Russian-language schoolbooks, war-era paraphernalia and propaganda posters. With the local youngsters, it’s great to have a cup of coffee in such an interesting communist theme café and listen to some Vietnamese tunes.
At Aha Cafe and so many other sidewalk coffee outlets, where the images of small, crowded sidewalks with a sea of locals perching on plastic stools and concentrating on reading the newspaper, smoking or chatting with friends… beside cups of coffee has become very familiar in Vietnam.
There are streets where the entire sidewalks are occupied by coffee shops, where plastic chairs are both used as chairs and tables. The drinks are simply a cup of coffee, tea, lemonade, or orange juice and a plate of sunflower seeds. These coffee shops are always crowded from early morning to late evening. The guests are diverse, ranging from the elderly, office workers, students, from young couples to groups of men and women.
Alright, where do we try Vietnamese Coffee in Hanoi?
Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An and Saigon remain the undisputed centers of coffee culture in today Vietnam. While modern-style coffee shops have grown in popularity, traditional sidewalk cafes still fill up from morning to night with drinkers of all ages, who linger for hours over a single glass.
Caphe Duy Tri at 43 Yen Phu Street is known for their high quality coffee since 1936, Caphe Giang at 39 Nguyen Huu Huan Street is famous for their egg coffee since 1946, Highland Coffee and Trung Nguyen Coffee outlets offers a modern look at the Vietnamese taste with modern living styles.
So, what to do When You are in Hanoi?
While reading to this part of this article, I assume that you are either a coffee lover or coffee seeker. Both of the cases are good, especially when you are in Hanoi. Why? Because a Hanoi Street Food Tour will expose you to not only the street food but also the delicious coffee and drink that the city has to offer.