We both really like coffee. Before coming to Vietnam we read that this country is a coffee paradise with cafés everywhere. Since we did not find a lot of good coffee in Myanmar, we were really looking forward to the tasty black liquid. And indeed we were not disappointed, because “cà phê” is everywhere in Vietnam. The French colonists brought the beans and coffee culture during colonial times, hence the similar words. Coffee beans in Vietnam are grown mostly in the central highlands on small family farms. Some places like Dalat where there is volcanic soil are especially suitable for planting coffee. The typical Vietnamese coffee shop has low colourful plastic or wood stools, serves only coffee (and sometimes a bit of tea or juice) and is filled with customers at all hours of the day everywhere in the country. It is the place where Vietnamese go to meet their friends, take a short break and wake up. So, we were excited to join the culture.
However, the first cup we drank was quite a big shock for both of us… The strong, bitter, oily, yet somehow still sweet-ish taste was wholly unexpected. It was definitely coffee, but something else too. We like our espresso strong and dark but this was simply too much. (Tanja could not sleep until 5 am the next day after her first afternoon cup, haha.) In order to take the edge off, most Vietnamese drink their coffee with sweet condense milk or a lot of ice cubes. Neither of us likes sugar in our coffee, so the Cà Phê Sữa (hot drip coffee with condense milk, which is sweet per default) was not for us. Cà Phê (Sữa) Đá, which is coffee with ice (and condense milk) is also very popular and a good way to cool down on a hot day. If you like sweet coffee, you will be very happy in Vietnam!
Well, it took us about a full month in Vietnam to find out why the Vietnamese coffee taste was so damn strong. The easy and sort of official answer is:
- The beans are all Robusta which are more bitter and contain more caffeine than Arabica
- The beans are intentionally over-roasted to create this bitterness.
However, when we came to Phong Nha National Park (a night bus south of Hanoi) a young and passionate barista (see picture) finally provided us with some explanations about the strange, often slightly sweet and oily taste of Vietnamese coffee. It seems that everyday Vietnamese coffeeshops use beans that are not cleaned as thoroughly as in other places. So some of the peel may be left on and is getting roasted together with the beans, creating a bit of sweetness. Also, the beans are not thoroughly sorted on every family farm and broken ones are just left in the mix. Often oil or butter is later added to protect damaged beans from burning when they are roasted. Furthermore, some farmers and roasters mix in stuff like corn, butter and peanuts to improve the smell of the beans. Thus you get the sometimes slightly sweet and oily taste, that is popular in Vietnam. Our new friend from Phong Nha Coffee Station has made it his mission to promote high quality Vietnamese coffee without all the flavour enhancing additives and chemicals. He says he hopes he can change people´s minds to drink healthier coffee.
Further notes on coffee in Vietnam:
The usual way to drink coffee here is with a small drip filter like the one below:
There are some really crazy coffee variations. In Hanoi, for example, people love to drink “egg coffee”. We were very sceptical at first but then ended up really loving it! It feels like you are eating raw cake dough with a small spoon! Very delicious 🙂
Fear not, like almost all over the world there are some really hip specialty coffee shops opening up in Vietnam as well. Luckily they serve their coffee Vietnamese, Italian and hipster filter style.