What is the best Vietnamese “glass” of coffee?

Vietnamese coffee has gained its reputation over the years for its strong tasty flavour. What is its secret? Local journalist Nguyễn Lệ Diễm reveals it with distinctive cups of coffee. 

When the French brought the first coffee beans to Vietnam in the late 19th century, no one expected that the country would later become one of the world’s coffee kingdoms. Not only the second-largest coffee exporter after Brazil, but Vietnam has also created unique ways to enjoy “the favourite drink of the civilized world” - one of Thomas Jefferson’s famous quotes.

The first coffee trees – Arabica - were grown in the Northern areas, before spreading south and finding the best place for its ‘brother’ Robusta to grow in Tây Nguyên (the Central Highlands), thanks to the fertile basalt land. Then, like many others in the world, locals fell into what the Catholic Church once called “the bitter invention of Satan”.

Vietnam's coffee reputation has been growing - so what's the best glass of coffee you can find in the country? Photo by Tina Guina on Unsplash  

Phin to win

Thinking about a cup of coffee, however, we don’t think about espresso or a cappuccino but phin. It comes from the name of the device to brew coffee, “filtre” in French, which became Vietnam’s traditional style and is still favoured today.

The metal kit includes a filter chamber, a filter press, a cup spanner, and a cap. It’s laid over a small glass and coffee is put in the empty chamber before it’s filled to the top with hot water. Thereby, the coffee is brewed and drips into the glass.

“The best flavour is achieved in about five minutes because water that drips through after that time may not be adding a lot of flavour to the coffee,” said Hồng Ngọc, owner of a cafe in Trần Huy Liệu Street, Ba Đình District, Hà Nội.

Phin gives not only a good taste but is also a pleasure for people to watch the brewing process. That’s why glasses are usually used for it.

A Phin serve of coffee with ice. Photo: Nguyễn Lệ Diễm

“My favourite day is a Sunday afternoon sitting by West Lake with a cup of coffee. Watching drops of coffee slowly going down from the phin to the glass in the sunset is a special feeling. It’s a peaceful moment that the modern busy life seems to go slowly,” said Anh Quân, a graphic designer in Hà Nội.

Similar to Quân, Briar Hautapu, from Raumati Beach, New Zealand, also gets lost in the drops of Vietnamese coffee. In New Zealand, Hautapu would have coffee every morning out of habit but it was only when she moved to Hanoi to work as an English teacher in 2014, she found out coffee was more than a drink.

“The usual variety of phin I enjoy more for the all-around experience and feeling that I get sitting on the street watching everyone going about their business and just chatting to a mate,” she said. “The process is like nothing I’d ever seen before. To be honest, I didn’t know what to do the first time I was presented with it but I thought it looked kinda cool so I just observed and copied. It became one of my best experiences of going out here.”

Brown to wow

If you are a fan of đen, or black coffee, you would enjoy this strong coffee straight after it runs into the glass. But the favourite coffee in Vietnam is a little bit sweeter. It’s called nâu (brown), a short form for “brown coffee”.

The kit of Phin. Photo: Vietblend.

In nâu, instead of common fresh milk, condensed milk is used. Its origins trace back to when coffee first appeared in Vietnam: fresh milk was scarce and expensive as dairy farming was still in its infancy, so condensed milk - cheaper and more popular - was used as a replacement. Its rich taste has been preferred since then, with two versions of the drink: nâu đá (brown coffee with ice) for summer and nâu nóng (hot brown coffee) for winter.

“The flavour of the condensed milk through the phin is so good and my preference is to have it cold. In my opinion, it is the best way to kick start the day,” said Hautapu.

Nâu is usually confused with bạc xỉu, a more typical coffee with milk served in Hồ Chí Minh City. Actually, it’s more correct to think of it as milk with coffee. The name is a short way of a Chinese word after it was transliterated into Vietnamese as “bạc tẩy xỉu phé” which means “a white coffee glass”, offered by Chinese-owner cafes in Saigon in the early 20th century. This “Chinese-Vietnamese latte” was said to be invented first for women and kids who were not used to the bitter flavour of đen or nâu but could not help falling into the great smell of coffee. 

Another version of “white coffee” in which the “whitener” is not milk or cream as usual but a very special ingredient that makes it a unique coffee to Vietnam in general and Hà Nội in particular: egg.

Back again in the early 20th century in the shortage of fresh milk resulting in the expensive milk coffee that only rich people could afford, Nguyễn Văn Giảng, a bartender of the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hà Nội brainstormed to use egg to replace cream and milk to mix with coffee for a drink that suited everyone’s wallet. Both Vietnamese and foreigners fell into the unusual coffee with creamy flavour and smell of egg. Nguyễn Văn Giảng quit his job and opened Giảng Cafe in 1946, becoming one of oldest cafes in the capital today with its famous second-to-none egg coffee. 

A cup of egg coffee at Giảng Cafe. Photo: Nguyễn Lệ Diễm

After decades, although his special drink has been copied and offered in other places Hà Nội establishments, his recipe is still regarded as the best – it was even served at the 2019 US-North Korea summit between US President Donald Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un.

In the last few years, locals have added other ingredients to coffee to give more flavour options for coffee lovers, such as coconut milk and yogurt. Talking about coconut coffee with crunchy toasted coconut topping as Hautapu’s favourite, she said “I love everything about it. The different textures, the aroma, the flavour, the lot!  After you take it, the ice is so cold that you cannot drink it quickly so you’re kinda forced to savour it and get the absolute most out of it. The pride with which Cuong, owner of my preferred place in Yên Phụ Street, makes it adds to the flavour for me as well. And only VND40,000 (NZD2.45).”

In addition, salt is mixed in a nâu, firstly in Huế Central City before spreading to other neighbouring cities and provinces like Vinh, Nghệ An, and Đà Nẵng to become the typical coffee of the Central region.

Doo-doo to woo-woo

After the most popular kinds of coffee, there is a more special one which is considered as the best and most expensive, not only in Vietnam but also in the world. It is known as weasel coffee, similar to the infamous Kopi Luwak in Indonesia.

In Indonesia, Asian palm civets are raised and fed with coffee cherries to excrete special-taste coffee beans through their digestive process. However, in Vietnam, civets are naturally raised in coffee farms in Tây Nguyên to select the best coffee cherries themselves, according to Đặng Lê Nguyên Vũ, CEO of Trung Nguyên, the local leading coffee brand and only producer of weasel coffee.

An Asian palm civet. Image: Wikimedia Commons

These rare coffee beans collected from weasels’ droppings are washed, processed and roasted to produce only about 40-50kg per year. With US$3,000 per kilo, are you tempted to try the most costly coffee in the world? 

Coffee to please

Whatever kind of coffee, Vietnamese has their own style to enjoy it. In fact, we don’t just have it to wake up or add more energy. We can have it any time of the day. We do it a lot in the evening because “đi cà phê” (going to a cafe) doesn’t exactly mean that we are going to a coffee shop and having a cup of coffee but a “hangout” to us.

Usually, we go to cafes to meet friends, family and colleagues or to have a nice date: we’re going to a café, not for coffee, but for any other number of drinks available there. We love nice cafes and there are hundreds to pick visit.

A common ambience of a cafe in Vietnam. Photo: Nguyễn Lệ Diễm

Featuring various architecture, decorations or styles, they can be showy in a big street or hidden in small zig-zag alleys or in an old apartment building to surprise you.

It is where you can not only enjoy a good cup of coffee and a new and charming spot but also discover the lively ambience around. “To me, the biggest difference between the coffee here and New Zealand and Australia where I used to live, is, flavour aside, the experience and feeling that comes with it,” Hautapu said.

- Asia Media Centre