This posting is dedicated to my coffeehouse-aficionado friend in San Francisco/Oakland, Mark. Mark and his son are planning a trip to visit us in Việt Nam, so I want him prepared for the very pleasant Vietnamese customs in the coffeehouses. And there must be a million coffeehouses in Việt Nam. One for every 80 residents doesn't seem out of line -- maybe there is more than a million.
Việt Nam is the second largest exporter of coffee beans in the world, behind Brazil, according to INeedCoffee.com. They also drink large quantities within the country. Cafés in Việt Nam are busy all day -- there does not seem to be a coffee hour in Việt Nam life.
Cafés only serve beverages including tea, sodas and fruit drinks. Rarely have I seen pastries or other snacks in a Vietnamese cafe. If you want snacks to eat with your cà phê, you buy it at the stand maybe 10 meters away and bring it back to the café. Conversely, Vietnamese rarely order cà phê in a restaurant -- coffee drinking is a ritual and pleasure to be savored on its own at a café. And they do spend a lot of time at it. They take their time and don't just throw it down to get the caffeine rush going as soon as possible. They enjoy relaxing in the coffee chairs and talking with their friends, building relationships.
Unlike the USA where Starbucks has homogenized the coffeehouse scene, there are all kinds of cafés in Việt Nam, beginning with streetside chairs set up and a cloth sign. I usually recognize them without a sign because of the lounge chairs called "coffee chairs".
A basic black hot cà phê runs as low as 3,000 VN dong (US 19 cents) at these kind of places. There are also many housewives that make and deliver cà phê drinks to their neighbors or local businesses on a phone call.
Next up is the hole-in-the-wall cafe that spills out onto the sidewalk in front.
And its closest cousin is the house front-room set up with coffee chairs, again spilling out onto the sidewalk or street. The basic cà phê runs around 5,000 VN dong (US 31 cents) at these places. From there it is a quick step up to a sizable corner shop with lots of chairs and tables. Cà phê at this point runs about 7,000 VN dong (US 44 cents).
These are good places to survey the street scene and people-watch.
At the top of heap are the coffeehouses. There are no Starbucks in Việt Nam (yet). They would have very strong competition at the get-go from an ubiquitous chain of 400 coffee houses called Trung Nguyên. Trung Nguyên has a distinctive logo that is recognizable immediately. Most of their city coffeehouses feature terraces as well as air-conditioned interior cafếs.
Like Starbucks, there are several choices to be made when ordering, particularly with regard to the type of coffee bean blend. Basic Trung Nguyên cà phê runs around 18,000 VN dong (US $1.13) In addition to Trung Nguyên, there are many more terrace cafés in the cities, and the newest have design features common to the most expensive restaurants. Coffee runs to U.S. prices at these trendy places.
I have noticed that these establishments draw a heavy business clientele during business hours, and a "dating" clientele in the evenings.
Very few of the cafés in Việt Nam serve machine-made drinks like cappuccino or lattes -- these drinks can be found in tourist areas around major hotels. Vietnamese cà phê has a very distinctive strong complex (rather chocolately) flavor. It is brewed in a metal filter over the cup or glass, and takes only enough water to produce a very strong espresso-sized cà phê. From here, this cà phê is either drunk hot, or most often in Việt Nam, iced. The cà phê almost always comes with tea, hot or iced to match your coffee drink. Mark, your guidebooks are going to tell you to avoid drinks with ice because the ice is made with city water, and presumably the city water has enough bugs remaining to bug foreigners. But I have taken noodlepie's advice and don't worry about it. My own 100+ iced drinks in Việt Nam over the past two months have confirmed his study results -- it's OK.
Most Vietnamese love evaporated condensed milk to be added to the coffee, and I have surprised myself by choosing cà phê sữa (milk) đá (iced) as my afternoon favorite for coffee. The coffee is made as usual with the filter, but set up over a cup or glass with the condensed milk at the bottom.
The result is a layer of hot cà phê over the layer of milk. Then you mix the two thoroughly together.
(This takes some time, and the coffee servers often will do it for me whether I want them to or not -- and Mark, that is all they do).
The result tastes a little bit like a chocolate milkshake and is very refreshing in the 95° F. heat common to Hồ Chí Minh City in the afternoon.
If you are a coffee lover like Mark and I, Việt Nam is the place to indulge in flavorful coffee at very good prices and in settings conducive to enjoying the habit.