Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Vietnamese Coffee Primer

Except for the occasional cigar, I have few vices. I don't smoke, drink, or use drugs. But if you want my coffee, dammit, you're going to have to pry it out of my cold, dead hand!

I am a certifiable, hardcore, hopeless and irremediable coffee addict. You can forget about trying to cure me with 12-step programs, psychological counseling, appeals to health, politics, or morality: if there's coffee in the house, I'm going to drink it. And the word, "decaf," does not exist for me: it just isn't coffee if it doesn't make your forehead sweat.

The truth is, coffee was one of my main considerations in choosing Vietnam. It's as much a part of the national culinary culture as ph

The history of coffee in Vietnam dates back to 1857, when French colonists planted the first trees. The crop quickly caught on, and by the early 20th century, plantation-scale production was in full swing. Before the wars that destroyed Vietnam's economy in the middle part of the 20th century, coffee was Vietnam's second-most productive cash-crop (after opium). In the early 80s, Vietnam began making furtive attempts to rebuild its coffee production, and by 1996, Vietnam was the world's second largest exporter, after Brazil. 

Vietnam's sudden emergence as a coffee power, however, made the country notorious. The country was blamed for a worldwide collapse in coffee prices that devastated coffee producers from Mexico to Tanzania. Part of the fault lay in Vietnam's overproduction of the easily-grown Robusta bean (Coffea Canephora), as opposed to the higher-quality Arabica (Coffea Arabica), which requires more careful cultivation. Additionally, quality control issues contributed to Vietnam's reputation as a dumper of poor-quality product on the market. While multiple causes lay behind the price collapse (falling consumption, exploitation of market power by major retailers), even the Vietnamese government accepts that Vietnam deserved some share of the blame.

The push in recent years has been toward quality over quantity. Robusta production has been scaled back, and in many areas coffee has been replaced by other crops. Since joining the International Coffee Organization in 2001, the government has instituted better quality controls, and begun promoting the careful cultivation of Arabica beans in suitable locales. Increased cooperation between government and private growers has allowed Vietnam to become an exporter of gourmet coffees, sold mainly through the Trung Nguyen brand in Asian coffee shops, and increasingly to the West. Vietnam's goal is to have a stable production of 600,000 tons by 2010, two-thirds of its peak 2001 production, consisting of 70% Robusta and 30% Arabica.

More welcome still, to a coffee addict in Hanoi, is Vietnam's rising internal consumption. While more than 90% of Vietnam's coffee is still exported, improved coffee quality and a thriving economy have helped Vietnam resurrect the café culture of its colonial past. Vietnam's cafés range from roadside plastic chairs under a plastic tarp, to air-conditioned modernist hangouts with WiFi and $4 lattes. Aside from the yuppie Highland Coffee chain (there's no Starbucks in Vietnam - wanna read that again?), wherever you go the method of preparation is likely to be similar.
A good Cà Phê Phin is typically served while it is still brewing. A single-serving aluminum press sits atop a glass or ceramic cup. The press is filled with a few spoonsful of coarsely-ground coffee, and about four ounces of boiling water. It takes four or five minutes for the coffee to filter through. For those who want it with milk, a dollop of sweetened condensed milk sits in the bottom of the glass. The use of canned condensed milk was originally due to its easier storage in tropical temperatures, but long use has resulted in it becoming the taste preference of most Vietnamese. You may drink your coffee hot, or pour it over ice. 

I've heard Vietnamese coffee called an acquired taste, though I seem to have acquired it quickly. What is true is that it is strong - not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Part of the blame lies in the aforementioned Robusta bean, which produces a rougher, more bitter taste than most Western coffee aficionados are accustomed to; part of it lies in the density of the brew. While not as thick as Turkish coffee, the Vietnamese drink is dark and muddy. Vietnamese coffees are the Gitane cigarettes of the coffee world - made for hardcore drinkers. 

But the lure of Vietnamese coffee culture lies not only in the drink, but in the cafés. My favorite cafés are those with old-world charm, where one can imagine oneself part of the intellectual and artistic culture of early 20th century Indochine. While French colonialism was largely responsible for bringing to this country a café culture, the French found fertile soil in Vietnam's native intellectualism (this is a country, after all, which founded its first national university in 1076, when most Europeans were still hacking each other with pickaxes and living on gruel). Hanoi's old-world cafés evoke nostalgia for the colonial era, yet remain unapologetically Vietnamese. They are languid locales, places to relax and smoke, gossip and debate, and indulge in the Vietnamese love of conversation and wordplay. 

Because cafés are such a major part of my life here, I would like to describe for you a few of my favorite Hanoi cafés. This will be the subject of my next posting. 


  1. Thanks for your critical insights into VN coffee, it's history et al. The notorious Red Cup brand, sold now through-out the world is made of industrially reprocessed VN Robusta beans made functionial again, somehow, via the Willy Wonka magic of the Nescafe corp. Unsuitable for human consumption really, these vile beans are drank by VN with the white colored sugar ladened palm oil appealing to the base of the human pallet. This is why you like it. Guard yourself Cubanito!

  2. TL -

    I hope I didn't give the impression that I drink (much less like) instant coffee! Egads, man!


  3. splendid, splendid writing. some of the best i've read in a long time. very glad to have found your blog.

  4. Once again Hal, you evoke strong memories of why I loved visiting my country of birth. I can't wait to return in October to bathe in the leisurely cafe experience.

    So why is it, do you think, that Starbucks hasn't entered VN market? Mind you, I don't ever want to see Starbucks or other chains invade. Alas, last time I was in Saigon there were a lot of Pizza Hut/KFC stores.

  5. A broader view of coffee in Vietnam should include additional data. There are reportedly over fifty ethnic groups living in Vietnam. Many of these groups live in ancestral mountainous regions where coffee growing is ideal. Ethnic Vietnamese (the Kinh) are reported to have encroached into tribal areas to establish plantations creating friction with ethnic groups.

  6. Indeed, we could include a ton of additional data, not only regarding the loss of habitat for such ethnic communities as the Jarai, Bahnar and Ede, but the environmental impact of coffee production, which includes dioxin contamination of the coffee crop, deforestation and all its attendant effects... A whole new posting or two of additional data could be added...

  7. Can you still find "civet-cat coffee" (aka "fox-droppings coffee") in VN?
    I am a Vietnamese leaving on the US East Coast, and can't go through a day without drinking 4 or 5 Cà Phê Phin

  8. To quote John Lennon:

    "Instant coffee's gonna get you ..."

  9. Hello Hal,

    What a refreshing post you have here about Vietnamese coffee. Do you mind if I share your writing to friends? Will appropriately acknowledge you. I hope to get a yes :) My email address is:

    Many thanks!

  10. Hal,

    You stated, "...the Vietnamese love of conversation and word play." How perceptive you are and how utterly true this is. I hope you would consider a post about this fact someday as I would like to know why this is so with the Vietnamese.

    This request comes from a Vietnames American who probably knows less about his culture than you do.

    Thanks for all the positive things that you knowingly or unknowingly do for the image of Vietnam.