I was twenty-five and living in Shanghai when I discovered coffee. After two years together at the time, Jess had finally convinced me to try it. Naturally, after having taken my first sip, I pledged a lifetime of prayer to the coffee gods and vowed to experience everything the world of coffee had to offer me. Thus, when we arrived in Hanoi last summer, and finally put our lips to the finest cups of coffee mother Earth might ever provide, I never ever wanted to leave.
So, how did Vietnam create a coffee culture to surpass all others?
Cà phê đá (translated literally and simply to ‘iced coffee’) is one of Vietnam’s greatest pleasures. While every exporter of coffee has its own variation of bean, Vietnam has built an entire coffee culture around its own home-grown coffee, and it really is one of the best things you can enjoy when visiting this wonderful country.
Quite simply, cà phê đá is a cold coffee made from locally-sourced Robusta beans, mixed with water and sweetened condensed milk. Consumed in abundance on every street in Vietnam, it is the perfect mix of dark roast and soft, sweet flavour and, on a hot summer’s day, it should absolutely replace iced lattes as your coffee of choice.
Vietnam sits comfortably on the ‘coffee belt’, but coffee wasn’t actually introduced there until 1857, when the French began providing Vietnam with many aspects of their own cuisine: foods and drinks which are still a staple part of Vietnam’s food culture to this day. But, being the passionate and creative nation that it is, Vietnam turned French baguettes into bánh mì, and French coffee into cà phê đá.
Vietnam’s imaginative variation on traditional coffee was originally born out of necessity, when the French saw that Vietnam had no dairy farming industry, and so resorted to using sweetened condensed milk combined with a dark roast coffee. This quickly evolved into the iced coffee that is now a staple of Vietnamese café culture today.
As Home Grounds points out, ‘Vietnam is a hotbed of Robusta growth. Indeed, Robusta plants make up 95% of their coffee plantations and they provide half of all Robusta grown in the world.’
Unfortunately, although it actually contains a higher concentration of caffeine, Robusta is the inferior bean to Arabica, and so condensed milk proved the perfect ingredient to turn Vietnamese coffee from something serviceable to something truly outstanding.
Where do I find it?
The simple answer to that is: everywhere. Every café in Vietnam, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, serves cà phê đá. However, the lead coffee chain (the Starbucks of cà phê đá if you will) is Cong Ca Phe. You’ll find these wonderful places in every district of Hanoi. They have a wonderful rustic, wooden aesthetic, and also serve Hanoi’s famous local egg coffee (cà phê trứng). To anyone who may have just twitched at the concept, I cannot blame you. But I might if you don’t try it at least once. Egg coffee is not an acquired taste; it is, simply, delectable. Strange in concept, perfect in execution.
There is one café that I wish to pay special attention to simply because it is my favourite in Hanoi, and that is Tranquil Books & Coffee. Nestled in the heart of old Hanoi, in the Hoan Kiem district, this little space is one of the most charming spaces you’ll ever inhabit; a perfect place to enjoy a real Vietnamese coffee. Take a book from the shelf and leaf through it as you enjoy their exquisite iced coffees.
For those who want to experience the origins of Vietnamese coffee, take a tour of one of these eco-friendly plantations in Dalat.
Find out more about our favourite cafes (including Tranquil Books) in East Asia here.