If you’re thinking about coffee, you probably stayed up a little too late last night and had to work a little too early this morning. Your mind drifts to one of the ubiquitous coffee chains; Starbucks, for instance. You just need that extra jolt that only a vaguely Italian-sounding beverage with three shots of espresso can give you, but knowing that, though not the best coffee you can get, not even in the top five, it’s still quick, convenient, and everywhere. You probably wouldn’t even consider going to Vietnam for some of, in my humble opinion, THE BEST coffee in the world.
That’s right. Vietnamese coffee is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. I wouldn’t call myself a coffee drinker, but I could easily gulp down three or four cups of the hot dark stuff per day. Plus, it’s everywhere! Coffee is so ingrained in daily Vietnamese life that nearly every city block has a family-owned (not chain) café serving delicious coffee at reasonable prices, about $2 US per cup.
Coffee production was introduced by the colonial French in 1857, and since then has grown spectacularly: coffee is now the second most valuable agricultural export in Vietnam (rice remains number one). After a brief halt in production during the Vietnam War, government reforms in the mid-1980s permitted private enterprise once again, and began renewed production of coffee beans. Today, Vietnam is actually the second largest producer of coffee in the world after Brazil, and anyone who has been to Vietnam can likely attest to just how good the coffee is, and just how easily you can satisfy your coffee craving, even if you’re not a regular coffee drinker.
Here are two coffees that are a must try if you’re ever in Vietnam:
Egg Coffee (cà phê trứng)
Egg coffee has been described as “liquid tiramisu”, which I think perfectly encapsulates the decadence and flavour of this coffee. A layer of strong dark coffee on the bottom is covered by a thick, creamy layer of beaten egg yolk, condensed milk, and sugar. The cream on top is so thick you can eat it all off with a spoon or you can mix it with the coffee and slowly sip it to satisfaction. My very first cup was absolutely euphoric. I don’t know how many times I spooned the cream up just to watch the thick, creamy river drip back down into the cup.
Giang Café in Hanoi claims to have first invented it sometime in the 1950s, when milk was scarce in Vietnam. The one downside to egg coffee is its availability: you’ll have a hard time finding it outside of Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh City apparently has a few cafés that are starting to sell it, but for now, nothing beats the sheer number of cafés in Hanoi where you can taste this extraordinary coffee.
Vietnamese drip coffee (cà phê đá)
Vietnamese drip coffee is a simple dark roast coffee that drips unhurriedly from a shiny metal French coffee filter onto a creamy, dense layer of sweet condensed milk, gradually blending together to create a smooth but strong tasting beverage. This style of coffee can be found throughout Vietnam, and can be sipped hot on its own, but I prefer to pour it over a glass of ice for a refreshing taste that cuts down on the strength of the coffee flavour.
I hope that now you will associate Vietnam not only with the war, pho, or where your clothes came from, but also incredible coffee. Coffee is an equal and integral part of Vietnamese culture and society. Whenever I pass a Starbucks, as much as I hold it to be the epitome of everything that is wrong about how we in North America consume coffee, I reminisce fondly about all the cafés, both bustling and quiet, both modern and rustic, that dot the crowded streets of Hanoi. And like I said before, I’m no coffee drinker, but maybe if North America learned a few things from Vietnamese coffee culture, my mornings and hell, even my evenings would go a lot smoother.