Finding Great Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City


Finding Great Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City

Other than Brazil, no nation produces more coffee than Vietnam. Introduced by French colonists in the 19th century, the country’s coffee crop is now a $3 billion business and accounts for nearly 15 percent of the global market, making Vietnam the java giant of Southeast Asia.

Quality, however, has only recently begun to catch up with quantity, mainly because farmers have begun augmenting Vietnam’s longtime cultivation of cheaper, easy-to-grow robusta beans with a connoisseur’s favorite, arabica.

A major beneficiary has been the cafe scene in the country’s largest metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon). Thanks to direct crop-to-shop supplies, the retail business of coffee is booming as increasing numbers of indie roasteries and specialty coffeehouses sprout up around the city’s French colonial opera house, amid the megamalls and boutiques of fashionable Dong Khoi Boulevard, and in the shadows of the high-rise towers in District 2.

From semi-hidden bohemian hangouts such as RedDoor to stylish chains like Laviet — which has its own coffee farm near Dalat, in the country’s central highlands — the city has a cafe for nearly every coffee acolyte.

Given the exceptional bitterness and caffeine wallop of most robusta beans, it’s little wonder that the Vietnamese have traditionally softened their coffee with a thick dollop of sweetened condensed milk, creating an almost milkshake-like concoction.

For your initiation into this national classic, head to this humble hole-in-the-wall, the oldest existing cafe in town, in a low-lying, off-the-radar pocket of District 3 not far from Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, known for its musical instrument shops. Here, the stoic Madame Suong and her two sisters perform the ritual that their family has been practicing since the 1930s.

As sentimental Vietnamese pop songs echo off the sky-blue walls, tiles and peeling ceiling, the women work under a single bulb in the small kitchen, filling hand-held cloth nets with a mix of robusta, arabica and culi (also called peaberry) grounds and passing them through boiling pots of water heated by a charcoal fire in a repurposed American oil drum. After a second pass through the water — stored a few days beforehand in vast clay pots to allow impurities to sink to the bottom — the potent brew is then poured into highball glasses and mixed with condensed milk.

If the result (25,000 Vietnamese dong, or about $1) still isn’t sufficiently creamy for your taste, ask for a special embellishment: a dab of French butter.

Even sweeter concoctions await inside Lacaph, a classy new coffeehouse in District 1, just off Rach Ben Nghe, the slim urban canal that snakes through the city. Decorated with dark wood paneling and track lighting, the cafe serves lemonade (80,000 dong) combined with coffee-blossom honey and a dose of coffee brewed in a traditional Vietnamese phin — a stainless steel cup with an internal metal filter — while the house coconut coffee (80,000 dong) blends cold brew, coconut milk, coconut syrup and coconut ice cream. Less sugary options abound, including espressos, lattes and cascaras (60,000 dong), a tea-like beverage made from the husks of coffee plants and skins of coffee berries.

But the marquee attraction is their exhibition space. Adorned with posters, maps, machines and even a vintage motorcycle — a favored transportation method among Vietnamese growers — this side room provides an indoctrination into the nation’s coffee history, regions, bean types, cultivation methods and production techniques.

To go deeper, peruse the “Coffee 101” chapter in the display copy of “The Vietnamese Coffee Book,” a glossy tome published in 2022 with a foreword by Lacaph’s founder, Timen R.T. Swijtink. Or take Lacaph’s “Vietnamese Coffee & Culture” class, one of several coffee-themed experiences for beginners (450,000 to 650,000 dong).

Still thirsty for coffee knowledge? Head to the Tan Dinh district, famous for its 19th-century pink church and teeming covered market surrounded by street-food carts. Gray, angular and industrial, this small cafe packs educational ambitions with hands-on workshops (300,000 to 660,000 dong) devoted to everything from roasting beans to latte art. Hardcore enthusiasts can take the “Sensory Training” sequence, two courses that impart the art of tasting coffee like a pro, from understanding acidity to judging sweetness.

But 96B’s mission is not purely academic. The cafe serves five hand-brewed Vietnamese coffees — complete with tasting notes and individual small carafes, like fine wine — as well as experimental drinks like Solar Cold Brew (85,000 dong), a mix of chilled coffee, ginger syrup, ginger jam, lemon cordial and rosemary.

Afterward, customers can expand their knowledge by taking home “The Vietnam Coffee Atlas” (599,000 dong), the shop’s boxed set of Vietnamese beans. The eight varieties showcase different regions and styles of coffee.

There might be no better place to test your tasting skills than at this vast, loft-like, neo-industrial cafe, just off bustling Dong Khoi Street. A chalkboard announces the many local and international beans of the moment, and the illustrated menu proposes myriad preparation methods, from simple espresso to more involved pour-over methods and immersion devices.

For a high-tech coffee, choose the siphon (135,000 dong), an elaborate contraption of glass bulbs, tubes and knobs. The slow-drip technology will test your patience and reward your taste buds. The salted coffee (65,000 dong) with condensed milk is a favorite savory-sweet style developed in the former imperial city of Hue.

The Workshop might also win the award for the city’s most extensive coffeehouse food menu, jumping from American-ish breakfasts (lemon-ricotta pancakes with mango, 135,000 dong) to North African-ized dishes (scrambled eggs with harissa sauce, 155,000 dong) to French desserts.

The name of this local coffeehouse chain tells you everything you need to know about its signature attraction: a frothy, foamy, sweet take on egg coffee (40,000 dong), a Hanoi classic made with whipped egg yolks, condensed milk, sugar and vanilla flavoring.

The décor at the main location (119/5 Yersin Street) is old school: bamboo armchairs, floral-print cushions, plaid blankets, wood-paneled televisions, reel-to-reel tape decks and shelves of dusty used paperbacks. But the all-ages crowd laps up the time-warp atmosphere along with the (egg-heavy) all-day breakfast menu.

The sounds of mellow indie rock and fingers tapping computer keys greet you upon entering this minimalist, gallery-like space, where cool kids and global nomads noodle on laptops while baristas work the levers of a state-of-the-art Slayer espresso machine.

Outfitted with exposed overhead ducts and colorful abstract paintings on the walls, the cafe serves up espresso drinks (including a latte made with house pandan syrup, 90,000 dong), enticing juice blends (try the excellent jicama-guava-apple-ginger mix, 60,000 dong) and bags of house-roasted beans to go.

If your caffeinated carousing in Saigon has inspired you to think about creating your own coffeehouse, just walk through the door at the end of the room. You’ll find yourself in the office of Building Coffee. A partner operation run by the “coffee coach” Will Frith, an American of Vietnamese descent, Building Coffee is a roastery and consultancy that advises aspiring cafe owners in the commerce of coffee.

By now you might have a serious caffeine dependency. If so, you’re hardly alone in Saigon and one tiny old establishment is open round-the-clock to provide everyone’s fix. Known as Ca Phe Vot (“net coffee”), the small, garage-like space is tucked away at 330/2 Phan Dinh Phung, a narrow lane in the Phu Nhuan district, south of the airport.

By day, employees hustle to unload boxes of condensed milk while Madame Tuyet Pham and Monsieur Con Dang pass nets filled with robusta grounds through a cauldron of hot water atop a charcoal stove made from a repurposed B-52 bombshell. According to Madame Pham, the fire hasn’t gone out since the stove was first lit in the 1960s. The shop itself goes back to the 1950s.

By night, they hand over the reins and retire to sleep in their apartment over the shop. But the line of pedestrians and scooters awaiting takeaway coffee is nearly constant. Fueled by this nonstop demand, the cafe serves more than 500 cups a day (20,000 dong). Sip it on the go or on a low plastic stool in Ca Phe Vot’s humble white-tiled salon across the alley.

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