Saigon is awash in coffee.

Everywhere you go – everywhere – there is coffee. It’s generally dark, thick, and potent, with enough caffeine to jumpstart your brain whether it’s 5:30am or 11pm (general coffee drinking hours). I have to steer clear of it after about 7, or, as I learned, it’s enough to keep me up late into the night.

I’ve literally never seen anything like this, in regards to general coffee consumption, but after thinking about it and living the coffee life for 5 months, I think I’m beginning to get it.

Click through to learn a little about a few of the most mandatory local coffee drinks, reliable chains, and how to know if your street coffee contains margarine…

My first cup in Vietnam. It was… basic.
Naturally, I got it at a Gloria Jeans at the Mall.

When I first got here I was appalled by the sacrilege that seemed rampant – ruin a perfectly good cup of drip coffee?! Do you hate nature, chocolate, and strawberries, too?!? I couldn’t believe this atrocity against human nature, but then again… I had nothing to compare it to, outside of the (delicious) faux-coffee concoctions at global chains like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts (which are great, but… they’re not really coffee, are they?).

Note: There is actually a Starbucks here in HCMC now, which opened to great fanfare earlier this year. The prices are similar to USD (which means it’s utterly, unbelievably expensive relative to the average Vietnamese income) and even people that have gone there say it’s just for the status symbol – the coffee itself, I’m sad to say, is apparently still burnt-tasting. This is reported to me by habitual coffee drinking Vietnamese co-workers – I haven’t been myself.

This is the traditional little contraption that
brews your coffee at your table.

After deciding in June I needed to step outside my box a little, I gradually started trying new drinks. I was not disappointed. I’ve made several faux pas on the way, inviting looks that bordered on shocked/outraged from other cafe-goers, and even had one couple at another table ask our waiter to please, please, tell us how to do it right. The waiter was unfailingly polite, but it was still fairly embarrassing. For a Vietnamese to confront you about a social transgression, especially one that’s not harming anyone but you, is all but unheard of. Take this as a reliable indicator of how damn important – damn important, I say! – coffee is to people here. I really couldn’t stress that enough.

The coffee itself was something that needed a little getting used to, but thank goodness I did.

For one thing, as I mentioned, this stuff is THICK and BITTER, as it’s initially brewed. But that’s not enough – a classically ideal vietnamese dish complements many of the different tastes simultaneously. What? Improve on coffee? It can be done, folks, and this is how:

Daaaaaaaamnnnnnnnnn.

First of all, at many places (maybe about 50% of the cafes I’ve gone to) the coffee is brewed at your table. They give you this tiny little steeping apparatus (pictured above), which is placed on a standard coffee mug (maybe 6 oz.). Pressed into the bottom of the thing is about 3/4-1″ of freshly ground beans. On top of this is placed a flat, little, round sieve, and after that about 2-3 oz of boiling water is poured. The whole thing is covered with a cap, and brought to your table, along with a packet of sugar and a teeny, tiny spoon. The base saucer is a separate piece, filled with even tinier holes, below which is your cup.

It takes about 5-10 minutes for the hot water to percolate through the coffee, the two sieves, and into the cup. Get a load of how thick and crazy this coffee is – if it were a wine, it would get you drunk it two sips – look at those legs!

Saturday Morning at the coffee shop:
Ca phe da and a pineapple smoothie. Mmm.

Of course, this is not something I’d find appetizing on its own. Some Vietnamese do. Not me.

This desire for balance in Vietnamese dishes leads to a whole packet of cane sugar being poured into the hot, steeped cup of coffee (itself only a few fluid ounces) just after it’s done seeping through the little contraption. So now we’re left with a sugary, bitter, thick brew – very good on it’s own… but who wants to drink hot coffee when it’s 90 degrees out??

So naturally, this mixture is then poured over a tall glass of ice. Over the course of 30 minutes or so – the ideal coffee break – the hot, cold, bitter, and sweet all come down to a refreshing, perfectly balanced cup of iced coffee. If you wait a little longer, it’s liable to water itself down too much, so be wary. Myself… well, I don’t mind the extra water, because my body needs water constantly to maintain it’s naturally fantastic sweat gland production. This coffee drink is called Ca Phe Da (Iced Black Coffee).

Technically this is a “Coffee Culi” at
Highlands, but it’s just essentially a ca phe
sua da that’s been layered. Stir and it’s the same.

The result is fantastic – if they’re good beans. Since Vietnam is one of the regions more prolific coffee bean exporters, this is not usually a problem – even many small mom-and-pop stands on the side of the road can whip up a decent brew.

Of course, many Vietnamese are bored with this, or find it unpalatable for some reason or other. There’s also this: Ca Phe Sua Da (Iced Black Coffee with Milk). It’s a misnomer – this is not really milk, it’s sweetened condensed milk. The result is COFFEE CANDY, PEOPLE.

Of course, it makes me fart a lot, being lactose intolerant, so I only get it when I’m about to go into the classes with my naughtiest children. I cannot deny I get a kick out of crop-dusting the aisles and watching them blame each other. Am I a teenager at heart? Maybe.

(Yes, I said that. I consider it the “pufferfish defense.”)

There are also all sorts of unholy concoctions that are trending at various times. One of them is, horribly, Jelly Coffee. It’s ca phe sua da with chunks of gelatin in it. It’s horrendous. Don’t do it. They don’t even eat the jelly. It doesn’t even dissolve, or whatever. It’s just… ugh. Just don’t.

Cafe Sonate’s patio.

The most reliable chains in HCMC are Trung Nguyen Coffee (options of different kinds of beans) and Highlands Coffee (pedestrian, but they all speak English). Trung Nguyen has recently bought an entire town in Wyoming at auction. Buford, famous for it’s population of 1, has had its name changed to PhinDeli Town and the Vietnamese brand hopes to launch a full-scale assault on America’s coffee tastebuds in the coming years. It’s an audacious scheme, and one I sort of hope to see succeed – it’s so Vietnamese. This is their answer to seeing Starbucks encroach upon their home turf.

The best cafes, however, are the ones off the beaten path. Those cafes that exist in back alleys, with groves of bamboo protecting you from the outside air or waterfalls running over stones as you sip, the ones that offer great coffee AND a fantastic escape from the hustle, bustle, and pollution of the normal city… those are the ones that make you sit back, sigh, and think: man, I’ve really got it made right now. Let your worries float away, order that extra orange juice on ice (cam vat), and love your life.

The Vine’s patio.

I’ve got a few favorites: Cafe Sonate in D1, The Vine in D. Phu Nhuan, and my local cafe-with-beach-chairs-facing-the-street in D3 – it probably has a name, but I don’t know it. I just know they’ve stopped charging me the foreigners price, and it’s a great place to congregate and catch a football game on certain nights. And I don’t even care about soccer.

And… how to tell if your street coffee has margarine in it? Easy. Does it taste like chocolate frosting distilled through a vat of oil? Margarine. Easy way to save money, I guess. Still, gross.

So yeah, coffee. Vietnam. Get into it. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.