August First on the Road is a new series where we’ll follow Jodi and Phil on their adventures beyond the bakery and RV trips far from the restaurant. Grab a snack and buckle up!
Jodi’s last dispatch from Vietnam arrives in my inbox early Wednesday morning. “Coffee!” the subject line appropriately exclaims. The e-mail is not a personal reminder from Jodi to me to fuel up for the day, but instead a catalog of pictures chronicling the essence of the beverage in Vietnam.
Every corner of the world approaches coffee in its own way. Italians savor cappuccinos as they stand at the edge of a bar. Turkish coffee is said to foretell the future. At August First we froth all kinds of milks into a whole lot of a lattes. And in Vietnam, ground coffee is dripped over sweetened condensed milk. No matter the difference, wherever you find yourself you can always find coffee – and a friend to join you for it. This post is all about that early morning, late morning and sometimes late afternoon caffeinated beverage we all love and at times depend on. Coffee.
We’re excited to welcome Jodi back stateside. After a hefty 20+ hours of travel back to Vermont, we’ll be waiting for her with an extra-large cup of our cafe blend. As always, I’ll let Jodi take it from here.
P.S. If you, like us, become hypnotized by the swirls of coconut milk captured in Jodi’s picture of Coconut Coffee and suddenly desire a Vietnamese style coffee, we have included a recipe below that can easily be replicated in any Vermont kitchen.
Vietnam is fueled by coffee. And it’s not just the roast that delivers a great coffee experience, it’s the setting you’re in and the people who surround you.
I’ve had the pleasure of drinking coffee in just about every corner of this lovely country. I’ve sat alone in front of a fire in the pre-dawn chill of a Hmong homestay in the Ta Van valley near Sa Pa, waiting patiently for the drip drip of the coffee to stop so I could enjoy my first cup of the day. I’ve been handed an icy cold milk coffee from a boat vendor at sunrise on the Bassac River in the Mekong Delta, smiling with her as I showed her the photos on my phone that I took of her when I was there the year before. I’ve also shamelessly enjoyed the cheap instant coffee that’s prevalent in every hotel room.
(Coffee Vendor, at the floating market, Chau Doc, Bassac River and Jodi’s early morning coffee by the fire)
The majority of the coffee is grown in the Central Highlands area of the country. The climate here is suitable for the Robusta variety, which has a higher level of caffeine and is a bit harsher in taste, and almost grainy. However, the slow drip brewing process, using a Phin (coffee filter), helps to mellow out the flavors and reduce the caffeine level. That, combined with the creamy and silky addition of sweetened condensed milk, creates a heavenly drink that is unique to Vietnam.
There are a few basic styles of coffee in Vietnam, and to order like a local it’s important to know these words:
Cà Phê Sữa Dá is very popular, and is by far my favorite coffee drink here in Vietnam. Super strong drip coffee is layered in a glass with sweetened condensed milk and ice. All it takes is a little stir, and you’re on your way to coffee bliss! For a hot version, you just need to order Cà Phê Sữa Nóng. It was my go-to on this trip when I stayed in a little bungalow in the beach town of An Bang. Don’t expect it to be hot when it’s done brewing, though! It can take 10 minutes or more to finish, but it’s well worth the wait and a great exercise in patience.
(Coffee Thiên Trúc [Bamboo Architecture] in the alley near Hoàng Minh Giám and Bùi Văn Thêm, Phường 9, Phú Nhuận, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam)
The ultimate in decadence is Cà Phê Trứng, or Egg coffee. It’s made by beating egg yolks with sweetened condensed milk for a long, long time and then pouring it over hot Vietnamese coffee. It’s a very unique and divine treat that’s rich with flavors reminiscent of creme brûlée or Tiramisu.
Coconut coffee is a fun drink to enjoy on a hot afternoon when you’re looking for a caffeine and sugar jolt. There are a few different versions, and I especially love the frozen style. Thick coconut cream, sweetened condensed milk and coffee are blended with ice, and topped with toasted coconut chips.
(Coco Cafe: 50 Chế Lan Viên, Bắc Mỹ An, Ngũ Hành Sơn)
Weasel coffee (not pictured) is another Vietnamese specialty, mostly in the Central Highlands area. Called Cà phê Chồn, or civet cat coffee, it’s a special brew that costs up to $30 per cup in cafes, and around $100 USD per pound. Phil and I tried it last winter in Da Lat, and while it was actually very tasty, with unique hints of chocolate and smoke, I do have to admit I’m a bit squeamish about the process. Civet cats like to eat the best coffee berries they can find. They don’t completely digest the beans, but their enzymes ferment them slightly. They excrete the beans into little clusters that look like PayDay candy bars. These are then gathered, cleaned, processed and sold as Weasel Coffee. It’s a delicacy that is appreciated by a lot of folks, and if you’re in Vietnam and want a full experience, then by all means give it a go!
More and more new coffee shops are opening around Vietnam with a focus on single origin roasts from around the world. It’s easy to find boutique cafes in larger cities that offer a variety of coffees brewed in many different ways, including Chemex, French press, Aeropress, syphon, Clever, or Moka pot. I found a delightful coffee shop in Da Nang called Gold Star, where the walls were covered with awards and recognitions of the owner’s accomplishments as a champion aromaster.
Their single origin Ethiopian Guji was one of the best cups I’ve had anywhere, in a long time. So don’t feel that you’re relegated to strong Robusta brews in Vietnam. Definitely seek out this new generation of roasters.
Instant Vietnamese coffee has saved the day for me many times.
It’s a classic instant coffee, available in black or “3 in 1” with non dairy creamer and sugar. It’s rich and sweet, and packs a serious punch. They can be found in Vietnamese grocery stores in the US, or online.
An elderly woman joined me at my table at a coffee cafe tucked in an alleyway, where we sat in friendly silence, enjoying the tranquil escape from the noise of the morning traffic. I sipped my iced coffee. She petted her old dog. I showed her photos of my family on my phone. She invited me to enter the gate to see the ancient pagoda next to the cafe, which also appeared be where she lived. No words were spoken, just a shared appreciation of the ritual of morning coffee, the beauty of spontaneous fellowship, and respect of holy space.
It’s easy to brew Vietnamese coffee at home. All you need is a Phin, which can be found at Asian grocery stores or online, some Vietnamese ground coffee, sweetened condensed milk, and hot water.
3 tablespoons ground Vietnamese coffee (Trung Nguyen is a popular brand)
6-8 ounces hot water
3 tablespoons (or more!) sweetened condensed milk
Spoon milk into a heat proof glass.
Place filter over glass and add the ground coffee.
Bring water to just below boiling.
Pour 3 tablespoons of water over grounds, allowing them to bloom.
Wait 1 minute, then pour remaining water into filter. Cover and allow to drip.
Drip speed can be adjusted by turning the center rod with the lid of the cover.
Stir and enjoy!
Art, Photography, Recipe and Words by Jodi Whalen