A Food Lover's Travel Guide to the Best of Vietnamese Food

Ca Phe

Vietnamese Coffee

A Vietnamese man once told me that they export all their top quality products, except the coffee -- they keep the best beans for themselves. Coffee, like in many parts of the world, is not just a drink; it’s part of the culture. Vietnamese men and women will sit for hours at a café, slowly drinking their ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk) as they chat with their friends or, more recently, play on their smartphones.

Vietnamese coffee is made using a cà phê phin, a small metal drip filter. Course grinds are packed into the chamber, packed down, and hot water is poured over it. The apparatus sits on top of a glass and the water slowly travels through the grinds and transforms into a dark brown liquid that drips into the glass. If you are having your coffee with milk (sữa) the glass will come with some sweetened condensed milk. I love to watch the brew slowly drip out over the creamy milk. It’s almost hypnotizing.

After 5-10 minutes, the dripping will probably stop. You can lift the lid and see if there’s any liquid left in the chamber. I also like to lift up the entire chamber and see if there’s any liquid in the base that sits on the glass. Sometimes there’s a bit of a suction that traps liquid there. You can set your chamber back down on an angle to let the extra liquid drip through.

When you feel as though all the liquid has made it through, you can flip the lid upside down, and place the base and chamber on top of it. You’ll have half coffee and half condensed milk, or slightly more coffee in your glass. Stir it up well. Let the air get into it. The hot liquid helps melt the condensed milk and it should mix into a beautiful dark brown (or light brown if it’s heavy on the condensed milk). Now, take the glass and dump it into the tall ice filled glass that you were also provided. Stir it all up until it’s nice and cold then have a taste. It will be like no other coffee experience you’ve ever had. The dark, rich coffee and the sweet, thick milk come together to create a chocolaty taste. You’ll want to drink the whole thing down quickly, but I suggest slowly sipping and savoring it as you watch Vietnam go by.

Types of coffee:

  • cà phê sữa đá – coffee with milk and ice, the most popular way to drink it
  • cà phê đá – iced coffee with no milk
  • cà phê nóng – hot coffee
  • cà phê sữa nóng – hot coffee with milk

If time is of the essence, you can get your coffee to go. Watch for signs that say cà phê mang về, which means take away coffee. Mang ve is pronounced “mong vay”. These places will have coffee made up ahead of time so you don’t have to wait for the whole dripping process.