Coffee is a big deal in Vietnam. Vietnamese people drink lots of it and they grow lots of it: Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee and its the second most valuable agricultural product to the nation’s economy after rice.
Coffee, however, is not native to Vietnam. French entrepreneurs first started growing coffee in Vietnam in 1857. The species of coffee plant predominantly grown in Vietnam is Robusta, which fairs better in the South East Asian climates than other species. Robusta coffee is generally considered inferior to coffee made from the Arabica bean, the other major species of coffee, and its commands a lower price on the world market as a consequence. The Robusta bean is generally considered more bitter, and in richer Western countries coffee made from Robusta beans is often seen as as a budget conscious choice lacking the richer flavour of coffee made from Arabica beans. However, in Vietnam they have thought up a variety of ways around this problem by getting creative with the way they make their coffee.
Types of Vietnamese Coffee
The first and most important trick the Vietnamese employ to get a good cup of coffee from a Robusta bean is to slowly drip filter the coffee. The traditional way of making coffee in Vietnam is to put coarsely ground beans into a French style drip filter called a phin. This is a small metal device which sits over an individual cup with a lid which compresses the beans inside. In cooler parts of the country, such as Sapa and Dak Lak, the coffee cup is placed in a bowl of hot water to keep the coffee hot whilst you are waiting for the drip filer to do its work. In some cafes, particularly cheaper ones, a bottle of cold pre-prepared drip filtered coffee is used, with a splash of the strong mixture added to a cup and reheated by the addition of boiling water. This tastes better than it sounds and it’s a handy method if you want to grab a quick cup of coffee before you board a train or a bus.
The next trick which the Vietnamese commonly employ to improve the taste of their Robusta beans is to add plenty of sweetened condensed milk. Vietnamese drip filtered coffee is very thick and strong, almost the consistency of syrup, and for this reason you can get away with adding a lot of sweetened condensed milk before the taste overpowers the whole drink. In addition plenty of sugar is also added. Vietnamese coffee is certainly sweet, but it isn’t as bitter as it would be otherwise. As well as condensed milk, the Vietnamese have also experimented with adding egg. Legend is that this was first tried when there was a shortage of condensed milk during the 1940s when most of the world was at war. The egg worked well as it happens, having the same effect as condensed milk in terms of reducing the bitterness of the Robusta bean and egg coffee now features on the menu across Vietnam and is a popular choice in its own right. Yoghurt has also been successfully tried as a condensed milk alternative, and although slightly less common than egg coffee you can find yoghurt coffee in many places in Vietnam.
The third, and possibly most ingenious, strategy to improve the taste of the Robusta bean the Vietnamese have tried is to feed the raw Robusta beans to civet, and then collect the partially digested beans from the droppings. A civet is a small nocturnal tree dwelling mammal native to South East Asia which looks a bit like a cross between a large cat and a weasel. Coffee made from civet dung is called ca phe chon in Vietnam and internationally its starting to be seen as a luxury product. Civet dung coffee is massively expensive outside of South East Asia, with a single cup costing around $30 USD. In Saigon or Hanoi you can expect to pay around $3 in cafe, making Vietnam one of the most affordable place to in world to try this increasingly fashionable type of coffee. Coffee connoisseurs claim that the taste of the Robusta bean improves by passes through the bowels of civet, although do bear in mind the civet itself may not be too happy about having to spend its life in a cage eating coffee beans.