Vietnam is a nation of coffee lovers, and you will seldom be far from a cafe or coffee stall, especially in the towns and cities. We hope our guide will help you know what and how to order and experience the best of Vietnamese coffee during your travels.
An Introduction to Coffee in Vietnam | Reading a Vietnamese Coffee Menu – What To Order | What About Fresh Milk and Dairy Milk Alternatives? | More Unusual Vietnamese Coffees | Indie Coffee Shops and Chains in Vietnam | A Brief History of Coffee Growing in Vietnam |
An Introduction to Coffee in Vietnam
There are multiple species of coffee grown in Vietnam including Arabica, Robusta / Canephora, and Coffea liberica; do try and seek out Arabica Se–Se means ‘sparrow’ in Vietnamese– an exclusively Vietnamese Arabica variety known for its low acidity and bitterness.
Coffee is typically prepared using single cup drip filters, and is commonly served to the customer whilst still brewing. The traditional stainless steel filter you’ll encounter most often is called a phin and it’s much the same as a classic French drip coffee maker; because it’s easy to clean and doesn’t need a disposable paper filter, it’s used by most coffee shops and restaurants.
Sweetened condensed milk is the most popular way of adding dairy, a practice that originated in an era when fresh milk was hard to source, and even harder to keep fresh in Vietnam’s hot climate. Today, fresh milk is more readily available, but many Vietnamese drinkers are happily accustomed to the way that condensed milk mellows out and sweetens the strong flavour of coffee and hence it’s still a very popular way to enjoy coffee.
Planning a trip to Vietnam? Check out our Food and Culture Focused Three Week Vietnam Itinerary.
Reading a Vietnamese Coffee Menu – What To Order
- Nóng means hot, but vendors will usually assume you want hot if you don’t specify cold.
- Đá means cold / iced.
You can use these same words when ordering other hot and cold drinks too.
Cà Phê is the Vietnamese for coffee, though you’ll need to provide a little more information to get what you want:
- Cà Phê Đen Nóng is hot black coffee (literally “coffee, black, hot”).
- Cà Phê Đen Đá is iced black coffee.
Coffee sweetened with condensed milk is known by two different names:
- In the North of Vietnam, it’s called Cà Phê Nâu (Nâu means brown, referring to the colour of coffee once milk is added).
- Whereas in the South of the country it’s known as Cà Phê Sữa (Sữa means milk). I would say that Cà Phê Sữa is the version used most universally.
You can add the hot and cold suffixes too:
- Cà Phê Sữa Nóng is hot coffee, sweetened with condensed milk
- Cà Phê Sữa Đá is iced coffee, sweetened with condensed milk
If you lean towards more sweetness and less coffee:
- Order Bạc Xỉu Đá instead of Cà Phê Sữa Đá; they’re almost the same thing but the ratio of a Cà Phê Sữa Đá is more coffee than milk, whereas in Bạc Xỉu you’ll get a glass of condensed milk and ice with a small amount of coffee.
If you prefer the short strong hit of an espresso:
- Espressos are becoming more popular in Vietnam, especially in the big coffee chains with barista espresso machines. Ask for Cà Phê Espresso.
What About Fresh Milk and Dairy Milk Alternatives?
You may be wondering if fresh milk features much in coffee in Vietnam and the answer is — sometimes!
Much of Vietnam is very well-travelled by international tourists and the popularity of cappuccinos and cafe lattes has certainly been taken onboard by Vietnamese coffee vendors. Not every coffee shop offers these, but many do. Large international chains such as Starbucks and popular Vietnamese chains such as Highlands Coffee, and Cong Ca Phe are your best good bet.
Non-dairy milk alternatives are not readily available in coffee shops, even though Vietnamese soy milk (Sữa Dậu Nành) is popular as a drink in its own right. Sold in bottles or in a clear plastic bag, it’s available sweetened or unsweetened, and some vendors sell flavoured options. You could buy your own to add a splash to your coffee if you like.
Your best bet for finding coffee shops that offer coffee made with soy milk, oat milk or almond milk is to visit the same big chains I mention above. Note that during our trip, we didn’t spot these dairy-free milk alternatives very often.
More Unusual Vietnamese Coffees
Cà Phê Trứng (egg coffee) is a dessert-like drink reminiscent in its flavours of Italian tiramisu. Made by beating together egg yolks and sweet condensed milk, heating the mixture to thicken it and serving it over hot coffee, Cà Phê Trứng is a thick, silky and luxurious drink that originated in Hanoi in the 1940s but is now popular across Vietnam. Iced versions are also available.
Note: China is known as Trung Quốc in Vietnamese (which literally translates as milk country) and I’ve seen egg coffee translated as Chinese coffee in more than one cafe in Vietnam.
You may like to visit Cà Phê Giảng in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where Cà Phê Trứng was invented by café founder Nguyen Giang.
Cà Phê Sữa Chua (sour milk coffee aka yoghurt coffee) is another drink that owes its origins to the French who introduced yoghurt to Vietnam during the colonial era. Both natural and fruit-flavoured yoghurts are combined with coffee to create this rich and creamy drink but I particularly enjoy the tangy flavour of natural yoghurt.
Cà Phê Cốt Dừa (coconut milk coffee) is a favourite amongst younger coffee drinkers in Vietnam. Black coffee is blended with coconut milk to create a long, refreshing drink, often served with ice but also enjoyed hot. Some cafes add condensed milk, and others use fresh dairy milk alongside the coconut.
Sinh Tố Cà Phê (coffee smoothie, sometimes called coffee shake) brings together fresh fruit smoothies with coffee. Sometimes nuts, yoghurt, or different types of milk are also added; you’ll find a huge variety of combinations.
Cà Phê Muối (salt coffee) is a speciality of Hue and best tried at the coffee shops of the same name. Most of these are in Hue itself but there are a handful of branches elsewhere in Vietnam. A phin is used to filter drip coffee over salted milk below.
Indie Coffee Shop and Chains in Vietnam
Vietnamese coffee shops come in all shapes and sizes: bright and airy modern spaces, cafes decorated to a particular theme or in a retro style, rooms with chintzy grandma’s parlour vibes, super casual student-style hangouts, historical locations full of cosy corners. Whatever your preferences, you will find a café to meet your needs.
Many Vietnamese coffee shops are independently run, a few may have expanded to a proto-chain of two or three branches, and of course there are several regional and national chains.
In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) some very cool coffee shops can be found in former apartment blocks built in the 50s and 60s to house government and military officers (US and the South Vietnam government). Nowadays, some of these blocks house a wonderful mix of small, independent businesses including cafés, fashion boutiques, vintage goods stores, beauty parlours, hair salons and more. Nguyễn Huệ Street in District 1 is one of the oldest boulevards of the city and is a popular pedestrian street for locals and visitors alike. The apartment block at N°42 Nguyễn Huệ offers at least ten different cafes including Saigon Vieux, Balcony Cafeteria, Partea (specialising in tea), Thinker & Dreamer, and Saigon Oi.
Note: some such apartment blocks don’t have lift access, and those that do may charge a fee to use the lifts instead of the stairs.
If you love both coffee and high quality chocolate, make time to visit Maison Marou in Hanoi. The flagship store of this Vietnamese bean-to-bar chocolate producer has an onsite cafe where you can enjoy coffees, hot chocolates and mochas (a combination of the two), as hot or cold lattes, or in the very indulgent egg coffee style.
You’ll never have difficulty finding a good indie coffee shop in Vietnam. If you need to, just ask anyone you meet for one they can suggest one in the vicinity and you’ll get plenty of enthusiastic recommendations.
Vietnamese Coffee Chains
We already mentioned a few popular Vietnamese chains above including Highlands Coffee (which is probably the most international in its style and menu and is prevalent across the country), and Cong Ca Phe (a trendy chain with cool retro decor, a laid back 1960s vibe; Cong’s strongest presence is in Hanoi but there are a few branches elsewhere in the country).
Other chains you may encounter include The Coffee House (a modern-luxe chain that’s expanded outside of Vietnam and has a laudable focus on eco-friendly business practices), Gemini Coffee (a mid priced brand with a reputation for green and clean business), Kafa Cafe (a high quality coffee vendor whose premises showcase a somewhat Scandi design aesthetic), Phuc Long (a Saigon chain with a dual focus on tea and coffee, and some great desserts on the menu too), Trung Nguyen Legend (a chain launched by popular coffee producer Trung Nuyen, and a good bet for classic Vietnamese coffees), and Urban Station Coffee (a chain moulded in the modern American vernacular).
Tous Les Jours is another good option though it’s technically a chain of pastry shops rather than cafes; it’s also one of the places you can find international drinks such as cappuccino and espresso.
A Brief History of Coffee Growing in Vietnam
Vietnam is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world (second only to Brazil), and has been growing and producing coffee since the late 19th century. The crop was introduced by French missionaries in the 1850s and within 30 years, there were several coffee plantations operating in Northern Vietnam. Over the next few decades production increased, smaller farms made way for larger, commercial plantations, and coffee production expanded into the Central Highlands of the country.
European trade and of course French colonisation, makes the history of coffee growing and its place in the Vietnamese economy a complex and often difficult story. Inequalities borne of mistreatment of indigenous populations in the country’s coffee-growing regions persist even today, and there have been challenges with environmental degradation caused by deforestation, over-farming, and intensive use of fertilisers.
Following North Vietnam’s victory in the Vietnam War, the coffee industry was collectivised (a form of nationalisation that organised individual farmers’ holdings into shared enterprises), and productivity dropped enormously. After the Đổi mới reforms in 1986, private enterprise was once again permitted, and as the prevalent model shifted back to private ownership of farms, there was a resurgence of growth in the industry.
In the last 15 or so years, the Vietnamese government have taken several steps towards sustainable and fair trading practices including the creation of a strategy and framework to govern national agriculture, and the establishment of a Coffee Coordination Board that supports local coffee farmers via the provision of resources, education and training, and also helps them to navigate social, economic and environmental risks to their livelihoods.
Planning a trip to Vietnam? Check out our Food and Culture Focused Three Week Vietnam Itinerary.