The first time I took a sip of syrupy sweet, ice-cold, powerfully strong Vietnamese coffee, this was my reaction:
The caffeine rush flooded my system like a drug, sending waves of alertness through my tired body.
Woo baby, I felt alive!
As a writer, I think I got at least 20% more writing done in Vietnam than in other countries because I was almost typing fast enough to make my computer keyboard catch fire.
Trying this yummy and potent brew while in Vietnam is a must. After all, it’s not just a drink, it’s a big part of the culture. You’ll see the locals sitting in cafes for hours, slowly sipping their drinks and catching up on life.
This is not a paper to-go-cup world, this is a place where coffee time is an important time to spend with friends and family. So, to gain an insight into this aspect of Vietnamese culture take the time to linger in a cafe and drink a cup yourself.
First of All, Know What To Expect When You Order
As Anh from AnhsFoodBlog.com explains, the basic menu of coffee is pretty standard and coffee is ordered by color. Black coffee has nothing added and Brown Coffee has condensed milk added. Then, you can have the coffee hot or with ice.
“If you are new to Vietnamese coffee, start with iced milk coffee (nâu đá or cà phê sữa đá)” recommends Anh. “This has a large portion of condensed milk, and when mixed with black coffee liquid, the result is like coffee and rich chocolate together.”
A cup of coffee starts with a French drip filter which sits on top of the cup. There is a thin lid weighing down the beans and hot water is added, slowly trickling through the filter into the cup. The dark strong brew is mixed with condensed milk, which is a tradition that began during the French colonial days in Vietnam because the French couldn’t acquire fresh milk easily.
If you want to taste something really sweet, try ca phe sua chua or yogurt coffee. Tala from TheHungryNomad.net recommends it with much enthusiasm. It might sound strange, but apparently the slight sweetness of the yogurt blends perfectly with the bitterness of the coffee.
Don’t Make the Mistake of Drinking It Like Regular Coffee
If you are like me, you sometimes need two cups of coffee to get you going in the morning – and perhaps even a third one later in the day. However, it is important to take it easy and remember that Vietnamese coffee is like rocket fuel.
It is so much stronger and more highly caffeinated than what you are used to – my hands were often twitching before finishing my first cup. Take it easy and drink much less than you usually would, or you’ll find yourself jittery and wide awake at 3am.
What is This Yellow Water?
You might be served your coffee with an iced glass of what looks like water with a yellow tinge to it. Don’t worry, it’s actually called tra da and it is diluted, unsweetened green tea. Most cafes will serve it so that you can take sips periodically to help wash down all of the strong coffee.
Jordan from 180DegreesWest.com got hooked on tra da while in Vietnam and also notes that the drink is available at restaurants and street stalls for only a few thousand dong – so it’s a cheaper refreshment than water or beer.
Fancy Trying “Weasel Poo Coffee?” Consider the Ethical Concerns
Vietnam is known for being home to one of the strangest types of coffee in the world. The palm civet, a small weasel or cat-like nocturnal forest animal, eats only the ripest coffee cherries.
It cannot digest the coffee bean part of the cherry, so it excretes it in it’s droppings. Farm workers then collect the dung, wash the beans and roast them. Yup, you read that right – they sift through civet crap to make the stuff. The coffee has a better taste after going through the animal’s digestive tract, apparently.
Civet cat dung coffee has become a trendy novelty – appearing on television, Oprah and in the film “The Bucket List” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. The prices for this specialty coffee are sky high – one of the most expensive in the world. Unfortunately, thanks to the boom in popularity this specialty coffee is not collected from wild animal dung anymore – it is industrialised.
According to Yenni Kwok in this article, the conditions in which this coffee is produced are horrific. “To satisfy global demand, many suppliers keep captured civets in cages and feed them almost exclusively on coffee cherries. Enduring appalling living conditions and an unhealthy diet, these nocturnal omnivores suffer mental distress — incessantly pacing and gnawing on their limbs — and succumb to illness and death.”
These animals are naturally shy and solitary – confining them in cages with other civets is torture to them. They are deprived of freedom, space, exercise and any food other than coffee cherries.
Anna Bown, a volunteer for Care for the Wild, also experienced this when shevisited one of the civet coffee farms in Da Lat. “When we arrived at the farm, we entered a dark, foul-smelling room filled with force-fed caged civets who were clearly distressed and in poor health,” she wrote, “It was shocking and upsetting to see these poor animals being exploited in this way.”
Before buying civet dung coffee in Vietnam, consider these horrific conditions. Also, read this very well written story by Allen Koshewa on Epicure and Culture about the experience of trying this coffee in a trendy cafe in China. It might make you want to give poo coffee a miss and stick to the regular types of brews.
Give it a Try!
So go on, give the coffee a try on your travels and start the day with a kick. Gooooooood Morning Vietnam!
Have you tried Vietnamese coffee? What’s your favorite variety? Let us know in the comments below.
Kelly Dunning is a Canadian freelance travel writer. She lives a nomadic lifestyle with no fixed address – working from the road for the last 5 years with her partner Lee, a web-designer from England. They have traveled to over 40 countries and they offer travel tips, stories and inspiration on Global-Goose.com.