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I’m an American, which apparently is synonymous with coffee-lover to the greater Chinese public. Unlike many stereotypes I’ve encountered here, however, this one’s not too far from the truth. In fact, perhaps its one of those “you want what you can’t have” kind of things, but I’ve never craved coffee more than I have since coming to China.
Unfortunately, what doesn’t seem to translate so well is the word “coffee.” The watery, sweet, milky drink I get when I order “一杯咖啡” (one cup of coffee) at most Chinese cafés leaves a lot to be desired. And the ubiquitous use of instant coffee powder is enough to make even this addicted college student say no thanks. So what’s a desperate American living in China to do?
Answer: Go to Vietnam.
I suppose we can thank the French for the fact that the Vietnamese really love their coffee. As one man said as we sat sipping a frothy glass of “ca phe sua da” (iced coffee with milk), the Vietnamese have a café for every street corner, and sometimes more than that. There are big ones, with neon lighting and music thumping like a dance club. There are small ones that simply line up shaky plastic tables and lawn chairs along the street. There are ones with big beach umbrellas or TVs broadcasting soccer and over-dubbed Korean soap operas.
But whether you’re people watching from a table in downtown Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City to everyone but the locals) or watching the rats scuttle down the street from a reclining lawn chair in the countryside, it doesn’t matter— there is still good coffee to be had.
So to those who follow their thirst for adventure and good coffee all the way to Vietnam, I offer the following guide to navigating the wondrous world of Vietnamese cafes...
Ordering goes something like this:
ca phe da – iced coffeeca phe nong – hot coffeeca phe sua da– iced coffee with condensed milkca phe sua nong – hot coffee with condensed milk
At some cafés, you can also order sinh to (creamy fresh-fruit smoothies), rau ma (a sweet drink made from the pennyworth plant), or a number of bottled options. Besides traditional choices of soda, Vietnamese favorites include Red Bull, Sting (a sickeningly sweet, caffeine-charged soda), and soymilk, or sua dau nanh. They also usually bring out a pot of tea for your table.
An order of ca phe sua da will come out as a little metal drip filter set over a cup quarter-filled with sweetened condensed milk and another glass filled to the brim with ice. Once all the coffee has all dripped down from the filter, you stir it into the milk at the bottom and dump it into the glass with the ice. It’s super sweet, slightly thick and tastes a bit like rich coffee ice cream.
For those who order their coffee without milk, don’t expect it to be straight black coffee— consider yourself warned. The Vietnamese generally like their drinks sweet, and by sweet I mean the sugar-high, diabetes-inducing kind of sweet. If you want your coffee black, order “khong đuong,” or without sugar.
Depending on the café, a cup ranges in price from around 12,000 to 20,000 dong (33 cents to a dollar)— which makes China’s 12 to 35 RMB (2 to 5 dollars) seem absurd, and pretty much justifies developing a caffeine addiction for the remainder of your stay. So to all those expats and sleepy study abroad students out there grimacing over their daily cup of joe, I issue this simple word of encouragement: don’t give up hope, good coffee does exist in Asia! Somewhere in Vietnam there is a café chair and a tall glass of ice with your name on it.