Known for its unique coffee, Vietnam is also becoming increasingly popular among travelers for its numerous cafes. There’s no shortage of independently owned coffee shops in Saigon. Saigon’s coffee culture is thriving and everyone who visits can’t help but embrace it.
The best way to enjoy this peculiar balancing act is to sit on the balcony of one of the innumerable coffee houses scattered throughout the city. This way you will be out of the fray but able to look down on the street hustle below. You will also be drinking the beverage that must be at least partly responsible for the kinetic energy that has transformed this city into one of the most sophisticated commercial hubs of south-east Asia in just 20 years. On the terrace of L’Usine, a French-inspired café overlooking the opera house, I ordered the classic Vietnamese coffee known as ca phe sua da – literally “coffee, milk, ice”. It comprises strong coffee, dripped from a small metal filter into a cup containing a quarter as much sweetened condensed milk, then stirred and poured over ice in a glass.
At first I couldn’t bear its cloying sweetness, but three days in I’d grown addicted to the sweet buzz that follows a refreshing coolness on the tongue. It suits the humidity of the place in a way that an ordinary latte wouldn’t.
The history of coffee
Coffee was introduced to Vietnam by the French in the late 19th century but the country quickly became a strong exporter, as vast swathes of the highlands were given over to this important new cash crop. And now the Vietnamese have taken coffee to new levels of almost gastronomical – even medicinal – heights.
At Trung Nguyen Coffee – the Vietnamese equivalent of Starbucks, with a chain of cafés across the city – the coffee menu stretched to five pages. The vibe was studiously chic, with low-slung sofas and Seventies retro branding in orange and brown. Fellow patrons were largely beatnik-inspired youths and businessmen.
Coffee is taken seriously here, with beans from Italy, Japan, Turkey and Ethiopia, but it was the varieties of Vietnamese coffee that deserved more exploration. They came with different bean combinations and recipes, and lofty names such as “Success”, “Creation”, “Discover” and “Thought”.
Where to ẹnoy
Cong Ca Phe
Originally from Hanoi, Cong Ca Phe now has several branches around Ho Chi Minh City. Each branch is designed with a vintage vibe and a communist aesthetic. The Cong Ca Phe in the corner of Ly Tu Trong street and Dong Khoi street is particularly delightful to stumble upon – in an old building in the corner across from Vincom Center, enter the ground floor past an alley lined with numerous paintings for sale, climb up an old staircase, and find a doorway with a lighted neon “Cong” sign above it.
The café is best known for its coconut coffee smoothie, a refreshing drink with coconut cream and traditional Vietnamese coffee.
Located in the second floor, you’ll find the staircase to this café through a heavy metal door on the side of the building. Upstairs is a beautifully decorated café with French colonial interiors, exhibiting an elegant fusion of European and Vietnamese design. At La Rotonde, pick a spot and take your time enjoying Vietnamese traditional coffee or a refreshing yogurt smoothie. They also serve a lunch buffet.
A century-old shop house was rebuilt with charming interiors to become Mam Café, a quaint hole-in-the-wall along Le Thi Hong Gam street. The café is owned by two sisters who designed the interiors themselves. Find respite from the punishing Vietnamese heat by lounging on their couches and comfortable chairs. You’ll also find a small courtyard at the back of the café with tables and chairs. Besides coffee, Mam Café also serves various set meals.
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