How to Order Coffee in Vietnam Like a Local
Vietnam is a country that runs on coffee. There is a cafe on just about every block in Saigon and Hanoi and they’re packed most of the day with a mix of locals leisurely sipping away enjoying the day and others grabbing a quick fix on their way to wherever they’re headed. The cafe culture in Saigon is why it’s one of our favorite cities in the world. To see the list of our favorite Saigon cafes, check out our post on it.
Coffee is brewed differently in Vietnam. It’s sort of a mix between the French press and pourover methods and despite producing great coffee, it’s surprisingly “low tech”. You won’t see any chem-lab looking siphons or giant blown-glass drip towers. Coffee is brewed in a little metal filter called a “phin”. Grounds go in, water goes in, and coffee comes out. It’s quite simple actually but the resulting coffee has flavor and depth that is anything but simple.
This is dark roast coffee. Very dark. It has its roots in the French colonial occupation of Vietnam but has evolved into an entirely different beast. If you want to drink like a local in the cafes of Vietnam, there are only two drinks you need to know – ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk) or ca phe den da (iced coffee, black). Vietnamese coffee is fairly bitter because of a combination of factors. The high percentage of robusta beans in most blends, the darkness of the roast, and the cool temperature of the brew all contribute to bitterness. This is balanced with milk and or sugar. (read more about bitterness in coffee here) Hot coffee is definitely available but, for the most part, locals stick to the iced stuff because it’s usually hot enough outside to boil the water for your coffee on the sidewalk. The other problem with ordering hot Vietnamese drip coffee is that by the time it finishes dripping 4-5 minutes later, you really just end up with a warm-ish cup of coffee. In Vietnam, the only drink that makes you look more like a local than iced coffee is iced beer.
I’m sure by now you’re thinking “But… I was told not to have ice in Southeast Asia. Isn’t the ice going to make me sick?” No. These days, if you’re eating out in a cafe or restaurant in a big city, the ice is clean and totally safe to drink/eat. So, order up.
Your coffee will also most likely come with a glass of what looks like slightly dirty water – it’s just diluted iced green tea that takes the place of water.
Now, on to the ordering.
Ca phe (pronounced the same as in English – “cafe”): coffee
Sua (Nau in the North): milk
Ca phe sua da (nau da in the North)
Iced coffee with sweetened, condensed milk*
The most common cup of Vietnamese iced coffee is called ca phe sua da. Ca phe means exactly what you think it does – coffee. Sua (Nau) means milk and in this case it’s always sweetened, condensed milk. Da is the ice.
Ca phe den da
Iced black coffee
See we switched one word? We replaced the milk with black. For this one you can also just say ca phe da but you might as well show your server that you know what you’re talking about. They’ll appreciate the effort. Note – this will still come sweet. Vietnamese coffee is brewed strong and bitter, so the sugar helps cut the intensity. If you want it without sugar… see below.
Ca phe den (da) khong duong
Black coffee hot (or cold) without sugar
If you want your black coffee without sugar, the magic words are “khong duong”. The pronunciation is easier than it looks. Khong is just like “kong”. Duong is like doo-aw-ng. Good luck with the bitterness.
Ca phe nong
Hot black coffee
If you really must, this is your hot, black coffee.
Ca phe sua nong
Hot coffee with sweet condensed milk
Same, but with sweetened, condensed milk.
*About the condensed milk
A lot of Westerners aren’t so into the idea of condensed milk. Possibly because they think of it as being unhealthy and unnatural. Or maybe because they’re used to versions of these drinks made in the States or elsewhere with weak imitations of Vietnamese coffee sweetened with so much condensed milk that it tastes more like candy. It’s really just milk that’s been slightlly dehydrated/concentrated and sweeteneed with sugar. At least for your first try, give it a shot the way the locals drink it and adjust as necessary. You may find it surprisingly balanced, despite being much sweeter than you’re used to. The way coffee is roasted and brewed in Vietnam, it ends up being especially strong. The sweet, rich milk actually cuts the intensity and bitterness really well. Of course, if you still aren’t into it, by all means ask them to dial it back or remove it… just give it a shot before you write it off!
A really well-made ca phe sua da is like a punch in the face at first – shockingly sweet and strong, but once you settle in and start to enjoy it you’ll wonder how you ever spent your days without it. Stay tuned and we might just teach you how to brew it yourself at home.
Bonus Round: Hanoi Style Ca Phe Trung
If you find yourself in Hanoi, you’re in luck – almost any cafe you tuck into there serves a special treat that’s very unique to the north – ca phe trung aka EGG coffee. This stuff is an awesome treat that you really can’t find anywhere else in the world. We’ve heard about a cafe or two in Saigon/HCMC serving versions of it but in general, despite being in almost every cafe in Hanoi, it’s pretty much impossible to find in the south. Egg coffee is (almost) exactly what it sounds like – egg in coffee. It’s an egg yolk whipped into the condensed milk and then topped with fresh-brewed hot black Vietnamese drip coffee. This is the one time in our book that it’s ok to go hot. You have the option of ordering hot or iced but in this case the hot is our preference. Some places will even serve it in a bowl of hot water to ensure your drink stays warm while you slowly enjoy it a spoonful at a time.
Which brings us to how to eat/drink this creation… you can’t just slug this back like a normal cup of joe, nor do you want to. You want to sortof pry back the thick foamy head that’s formed on the top of your cup, spoon out some of the dark, motor oil from the bottom, and then grab a touch of that cream and spoon it into your gullet. Enjoy it like that for a few bites or as long as you’d like until you’re ready to stir the rest together and sip away.
You’ll see locals really taking their time on a cup of ca phe trung while hanging out enjoying their day. Follow their lead and enjoy the fact that you are in a cafe experiencing one of the few truly unique, undiscovered local tastes of the world among beautiful strangers you can’t understand.