If you first think of Robusta and Ca Phe Sua when it comes to coffee in Vietnam, you’re right. Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee after Brazil, and yes, mostly Robusta. Vietnamese coffee has made its way into our latitudes thanks to the numerous Vietnamese restaurants, in the larger cities you can also find it in cafés, I’m talking about Ca Phe Sua – coffee, which is prepared with a so-called Phin filter and sweetened with sweetened condensed milk.
The Southeast Asian country on the Chinese Sea, however, has much more to offer than Robusta and coffee beans that are almost roasted to death.
In this article I’d like to clean up with this stereotype. Because even in Robusta country Vietnam is a small, but growing specialty coffee community that is no less ambitious than anywhere else in this coffee world.
After coming from filter coffee heaven Taiwan, it was kinda tough for me to not being able to enjoy good quality coffee right away, though…
All of the coffee places, be it cafes, roasteries or coffee farms, are bookmarked on the little map all the way to the bottom of this Vietnam coffee guide.
Where does coffee actually grow in Vietnam?
The coffee-growing areas are limited to the Vietnamese highlands, which are located in the center of the country, mainly in the provinces of Dak Lat, Kontum, Gia Lai, Lam Duong and Buon me Thuot.
In particular, the city of Da Lat with its nearly 200,000 people living there, and its surrounding area, which is 1,500 meters above sea level, houses a number of coffee farms that are often barely accessible for visitors.
Many of these coffee farms are associations of coffee farmers and their families, often belonging to ethnic minorities such as the K’ho.
During my three-week trip through Vietnam, I was allowed to visit one of these coffee farms and experienced first-hand how life is shaped in a K’ho family: The K’ho live in matriarchy. That means, all decisions, including business, are made by women.
The coffee farm K’ho Coffee by Rolan Co Lieng is no different. The cupping I was allowed to attend during my visit was determined by Rolan’s announcements. It was also interesting for me as a woman to experience, especially in East and Southeast Asia, which I assumed was more patriarchal. Rolan is not only the CEO of K’ho Coffee, but also takes over the roasting of locally grown coffee beans.
Is there really only Robusta?
The coffee plant is not originally native to Vietnam, but was first introduced by the French in the mid-19th century in Vietnam, in the area of Da Lat by the way. With the outbreak of the Vietnam War, however, the cultivation was interrupted.
In order to be able to get involved in the worldwide coffee market again after the war and to become the current second biggest exporter behind Brazil, it was necessary to move towards the mass export of fast-growing and low-cost coffee qualities, including Robusta.
If you believe, that farms like K’ho Coffee would most likely grow Robusta, you’re on the wrong track. Many of these farms are far ahead thanks to the initiative of women like Rolan, and are now growing in terms of Arabica cultivation and modern processing methods such as honey processing, where the coffee beans are sun-dried with part of the pulp still being left on the coffee beans, and crazy fermentation experiments such as yeast fermenting.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reintroduction of private companies, quality coffee and Arabica cultivation received a second chance.
Above all, the owners of La Viet Coffee from Da Lat, who are at the forefront of coffee in Vietnam.
La Viet Coffee are seen as the pioneers of specialty coffee in Vietnam and have built a small coffee empire with farm, roastery, coffee lab and café in Da Lat. If you enter their shop in Da Lat as a guest you might find yourself thinking of having stepped into one of those shops that many big cities now have, but not one in the Vietnamese highlands.
You can visit both coffee farms, K’ho and La Viet’ coffee farm. Guided tours are offered year-round. Of course, this is especially interesting during the harvest season, mostly around the turn of the year.
Is there anything more besides Ca Phe Sua Nong and Ca Phe Sua Da?
During my three-week trip through Vietnam, I moved from the North to the South. I started in Hanoi, THE city for Ca Phe Sua Nong (the hot version) or Ca Phe Sua Da (Iced Coffee) and Egg Coffee.
Egg Coffee or Ca Phe Trung is strong, dark roasted coffee that is not only made drinkable with sweetened condensed milk, but also with foamed egg yolk. That sounds adventurous, but it actually tastes really delicious and creamy when prepared fresh as I was able to try it at Haka Specialty Coffee in Ha Noi.
Apart from that, there’s unfortunately not much going on in terms of good coffee in the North and towards the coffee growing region around Lam Dong.
Sure, you’ll get Phin Filter coffee on every corner. Ca Phe Sua Nong and Ca Phe Sua Da in all shapes and sizes and even an Iced or Hot Latte with coconut milk.
The preparation is even easier when brewed the Turkish way, as we often call it in Germany: Pour hot water over coffee powder, let coffee grounds set and enjoy.
This was part of my morning breakfast – a mountain of freshly baked pancakes and bananas – at the home of a local tribal family in Sapa, near the Chinese border, where I spent one night after joining a young girl with her baby on the back for a 6 hours Trecking tour…
Italian coffee culture with espresso, cappuccino and Co., let alone filter coffee and pour over cannot be found in the North as of now. There are exceptions such as Gau Coffee & Bakery in Ha Noi, where I had a very fruity filter coffee brewed with the AeroPress. But for the most part, especially in the tourist centers Hoi An and Da Nang, I even had to search for a cappuccino.
The more southern I traveled, though, the more variety I was able to observe on the coffee side. Especially in Da Lat, roasteries, cafes and coffee shops are popping up like mushrooms in the recent years, that offer pour over, espresso-based drinks and even Cascara (tea from the coffee cherry).
It is not uncommon to see people from outside Da Lat behind these stores, coming from other parts of Vietnam and even from abroad, who appreciate being so close to the Vietnamese coffee-growing areas and the very mild climate. It almost reminded me of Germany.
These shops include for example: Manki – Third Wave Coffee‘ and ,London Saigon Coffee‘.
The latter are two young Londoners who just built their own small roastery a few months before my visit with a bed and breakfast attached to the house in Da Lat. They even showed me their coffee drying beds in the upper part of the building.
The last days of my Vietnam tour were spent in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. What’s going on over there quickly makes you forget the vain search for ‘good coffee’ in the northern part of the country.
Specialty coffee hub Saigon
In Saigon, several specialty cafes and roasting companies have established in the last almost 5 years, which can easily compete with one of the shops from overseas.
The makers and people of the Saigon coffee scene are passionate Baristas roasters and business people, who want to promote specialty coffee, especially Arabica, of course, from the Vietnamese highlands.
Above all, young women like Han Tran, two-time Vietnamese barista champion, whom I was lucky enough to accompany for a day on a coffee tour through her hometown on the back of here scooter. The tour included hip shops such as The Workshop and Bosgaurus, where Han works as a Barista.
During our tour, she not only introduced me to the Saigon coffee scene, but also to numerous interesting coffee people in the city and told me about her ideas, plans and dreams…
I am particularly pleased to see that the pioneers of the specialty coffee scene in Vietnam want to work closely together, with the farmers, the coffee professionals in Da Lat and in Saigon, to join forces and together move forward the Vietnamese coffee industry.
I am super curious what kind of interesting developments will soon come from the country of Robusta and Ca Phe Sua.
By the way, if you want to enjoy Vietnamese coffee beans, Arabica or Robusta and the traditional Vietnamese preparation methods, in Germany Han Coffee Roasters in Berlin and Caphe House in Dusseldorf are recommended.
Where are other Vietnamese style cafés and roasteries located that I should check out outside of Vietnam?