Aside from the typical hello ("xin chao") and thank you ("cam onh"), the key phrase all travelers need to know in coming to Vietnam is "ca fe sua da", or sweetened coffee over ice.
The First Sip
Like the baguette (more on bahn mi's in an upcoming post!), coffee was introduced to Vietnam during the area of French colonialism. It is now widely consumed and available, with it's own special special style. I'm ok with coffee, but am generally much more of a Tea Person, but given the strong tradition had put trying Vietnamese coffee high on my Ho Chi Minh To-Do-List. After a long, hot day of walking around the city, Andrew and I wandered in to an air-conditioned coffee shop and sat down to see what the hype was all about.
Trung Ngyuen Coffee Shop
Trung Ngyuen Coffee is the leading upscale coffee chain in Vietnam. It looked like a cozier rendition of your neighborhood Starbucks, but with table service. The restaurant was playing soft music, and had small TV screens with rotating imagines of famous people in history (mostly men and Westerners) like, you know, King Henry VIII, Steve Jobs, and Henry David Thoreaux, with quotes about their affectionate relationship with coffee.
The menus, which came in fancy three ring binders, opened with a long explanation about the history of coffee and humorously self-aggrandizing claims about coffee's "cultural and spiritual heritage of the world," and its role in "the ultimate guidance of an enlightening civilization." This was followed by many more pages espousing the highly questionable elixir-like properties (e.g. "eliminate poisons") that coffee contains as shown in "The recent scientific studies." At Trung Nguyen, coffee is less of a passion and more of a lifestyle. We think the writing on the menu was actually pretty entertaining, so we've included the text-heavy photos for your reading pleasure.
Time to Order
When the menu gets to discussing the actual beverages, the naming scheme capitalizes on coffee's role creating "energy for the creative mind." Their Creative brand of coffee comes in five levels of creative enlightenment ranging from Creative 1: Thoughts (surely for lesser mortals) all the way up to Creative 5: Success for the most illustrious.
With a healthy self-esteem and just a dose of humility, I ordered Creative #4: Creation, in the aspiration that my beverage would help me fulfill my God-gifted or Darwinian-evolved abilities - or at least get better at painting. A more humble Andrew went with Creative 2: Discover, I think in a motivational desire to unearth the location of the bathroom.
Proper Vietnamese coffee, or "ca phe sua da" ("iced coffee with milk") is served as pictured. Hot water and coffee grounds steep together in a single-serving drip chamber set atop a small coffee cup, which comes pre-filled with a generous helping of sweetened condensed milk. As the coffee steeps, it gently drips through small holes in the bottom of the silver device to drop into the cup below. Once all the coffee has dripped down, you remove the silver device from the cup, using its lid at a catcher for extra drippings on the bottom.
The next step is to stir the percolated coffee and sweetened milk together. After it's stirred, you then move the coffee to a third vessel - a glass of ice. Vietnamese like LOTS of ice, so the coffee usually fills only about half the glass. The ice quickly chills the coffee and you slurp it up through a straw.
All the cups at Trung Nguyen Coffee are have photographs and inspirational, coffee-themed quotes on the side.
On The Street
Though fancy coffee houses can make for a divine experience, Vietnamese most commonly buy their coffee from beverage vendors on the street. These vendors brewed the coffee in large quantities at home and then mix it with sweetened condense milk and ice to order for each customer. Though street-origin coffee is as good as all but the very best stuff from fancy cafes, its also a bit different, often coming out a bit sweeter and with exceptionally strong chocolate flavors. Needless to say, we found this version delicious as well.
On our last day in Vietnam, we returned once again to Trung Nguyen Coffee, this time from a branch in Hanoi. Looking for the wildly exotic for our last cup, I spied "weasel coffee" on the menu, and thanks to one outstanding April Fools prank from the internet a few years ago, I knew exactly what it was.
Discerning that "weasel" was probably a poor Vietnamese translation of "civet" (must be Creation 3: Idea at work!), I realized that this was indeed the famous Indonesian coffee delicacy known as Kopi Luwak, or "civet coffee." Civets are cat-like mammals found most commonly in Southeast Asia. Civet coffee is createdby feeding whole coffee cherries, which are the bean and their external fruit, to Asian palm civets (a sub-species) and harvesting the beans from their feces. No joke. Trung Nguyen even gave it their own special page on the menu and charged triple, promising "moments of ecstasy" and "Excalibur to the hero." So I totally had to order some.
Civet coffee comes in special Legendee Excalibur BLACK serving vessels because BLACK is BETTER and MORE FANCY and means you should know that THIS COFFEE IS SOME SERIOUS SHIT. Ernest Hemingway must think so too because they put an alleged quote of his in Vietnamese on the side of the cup.
So how was it? The ending is a little anti-climatic, as it tasted more like regular drip coffee than the rich, complex, chocolately set in the Creation group. No undertones of poo or cat hair. The good news that in real-time we are back living in Somerville, I have learned that Creation 4 and the little single-serve drip coffee devices are BOTH available on Amazon! In fact, just before posting this I finished a cup of my own Creative 4: Creation. Thank goodness for the internet, and stop by my place for a sample.