Our journey in SE Asia took us to Vietnam and our first stop was Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon). HCMC is a vibrant city and the most populated one in Vietnam with 13 mil. inhabitants. A combination of modern office skyscrapers, food stalls along the streets and women wearing the traditional Vietnamese hat selling street drinks creates
a unique dynamic urban area.
The city is literally packed with coffee shops, you can see one at every corner. But, before going deeper into this subject, let’s find out a few things about coffee production in Vietnam.
Coffee was introduced to Vietnam in the 19th century by the French. If you didn’t know, Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world, after Brazil. However, the quality of the beans is not high and because of this, the marketability of Vietnamese coffee has been limited. 97% of the production accounts in Robusta coffee, making Vietnam the biggest Robusta producer in the world. Nestle has processing plants in Vietnam where they roast and pack the beans, but most of the coffee beans are exported green.
Northern Vietnam has lots of tea plantations, so drinking tea and coffee it’s a tradition in this country. Walking in Ho Chi Minh City around the central area we noticed coffee shops every 100 m, sometimes even 4–5 coffee shops packed one near the other. Combined with the street stalls selling Ca phe phin (the Vietnamese filter), I can say that this is the most coffee-dense city I have visited so far. They drink coffee mostly with condensed milk and on ice (Ca phe sua da) or with egg (Ca phe trung) or with coconut (Cap he cot dua). In all these places they mainly use very dark roasted Robusta beans and Ca phe phin is a concentrated coffee beverage (starting with a ratio of 20-25 gr of coffee/100 ml of water). All these combinations will result in a very bitter drink. This is the main reason why this coffee is consumed on ice and with condensed milk, which in these parts of the world is super sweet and super thick.
In all this craziness with the low quality coffee beans, I’ve met a handful of people who are fighting to promote specialty coffee on local plan and try to take Vietnamese specialty coffee to international exposure. They own 5 of the best coffee shops in Ho Chi Minh City and they have tight connections with farmers in Da Lat area, working together to show the real potential of Vietnamese specialty coffee. Their mission is not easy because of a few major factors: the habit of the local consumers to drink cheap, low quality coffee products; the high taxes for importing coffee equipment (they can get to 40% for espresso machines); the high taxes of importing coffee (35%); the huge rent costs in the central area of Saigon (e.g. a 70 sqm space on the second floor of a building will take from your pocket $1500 / month, while a shop with entrance from the street can get to $3500-$5000 / month). But they are dedicated and the most welcoming and opened persons in coffee industry which I have met so far. This made our coffee tour of Saigon be the best experience we had so far.
Saigon Coffee Roastery
Located in the centre of the city, this shop is a must visit if you are in Ho Chi Minh City. Vo Phap, the owner, opened this coffee shop because he was tired of all the low quality and suspect coffee that is sold on every corner, so he chose quality over quantity. He roasts coffee on a 2 kg Vietnamese roasting machine, Vina Nha Trang brand. Most of the coffee from his offer comes from Da Lat region in Vietnam (average altitude 1500 m), he makes direct trading with the farmers from this region, but imported coffee is also available.
They have a big market demand for Robusta coffee as well, so he also roasts and sells it. It is the first time when I tasted the traditional Phin filter coffee made from fresh roasted Robusta, but I couldn’t drink it, the bitterness was too much for my mouth.
Together with Vo Phap, we tasted a few of his coffees: cappuccino from Da Lat region, prepared from a double shot; V60 from Da Lat region, a simple and good coffee, honey sweet and low acidity; V60 from Panama Geisha – complex aroma, stone fruit taste, incredibly good; espresso from Da Lat, Typica beans – sweet coffee, peanuts and almonds aroma, sweet taste and low acidity.
Address: 1st Floor, 151 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh City
Shin are suppliers of coffee around Vietnam and not only: they are coffee consultants, barista trainers, they trade coffee on the stock exchange and they own 4 coffee farms around Vietnam: one in the North part of the country, close to Hanoi and three in the centre part of Vietnam in Khe Sanh, Gia Lai and Da Lat. In Gia Lai region they grow Robusta, which totals a 60% of all their plantations of 100 hectares. On the other farms they grown Arabica.
As coffee consultants, they already helped setting up around 50 coffee shops around Vietnam and one of their barista won the Vietnamese Latte Art competition in HCMC.
Since their beginnings in 2015, they managed to open 3 coffee shops, two of them being located 5 minutes walking distance from each other in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. All their coffee shops are equipped with 2 groups La Marzocco espresso machines. The biggest coffee shop spreads on 3 floors and features a 5 kg Vietnamese roasting machine, a 1 kg Giesen and 2 small batches roasters for tests. On the ground floor you’ll find the bar with the main sitting area and the roasting space in the back, while on the 3rd floor they have the training centre. The second location is smaller, but decorated with the same industrial design.
Expect to pay for the coffee as you would do it in Western Europe, the rents in downtown HCMC are huge. We tried an S’Farm Catimor pour over (Vietnamese single origin) – low acidity, nutty, sweet, stone fruits flavour, a cappuccino from Shin blend and a second pour over from Son La blend – Vietnamese origin from Son La region mixed with Ethiopia, a good balanced coffee, floral and medium acidity. I liked the old school way of serving the brew.
If you’ll hang around HCMC, don’t miss Shin coffee, it worth paying a visit.
Address: one coffee shop is at 18 Hồ Huấn Nghiệp, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh another one at 13 Nguyễn Thiệp, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh and the third one in 57 Hòa Bình, Hoà Thạnh, Tân Phú, District 2, Hồ Chí Minh
[a] Coffee House
This is the cosiest place that we visited in HCMC and Truc, the owner is one of the greatest people that we’ve met in coffee industry, he’s a true artist. [a] Coffee House started in 2011 as a project for friends and it soon turned into a coffee shop. Truc is the first person to introduce the specialty coffee in Saigon, bourbon beans from La Viet farm.
In the beginnings, Truc bought V60 and Chemex equipment, he was curious but had no clue how to use them. Then Will Frith, the coffee consultant and actual consultant for Modbar, Inc. appeared in the scene and taught Truc how to play with the equipment and soon [a] Coffee House became a very cosy coffee shop. It now has a 2 groups Rancilio espresso machine and a 3 kg coffee roasting machine in the back. Truc direct trades from Da Lat region, but also buys other origins from importers.
This is the only coffee shop where we’ve had a cold brew coffee as a welcome drink, made from a Columbia. Then we had a friendly and nice talk with Truc in the back of the coffee shop, near the roasting machine. It was one of the greatest stories shared about coffee.
Please don’t miss out this place if you’re in HCMC. Support local people who put their soul into coffee!
Address: 15 Huỳnh Khương Ninh, Đa Kao, Hồ Chí Minh City
The Workshop are pioneers in Ho Chi Minh City’s coffee revolution. This coffee shop found its place in an old restored building and its name is in perfect harmony with the industrial decoration and with the old stairs that leads you to the shop. You’ll find inside an island bar, lots of seats and a diversity of customers: students, business people, corporatists in their lunch break, digital nomads etc. It’s a place for everyone. The head barista is 6th place VNBC in 2016 and 2nd place VNBC in 2017.
A manual 2 groups La Marzocco Strada lies on the bar, a new Linea was on the way when I visited them and they have a 5 kg Vietnamese roasting machine where they roast two times a week: one time for espresso and one time for brew. For espresso they were using a blend of 60% local beans and 40% Ethiopia and for brew they always have 3 origins, usually one is local coffee and two are imported beans. They use a lot of beans from Da Lat region, the owner of La Viet farm from Da Lat is co-owner in The Workshop. A constant connection with the farmers takes place in order to guide them to produce quality beans. All the team in The Workshop works hard to teach the local customers about the specialty coffee because the market is in full development process, but it starts to take shape. It’s not an easy mission on this market full of cheap, low quality coffee shops and mobile coffee stalls. This is the place where I had the pleasure to meet Will Frith, the man who believed in Vietnamese coffee and who consulted these guys in roasting, extraction and brewing. He helped a lot the specialty coffee scene in Saigon, as well as the coffee production in Da Lat area.
They serve food as well and you can find here the best chocolate in the world, Marou, made in Saigon from specialty cocoa beans. We had the opportunity to visit this coffee factory as well and the way that specialty coffee beans will change all you perceptions about coffee, the same happened with Marou chocolate. You’ll feel that you never had a real chocolate before.
Address: 27 Ngô Đức Kế, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh City
Bosgaurus Coffee Roasters
This coffee shop is located in the suburbs of Saigon, in a new developed area with high rise apartment buildings, on the Sai Gon’s river shore. Its name comes from the tallest species of cow in the world, a white cattle that originates in South East Asia. Both the Vietnamese Barista champion and the Vietnamese Aeropress champion work in Bosgaurus. They are official Giesen distributors in Vietnam and you’ll find two Giesen roasters in the back of the innovative floating bar designed by themselves. The owner is an innovative person and he left his prints in the design of the whole coffee shop. It looks like a clean laboratory. They work closely with The Workshop and La Viet farm to grow good quality Arabica beans. Their goal is to promote locally and internationally the Vietnamese specialty coffee. There are two coffee bars, one on each floor and the one upstairs is used as an educational tool where anybody can try to make their own coffee, be it a brew method or espresso / espresso based drinks. On the basement they store the coffee in a thermal and humidity controlled storage house.
We had the chance to taste their signature drink, Caramelly Rain – an ice dripped espresso topped with fluffy milk foam which creates an intense flavour of salted caramel candy. Surprisingly good! In order to attract customers from the traditional Vietnamese coffee lovers, he innovated a Ca Phe Phin filter where the dripping can be controlled and it can be transformed into Aeropress style during the process. Opposite to the regular Robusta used in Ca Phe Phin filter style coffee around Vietnam, Bosgaurus uses only Arabica beans. They have 3 roasting profiles for this drink: Tender – light roast which gives a fruity and milk chocolate flavour; Fumee – a balanced cup, a combination between modern and traditional style with semi dark chocolate and peanut butter flavour; Big Smoke – keeps the traditional Vietnamese coffee culture with intense flavour of dark chocolate and smoky bitter finish. In one corner of the shop they serve nitro coffee during the day and craft beers on tap during the evenings.
It’s the most innovative coffee shop I have ever visited.
Address: Saigon Pearl, Phường 22, Binh Thanh, Ho Chi Minh
The coffee experience in Saigon was the best one so far. We’ve met the most passionate people who play hard on a difficult market where drinking cheap and bad quality coffee is a culture. Have you been to Ho Chi Minh City? If you’ll have the chance, try the traditional Vietnamese coffee and compare it to one of the places in this article (or, why not all?).