Ever since going on an awesome holiday to Vietnam a few years ago, I’ve loved Vietnamese coffee.
I remember the 4 of us getting to our hotel in Hanoi and being served delicious iced Vietnamese coffee while we sat on stools on the street. (That’s the same coffee in the photo above!)
So you’re probably wondering… what is Vietnamese coffee?
Well, Vietnamese coffee can refer to both the style of making coffee and the specific beans that are grown in Vietnam. The coffee is made using a unique-to-the-country ‘phin filter’ and the traditional Vietnamese coffee beans that are Robusta and known for their robust and strong flavors. It’s very popular served with ice or sweetened condensed milk.
Now, I had a friend who’s living out in Vietnam bring me back an authentic phin filter along with a small bag of Vietnamese coffee, so I’m going to share with you my experience of trying to create Vietnamese coffee myself!
So here’s a look at what my friend brought back for me from Vietnam. The coffee maker on the left is known as a ‘phin’ and was bought in an old style Vietnamese shophouse which sold knicks and knacks.
On the right we have a bag of Vietnamese coffee which was purchased in a 7/11 type store, apparently you can buy it everywhere.
I even managed to wrestle this photo off my friend of the coffee aisle in the store. Imagine this much coffee beans being sold at a 7/11!
Here’s the phin and the bag it came in, no fancy packaging or anything! You can see on the front that it cost 27,000 dong, that works out to about $1.15. Pretty good value I’d say!
Here’s the bag of coffee beans. It’s pretty small, only a 100g of coffee in there, and is made by the presumably reputable ‘Golden Weasel’ coffee producers with their ‘Golden Quality Coffee’.
On the front, you can see ROBUSTA in pretty big letters. I’m actually a little excited, practically all the coffee I ever drink is Arabica.
By the way, if you don’t know the difference between those, they’re essentially different species of coffee. You can learn more in my article I did comparing them, it’s pretty relevant when you talk about Vietnamese coffee.
On the other side, we’ve got short and simple instructions for making Vietnamese coffee. In the interest of authenticity, I’ll be following these, even if they are hardly to the precision that my coffee usually gets taken to!
A little about the coffee beans, it seems like they are grown in Vietnam but they are roasted either in Germany or using German roasting expertise. Interesting…
So opening the coffee… uh oh! It’s preground! I have some pretty controversial views on preground coffee which I’ll save for another article. In this instance, I didn’t have much choice in the matter so I’ll have to deal with it.
At the very least I won’t be worrying about the right grind size needed for the phin filter.
Have a look at the coffee, it’s so dark! While I’m not too familiar with Robusta coffee beans I believe that Vietnamese coffee is traditionally roasted for much longer than much fo the coffee sold elsewhere, so it’s safe to say that this is a dark roast.
So this phin has four parts, the main brewer where we’re going to put our coffee, a second filter that you but the main brewer on, A kind of ‘pusher downer’ type thing, and a lid. Here’s the main brewer with the other parts in the background.
Here’s a look at the inside of the brewer, you can see the small holes where coffee is going to drip down, it’s a little bit like a mesh filter which will trap the coffee grounds in the brewer and let the coffee drip down into the cup below.
Next, we’ve got the brewer and how you put it on top of the second filter.
So let’s try a brew. As far as I can tell, it works like a Pour Over except the fine holes in the metal act as a filter instead of a paper or cloth filter.
So, I’m setting it up on top of my cup like this:
The instructions on the side say to use ‘2-3 spoons of coffee’ so it seems like an ‘eyeball it’ job to me. Here’s my attempt.
(Annoying angle is due to the light not being strong enough otherwise.)
Next up is to pour water in and start the brew. When I added the coffee there was a rich, chocolatey smell with a definite bold, pungent coffee feel to it. Hard to describe really, it just smells ‘strong’.
You can’t fit much water in at one time so it seems you have to do a few ‘pulses’ before you get a good amount of coffee.
And this is the coffee passing through the two mesh filters and into the receptacle below. I used glass here to show what was going on, I do drink out of normal cups, too, y’know.
And here’s what I get! I’m going to drink this one straight rather than add the traditional ice or sweetened condensed milk just to get a better idea of the taste.
Look how dark it looks!
The taste is very different to coffee that we’re used to here in the West, it’s so strong and overpowering. Do you remember the first coffee you had? And do you remember it being extremely bitter and strong?
The easiest way to describe it is like that, I’m not sure if I can say I really enjoyed it due to that.
I imagine it’s something you get used to the more you drink, or of course by balancing it out with a few embellishments as I’ll talk about in a sec.
What You Need To Know About Vietnamese Coffee
Vietnamese coffee is known for being incredibly bitter and strong, this is largely because instead of using Arabica which is what most coffee sold in the West is, they use Robusta.
Robusta is just a different species of coffee bean that is notable for its high caffeine content and stronger, bolder and more bitter taste.
It is often included in some espresso blends but is largely ignored by many of the Third Wave roasters out in the States.
Although Robusta coffee and its taste profile is considered unpalatable, the Vietnamese enjoy these more robust flavors and prefer them to our coffee. It reminds me of the saying about what people eat:
You don’t eat what you like. You like what you eat.
The process of using the filter will give quite a full-bodied coffee as there is no paper filter to trap the coffee oils and microparticulates. This has a much smaller impact on the taste than the beans, though.
How Is Vietnamese Coffee Served?
Vietnamese coffee can be served hot or cold, with hot coffee simply served ‘as is’ and iced coffee by pouring a normal hot brew into a glass with ice.
Due to the intense bitterness and strength of the coffee beans, the Vietnamese often add things to the coffee to balance this out.
Fresh milk is very expensive out there due to the difficulty of farming cows in the subtropical climate so you find cans of ‘sweetened condensed milk’ which lasts a long time and kinda is sugar, milk, and cream all combined in one.
If you order a ‘ca phe’ then you get a coffee. A ‘ca phe da’ is an iced coffee, the ‘da’ meaning ice. And then a ‘ca phe sua da’ is an iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, the sua meaning milk in this one.
(That Vietnamese script is not exactly right, but I don’t know how to add the small lines onto the letters!)
Interesting little tidbit: If you add sweetened condensed milk, you put that in first and then brew the coffee over it so it all mixes up as the coffee drips down into the cup.
The History Of Vietnamese Coffee
Coffee was first introduced to Vietnam in 1857 by a French Catholic priest during France’s rule over the region that they called ‘Indochina’.
The imprint of French culture can still be seen in Vietnam today, what with coffee shops, baguettes still permeating the cuisine and the occasional French road name too.
This was aided by the Vietnamese highlands being excellent growing conditions for coffee, and over the years Vietnam has become one of the largest exporters of coffee in the world, and the largest producer of Robusta.
What Is This Vietnamese Egg Coffee?
There’s a special type of Vietnamese coffee which is called ‘ca phe trung’ which is served in cafes in Hanoi. It’s normal Vietnamese coffee with the traditional sweetened condensed milk added then a raw egg which is cooked/heated by the heat of the coffee.
This is exactly the kind of ridiculous coffee concoction that I love and I’m sad that I won’t be getting to Hanoi any time soon to try it. I may just have to make it myself with my new ‘phin’, let me know if you’d like to see some photos
I mean it makes sense… it’s breakfast and coffee all in one!
Where To Buy This Stuff
Safe to say that unless you fancy trekking across to Asia, you won’t find one that was as cheap as what I got. That said, it is fairly easy to get all the right equipment from somewhere like Amazon.
The first thing you will definitely need is a ‘phin’ filter to make the brew and it’s best to pair that with some authentic, darkly roasted, Vietnamese Robusta coffee.
If you’re after the complete set then pick up a can or two of sweetened condensed milk so you can add some ‘sua’ to your ‘ca phe’.
1. Get the grind right. When you’re making a brew with a ‘phin’ filter, the size of your grind affects the flow rate through the coffee.
Too fine and the water will clog up and overextract making your coffee bitter, too coarse and it will run through the grounds too fast and make your coffee underextract and thin, watery and acidic.
Here’s a photo of the preground coffee I got from Vietnam that was intended for use in a phin filter, so this should give you a good idea. As you can see, it’s around medium-fine, so play around with your grinder until you get something in the ballpark.
2. Keep it hot. Vietnamese people love their coffee to be brewed at the hottest temperature and it is true that keeping the temperature consistent is a factor in good brewing. You have the lid on your phin which isn’t necessary to make a brew but will help keep the heat in as it’s brewing for the 4-5 minute duration.
You also can heat up the phin itself prior to the brew by pouring some boiled water in which will lessen the amount of heat that gets transferred out of the coffee.
3. Use sweetened condensed milk. It’s rare to find coffee served black in Vietnam and with good reason, the coffee itself is bitter and strong, almost unpleasantly so as I found out when trying to completely black in my brew above.
The coffee, whether served hot or on ice, is usually combined with sweetened condensed milk that offsets the harsh nature of the Robusta coffee beans. You can play around with using cream or sugar but then that’s not really the real Vietnamese coffee experience.
You can use just a little (1 tablespoon) to balance out the bitter flavor, but you can also add more (2-3 tablespoons) to give a sweet drink that will taste a little more like a coffee-flavored dessert.
4. Keep the phin still. When you put your ground coffee in the phin filter, you do not want it clogging up the fine holes in the metal or even passing through to the cup below. So keep your phin as still as you are able so that the ground coffee stays still too.
What the heck! This is blasphemy! What do you think the little piece inside the filter is for? (Sorry, I don’t know what it’s called, even in Vietnamese, so let’s just called it the piece of metal. In Vietnamese, usually I just refer it as “that thing that keeps the grains together”).
I am an authentic Vietnamese person who drinks Vietnamese coffee regularly. Let me humbly teach you how to do it correctly! Here it goes:
1. Boil your water
2. Prepare your favorite coffee mug. You may put in some condensed milk if you like that style, or just a few spoons of sugar. I don’t hate it, but I prefer just plain black coffee.
3. Take the piece of metal originally in the filter out.
4. Put 1.5 to 2 spoons of ground coffee beans into the filter.
5. Put that piece of metal back in. Rotate it a bit, so it would flatten the coffee grounds. That piece is for keeping the grains together, but don’t push it in too hard. Just flatten the grounds, and put it lightly on top.
6. Put the filter’s disc on top of your favorite coffee mug, then put the filter pot on top of the disc. Make sure they fit nicely.
7. Put a few cubic millimeters of boiling water into the pot, and wait for a few seconds, so that the grounds have time to absorb all of the hot water, and expand.
8. Put more boiling water into the pot, then close the lid.
9. Wait for the coffee dripping. Sometimes, the pressure in the pot becomes too much that it stops the dripping, so you may lift up the lid after a minute and a half to release the pressure, then close the lid again.
10. Take the filter out. Stir to dissolve the condensed milk, or sugar. Add some ice if you like, and enjoy your coffee!