More than just a drink to help people stay awake, coffee has evolved into a way of enjoying life in Saigon. Reading newspaper in the morning. Coffee. Discussing business. Coffee. Meeting friends after work. Coffee. The coffeehouse acts as a social hub for a large number of people. To a certain extent, they have standardized the way modern people interact with each other in public space.
Coffee was brought into Vietnam in the late 18th century, during the French colonization.
Nowadays, Vietnam is among the top coffee exporters. Despite its European origin, Vietnamese coffee is very different from Western coffee. It is roasted with butter oil, brewed with a metal filter (phin), and flavored with condensed milk instead of fresh milk. These factors create a special taste for Vietnamese coffee.
We also have a special Vietnamese drink called “bạc xỉu,” which contains about 80% of milk and only 20% of coffee. This drink is for those who love the taste of coffee, but do not want to consume too much caffeine.
I have asked many foreigners about their opinions on Vietnamese coffee, and they all said they liked it, although they would not be able to drink it everyday as the beverage was too strong. I myself have tried the coffee in America and Australia – their taste is absolutely bland. Usually, I had to order a “double shot” or “triple shot”, so that the quality of the cup can match Vietnamese standard.
In some Vietnamese coffeehouse, coffee is pre-made and kept in bottles. When an order is placed, the waiter will mix it with ice and other ingredients, and quickly serve the customer. However, some preferred coffee to be properly made with phin, as they intend to stay long in the house. And lots of people do stay long in a coffeehouse. For various reasons.
A Vietnamese blogger once shared:
“What I am looking for is a specific space where I can feel safe and relieved, where I can just listen to music and some nearby chit-chat. […] I like the feeling of drinking coffee alone. You are surrounded by strangers, who don’t care what you are doing, thus you can freely do anything you want, chatting, listening to music, or just stirring your cup of coffee.”
As the result, part from the drink itself, coffeehouses in Saigon sometimes attract customers by some added activities, such as English club, live performance, HD movies, and so on. However, most of them share a number of characteristics. Once you step into a coffeehouse, it is like stepping into another world.
Who wouldn’t love a cup of coffee? Saigonese does love coffee very much! And to sum up, I would like to quote Mark Pendergast in the book, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World:
“A good cup of coffee can turn the worst day tolerable, can provide an all-important moment of contemplation, can rekindle a romance”