After more than one year living in Asia, I thought I had lost every memory of a decent cup of coffee… all until I visited Vietnam and discovered how seriously the coffee business is run in the country.
One may think coffee is an area of expertise reserved solely for Latin America, a continent endowed with just the right conditions, climate to grow the beans and, sure enough, home to the proud palates of those who know how to enjoy and discover the many shades that rest in a cup of this dark energizer.
Yet, for over 150 years, Vietnam has become a top destination for world-class coffee lovers. Over 2 million people work for the remarkably strong agri-business industry that has flourished in the country. Vietnam now holds the second position as the world’s top coffee provider – only behind Brazil and ahead of Colombia. In Europe, one in every ten cups of coffee is made with Vietnamese beans.
However, it is not the weight of Vietnam in the global coffee market what makes the country unique, but the incredible popularity that coffee enjoys among its people and the very unique way the Vietnamese brew their beverage.
Let’s face it: for someone with a pressing need for a cup of coffee as the only possible kick starter of the day, Asia is not the right continent. Tea, in all varieties, is the drink of choice – and in spite of the many varieties (tea can be found fermented, fresh, of this or that colour…), none gets close to the boost that resides in coffee.
So for a disoriented traveller longing for his morning caffeine shot in Asia, not everything is lost. Vietnam is the place where everyone is familiar with coffee and no one will raise eyebrows when the word is said – as would certainly occur in China. And when I say “coffee” here, I’m not referring to the so-called coffee that is poured into paper cups in many international retailers; some serious coffee is made in Vietnam.
Picture Ho Chi Minh City, the vibrant, energizing metropolis in the south of the country. With more than 7.5 million dwellers, streets burst with noise, honking motorbikes and bicycles. A speedy mess that grows by the hour, which many may find stressful.
Vietnamese coffee stalls provide the moment of peace that you were looking for. Spot one of the little trolleys that prepare coffee at every corner in town and sit back – a small, plastic stool is offered as part of the service. Pick the coffee of your choice; although the caffeine-strong Robusta is the most popular variety in the country, these establishments, small as they may be, have quite a product range. And wait for the magic that is about to happen.
If you were planning to lose some weight, maybe tomorrow is a good day to start. Since fresh milk was a rare delicacy in the tropical country back in the day, Vietnamese people leant towards condensed milk as a safer alternative – a choice that remains unchanged until today and very much appreciated for those with a sweet tooth.
After pouring a decent quantity of that sugary cream – make sure you see the glass literally half full – use the device that Vietnamese have designed for filtering coffee. It’s a rather simple piece of pottery in four pieces: a pierced base made to fit the top of the cup, an also pierced container, a filter and a lid. And simple as it is, it is also very ecological, for there is no need for disposable paper filters.
The base rests on top of the cup and it will be the sitting place for the small container. That is the place for the coffee – two tea spoons should be enough, although that depends on tastes. Needless to say, the more coffee you use the more intense it would come out. Then comes the filter. Having gravity as an ally, it helps to take all the flavours and pull them down.
Boiling hot water enters into play. After pouring some on the container, as much as you need, place the lid on top. One minute later and… there you have it! Coffee starts running through the filters, drop by drop, bringing down with it all the aromas. Seeing how condensed milk serves as a bed for the coffee that keeps falling, creating a strong black and white contrast inside your glass, is certainly a beautiful thing to watch.
After five minutes all of the water should be filtered through. Remove the coffee maker – the lid may help you to place the whole thing on, preventing spills, as if everything was thought in advance – and stir slowly. Colours begin to merge. The aroma of the coffee mixed with the thick, sweet scent of the condensed milk, invading all the space around you. And there you have it: the process behind the creation of one of the most delicious tastes in the world of coffee.
For a coffee aficionado, Vietnam has turned into a sanctuary of sorts for flavour and aromas; a place where centuries of tradition, cultural heritage and Asian influences have imbued the very art of coffee making.