Vietnamese Coffee: In Pursuit of the Perfect Cup

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vietnamese coffee slow drip
Vietnamese Coffee, Trung Nguyen

Enjoying your slow-drip coffee is a quintessential part of life in Vietnam. Whether you're stoopin' it, shouting your order down the street to the local coffee cart on the corner, or enjoying a carefully prepared cup in an upscale coffee house, Vietnamese coffee is meant to be savored and enjoyed to the max.

One reason is the time it takes to brew a cup. Vietnamese coffee is not for the rushy-rushy. Single servings are brewed through a simple metal filter called a Phin, which takes a good 5-10 minutes to produce a cup. The filter is fitted over the top of a cup, or glass (if you're making iced coffee), the grounds are placed inside the filter (about the same size grind as what you would use for a French press), a small weighted piece is placed on top, and then hot water is poured into the chamber.

vietnamese coffee phin filter
Vietnamese coffee, Phin filter

Another reason to approach the experience with leisure is simply the heavenly flavor. Like espresso, Vietnamese coffee is deep and rich, and a little goes a long way. What makes it really stand out though in my mind, is its incredible buttery aroma and flavor. It wasn't until I bought some roasted beans from a mom-and-pop coffee/tea shop that I learned why exactly the coffee tasted so buttery -- you got it, it's because the beans are actually roasted in clarified butter! Brilliant.


As if that doesn't sound decadent enough, sweetened condensed milk is typically used in lieu of cream and sugar both for practical reasons (it doesn't have to be refrigerated) and for taste (Have you had sweetened condensed milk lately? Think creamy, thick, dulce de leche your coffee...everyday!). This is why Vietnamese coffee is a habit I could really get used to.

iced vietnamese coffee
Vietnamese Iced Coffee (Ca Phe Sua Da)

In Saigon, with so much fantastic coffee everywhere we turned, it was tough to be too discriminating. So, I left it to the locals to show me the way. Vietnam is a country of food-lovers and total coffee addicts. My favorite conversation starter was asking a local: Where is the best food in town? People would bubble over with recommendations and loved talking about their favorite food, where to get it, and how to eat it. Everyone had an opinion.

One afternoon, over a Lazy Susan laden with dim sum, an impassioned discussion over the most delectable banh xeo, the silkiest tofu, the best hand-pulled noodles with half a crab on top, turned into a full-on debate over where to grab coffee afterward. One fellow named Nguyen insisted, "The best coffee is at my sister's place," and after a few nods of acquiescence from his accompanying friends, we were off to taste for ourselves if he was indeed correct.

We hopped on our motorbikes and went caravanning off through the maze of commuters. Put-putting over main highways, over to District 7 we went...on a mission for the perfect Ca Phe Sua Da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk). It was spontaneous, exhilarating, and as the wind whipped through my hair, I couldn't help but envision Anthony Bourdain's crew on our tracks, kicking up some dust behind us.

saigon motorbikes
Saigon Motorbike Ebb and Flow

What we came upon was a breezy little oasis of an internet cafe, tucked away amongst sprawling new developments and construction sites. The cafe itself is called Goc Peo, but the main signage outside speaks to the main reason for visiting -- the rich and aromatic Trung Nguyen coffee served.

coffee time at trung nguyen
Coffee time at Trung Nguyen

Trung Nguyen seems to have made a nice business for itself, their chains and signs are all over Saigon, as well as the airport gift shop, and while the prices are expensive by Vietnamese standards, they are still relatively cheap by US standards (a cup of their famous "Legendee Coffee" was about $2 USD). Incidentally, Trung Nguyen has a pretty comprehensive website that explains all about what defines Vietnamese coffee and makes it unique, namely:

1) The topography of the Annamite Range has allowed for a diverse variety of beans to flourish in Southeast Asia. By blending a variety of bean species (Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa and Catimor) rather than sticking to a single-source (like 100% Arabica), a broader flavor range is achieved.
2) A lower-temperature, longer roasting process that is stable and consistent.
3) Roasting the beans in clarified butter.

Another interesting fact I learned about Trung Nguyen's coffee is that they produce what they call their Legendee Coffee, a "unique enzymatically-treated coffee that releases flavors bound in the beans and not released under ordinary processing." The Legendee Coffee was what Nguyen brought us to taste. Read more about the Legend of Legendee and how modern science has attempted to reproduce the infamously expensive (and kinda gross) Kopi Luwak coffee, made with the help of the weasel-like civit.

My final verdict? The Legendee was worth experiencing, although a little intense for me to want to drink on a daily basis.

iced vietnamese coffee at trung nguyen
Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Trung Nguyen

Regardless, it was a joy to spend an afternoon in pursuit of the perfect cup with company who really loved their coffee. Company who loved it so much, they continued on their way, buzzing away to the next cup as we rookie tourists bid farewell.


Goc Peo
So 16 Duong 8B, KDC Trung Son
Nguyen Van Cu noi dai – TP. Ho Chi Minh City