Take a sip and let the overwhelming sweetness of Vietnamese coffee hit your senses. Wait a moment until your mouth dries and bitterness of coffee kicks in. Isn’t it awesome? Take another sip and enjoy the whole experience again, except this time around you are the king of the world and nothing matters anymore. Everything is just right. Welcome to the world of Vietnamese iced milk coffee – Cà phê sữa đá, and to its more brutal variation Cà phê đen đá – Vietnamese Black Coffee.
Vietnamese iced-coffee with milk is what it says it is. A super-concentrated drip coffee on the bottom of a cup mixed with an equal amount of super-sweet condensed milk and a generous amount of ice cubes. As you mix the three together, the ice cubes melt and the resulting liquid becomes what is famously known as traditional Vietnamese Iced Milk Coffee. Keep in mind, that despite the addition of sugary milk, the Vietnamese coffee is still super strong and fairly bitter.
As of Today, Vietnam is the second-largest coffee (Robusta beans) producer in the world. Vietnamese love for coffee started in the mid 19 century when French brought Arabica trees into the country in their effort to take advantage of the favourable climate. The rest is history. Coffee became an integral part of Vietnamese culture.
Cà phê sữa đá is traditionally made from finely ground and locally-grown dark roast coffee (Robusta) and individually brewed through a small metal French drip filter (cà phê phin) into a cup containing about a quarter to a half as much sweetened condensed milk, stirred and poured over ice.
The best place to buy an authentic glass, or a plastic cup, of Vietnamese coffee, is from one of the many street sellers who are super-easy to find almost everywhere in South Vietnam, especially in Saigon. Look for the boxy and shabby-looking stall surrounded by a bunch of blue or red plastic mini-tables with chairs. And “voilà”, there comes your stylish cup of Cà phê sữa đá.
Ask for “Một ly cà phê sữa đá” ( if you want sweetened milk-coffee) or “Một ly cà phê đá” (if you prefer a black coffee with ice-only). Expect a plastic cup, straw, ice cubes and of course the concentrated black coffee and milk on the bottom.
Cà phê sữa đá normally costs around 10-15 000 VND. However, if you walk into a “proper” Vietnamese coffee shop, expect to pay more. Starting from 20k VND all the way up to 80k VND per cup. “It all depends on the coffee shop and its current status among, mostly young, Vietnamese,” I was told by my friend Victor, who has been an avid coffee drinker since forever. “Currently, the most expensive coffee shops are those that belong to the big franchises such as Starbucks or The Coffee House. People pay the premium for the comfy environment and that little bit of extra that the good western marketing has to offer.”
Back in the old days, I used to like Vietnamese coffee-shop chains such as Highlands Coffee and Trung Nguyên Coffee. Even though both of them recently underwent some re-branding and re-design changes, they both still remain a good alternative for those of us who want to enjoy a traditional Vietnamese coffee in a more standardized but not completely western-style environment.
Remember, there are three uniquely Vietnamese ways of drinking coffee:
- Cà phê đen đá – Vietnamese Black Coffee
- Cà phê sữa đá – Vietnamese Iced Coffee with Sweetened Condensed Milk
- Bạc Xỉu – Vietnamese Condensed Milk Coffee