Aug 16, 2019
Amidst the chaos of the streets of Hanoi, the city’s many coffeehouses and coffee shops are sanctuaries – escapes from the constant whirr of motors outside. These coffee shops, filled with patrons of all ages, from locals to tourists, reveal the growth of coffee as a staple within Vietnamese culture. This is the story of how a nation that, at one point did not have a single coffee tree, became the world’s second largest exporter of this universal drink.
As the product of its close proximity to China, Vietnam’s teas were once the drink of the upper echelons of Vietnamese society, which held strong influences from the country’s massive neighbour. It was when the French arrived in Southeast Asia that coffee grew its first roots in Vietnam. According to some sources, the year was 1857 when French colonists brought the first coffee tree to Vietnam.
Discovering Vietnam’s tropical climate as ideal for coffee growing, the French began developing mass coffee plantations throughout the country. While primarily intended to fuel the demand for coffee abroad, the French also brought their distinct coffee culture to the cities of Vietnam. Soon, elements of the commonly romanticized Parisian cafés began appearing in Vietnam, including at the storied colonial Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. Slowly, this special passion for coffee began seeping into Vietnamese society.
Prior to the Vietnam War, coffee was never a key export in Vietnam. The war did little to help. The coffee industry was centered around the south-central region, a major flashpoint within the war between the North and South. The conflict forced out many civilian populations, leaving no one to develop the coffee plantations.
When the Communist North won the war, the collectivization of agriculture ruined the coffee industry, leaving low yields that had no potential for widespread export. Isolated and with a lagging economy, the Vietnamese government embarked on the Đổi Mới (Renovation) reform, a daring shift from a centrally-planned economy to a “market economy with socialist characteristics.” With private industry once again permitted, the coffee industry experienced a rebirth and a boom. Coffee production surged, increasing by approximately 27% each year between 1991 and 2000. In Vietnam today, the coffee industry employs more than 2 million people, with the country becoming the world’s second largest coffee producer, only behind Brazil.
Although the Vietnamese coffee industry continues to grow, there are concerns surrounding the massive yields. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 40 000 square miles of forest have been cut down in Vietnam since 1973. In addition, some experts suggest that Vietnamese coffee farmers use too much water and fertilizer with their crops.
While in Vietnam, we had the opportunity to speak to Dao Tran Phuong and Hoang Anh Ho – the couple who owns Oriberry Coffee – at their store on the north shore of Hanoi’s vast West Lake. The husband, Dao, recounted the story of the efforts of Oriberry, an initiative of a Vietnamese NGO, to create a more sustainable and rewarding coffee production system for its farmers. He shared stories of farmers who were unable to afford the widely recognized “Fair Trade” certification, while discussing how Oriberry pays higher upfront prices to farmers throughout the country, alongside working with them to develop sustainable growing practices. This includes improving soil and fertilizer management methods, as well as applying careful harvesting guidelines. The result, as Dao described, was a greater profit for each individual farmer, access to a variety of markets, and more sustainable agricultural practices – all while preserving a quality cup of coffee.
In Hanoi, we were able to sample many of the various forms that coffee has taken in Vietnam over the years, largely based on the same, dark, strong brew. A coarse blend of ground coffee beans is put into a drip filter called a phin. A special lid layer weighs down on the beans, as hot water is added to the filter. The liquid slowly trickles through the filter, leaving a coffee with a deep, dark brown colour, and a strong flavour.
From there, the coffee can go in various directions – from cà phê đá, the traditional dark-roast robusta coffee served cold with ice, to its sweeter, silkier cousin, the condensed milk-added cà phê sữa đá. Unable to access a steady supply of fresh milk, the French turned to wonderfully sweet condensed milk, the creation of American Gail Borden, to add to their coffee. Yet another way to drink coffee, a true Hanoi specialty, is egg coffee, or cà phê trứng.
We, of course, were told the classic legend. A bartender at Hanoi’s famed colonial Metropole Hotel was in the midst of a crisis. There was no more milk available. The bartender, Nguyễn Văn Giảng, turned to whisked egg yolks as a substitute. The concoction was a success, and the famed Hanoi egg coffee came into existence. Today, there are dozens, even hundreds, of options to sample egg coffee in Hanoi, but we chose to venture to the brainchild of the drink’s inventor, Nguyễn’s own cafe – Café Giảng, founded in 1946.
Continue, and read about the local coffee culture of Hanoi and Vietnam in Part 2!