by Sharon Guest with Dam Thi Ngan Ha
In Hoi An coffee hotspots for expats abound: Mia Café, Dingo Deli, The Espresso Station, Coco Box, 11 Coffee, Hoi An Roastery and many more.
But what’s popular with the Vietnamese? Where do they go and why? Join me on the ‘Ca Phe Viet Trail’ with Dam Thi Ngan Ha, Hoi An Now’s Office Manager. Her insightful descriptions of why Vietnamese like certain places will inform, make you laugh and, most importantly, inspire you to try some.
But first let’s look at the big picture …
Although coffee wasn’t introduced by the French until 1857 Vietnam is now second only to Brazil as the largest exporter in the world.
Only the strong survive
The typical coffee bean grown in Vietnam is the Robusta. Rightly named because it packs a cracking caffeine punch of 2.7%, almost double the 1.5% (Western-preferred) Arabica.
So, if you’ve got high blood pressure, anxiety, gout, gall-stones or you’re one of those pathetic people who start bouncing off walls after drinking one Latte – hold the fort, stay away from Vietnamese coffee!
Cà phê cóc
Throughout Vietnam you’ll find coffee shops of all styles, prices and sizes but if you want to see the ‘real’ coffee culture of Vietnam look no further than your street corner.
Along every sidewalk or corner are the ubiquitous Ca Phe Coc street coffee vendors. These are make-shift affairs involving nothing more than a dozen or so tiny, plastic, red chairs and tables precariously perched on the side-walk by some busy road. The seriously good coffee is cheap and the experience: quintessential Vietnam. It’s here Vietnamese – young and old, rich and poor – can smoke, shout, gossip, play cards, street watch or simply get lost in thought and just ‘be themselves’ and er… shout.
What do Vietnamese look for in a ‘good’ coffee?
Before we embarked on our coffee trail I was interested to find out from Ha what Vietnamese looked for in a cafe or coffee house. I knew that wifi was important but what else?
First and foremost is THE VIEW
Vietnamese people love to gossip and be among it, to see what’s going on. Therefore, the most popular coffee shops, according to Ha, are those with good views of the street (busy intersections are best). It’s here, people can see who’s doing what and with whom and if there’s an accident well, it all adds up to enlivening an otherwise boring day.
What is Vietnamese Coffee?
- Vietnamese coffee is drip coffee made from Robusta beans.
- The Vietnamese prefer a thick coffee, often with the viscosity of engine oil.
- A good Vietnamese coffee is a short glass you sip, much like you’d sip a fine scotch whiskey.
- Always served with cold tea ‘on the side’, you can have it with condensed milk and ice (Café Sua Da) or hot.
- The thickly-sweet condensed milk arose as the French couldn’t easily acquire milk; loving all things sweet, the Vietnamese embraced it.
People who gossip are called: ‘Ba Tam’. Unlike we Western types who pretend to disdain such behaviour, the Vietnamese openly embrace a bit of gossip in the full light of day. But it is all meant to be sweet-natured. The Vietnamese are a communal and inclusive society and deeply interested in each other. A bit of ‘tam’ is a way of bringing people together because a bit of gossip enables you to connect with people and also get to know people you don’t know that well.
Arguably, Westerners have the same impulse but invariably do their best to hide it. Most of us are nosey but it ‘just won’t do’ to show it.
Ca Phe Sua Da (long coffee with milk & ice)
Drinking the longer-glassed, style of coffee that comes with more ice and milk suggests a softer, easier going person who laughs a lot. Younger people tend to drink coffee with milk.
So, if you want to look young, swag and fun to be with, drink Ca Phe Sua Da!
Some Cafes Preferred by Hoi An Locals
U Café $$
Still relatively unknown by foreigners, there is something ‘other-worldly’ about U Café. A place of stillness, the only noise you’ll hear is the hum of a honey bee hovering over vines or the soft lilt of a wind-chime tickled by the breeze. According to my guide and colleague Ha, one of the best ways to unwind is to dangle your feet in the pond, let the fish nibble away and lose yourself in the view and solitude whilst sipping on one of their delicious Green Mocha teas. U Cafe is community-minded, with disadvantaged youth and women the waitstaff and, while everything is divine, it’s the organic teas that really swing.
Hours: 8am – 9pm (closed Tuesdays); Add: 120 Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street (Hoai Riverside Road)
Gu Go (Google) Café $
With its tiny chairs spilling on to a busy street, cheap, strong coffee and loud Vietnamese smoking locals, Gu Go Café is your typical ca phe coc. It takes its name from Google ‘and, as with Google, where you can find out everything that’s going on in the world’, Ha told me ‘at Gu Go Cafe you can find out everything that’s going on in Hoi An.’ Often friends will say: ‘Hey, do you want to go to Gu Go and “tam” (gossip)?’ The casual nature of Ca Phe Coc is also a bonus for locals: ‘We Vietnamese’, Ha continued, ‘are loud and here you can shout and be yourself – farmers, businessmen, managers, laborers all come here and feel equal’. So if you’re a rumbustious, nosy voyeur then come join the locals. But if you value your privacy, avoid it at all cost.
Hours: 6am – 9pm (7 days); Add: cnr Phan Chau Trinh Street & Nguyen Hue
Cocobana Tea Room & Gardens $$$
Located in a 200-year old Ancient house, the simply breathtaking Cocobana combines unique, impressive traditional Vietnamese architecture with artistic colorful displays of authentic artefacts from all parts of the country. Still water ponds, antique ceramics, swirling incense, lilting music and titillating tea menus – everywhere you turn, Cocobana is a feast for the senses. It’s a magnet for ‘Song Ao’ – Vietnam’s young, middle-class who like to post pictures of beautiful things on Facebook to create a persona of intellectualism. Outside, inside, upstairs this is one of the most beautiful places in Hoi An. According to Ha, nothing is more stunning than the second-floor views between 2pm – 4pm when the sun reflects off the Old Town’s yellow walls and lights up the green, moss-covered rooftops. Pricey but a must visit. Try the organic lychee tea!
Hours: 12pm – 6pm (Tuesday – Sunday); Address: 16 Nguyen Thai Hoc
Café Hoi An Historic $$
Set in the grounds of the iconic Hoi An Hotel, Café Hoi An Historic sits back from the street shaded by foliage and trees. Private, with wide open spaces, this cool, garden setting is a popular place for business meetings and for middle-aged people who want to talk without any ‘Ba Tams’ in earshot. On Sundays it’s popular with Vietnamese families who like to catch up on personal issues and family matters while the kids run around.
Hours: 7am-9pm (7 days) ; Add: 10 Tran Hung Dao St
Le Fe Cafeteria $$
Nestling down a small alleyway, asleep under the dust of time you’ll find Le Fe Cafeteria. Against a backdrop of flaking paint antiquated telephones, gramophones, vintage shop signs, antique TVs, even old motorbikes have pride of place. The retro furniture for Ha evoked a poignant passing of time, of things gone forever. Le Fe Cafeteria is a venue for Hoi An’s young, ‘thinking’ Vietnamese; those sensitive intellectuals who sit by the dripping coffee and get lost in the deep and meaningful lyrics of Trinh Cong Son. Aside from beer, alcohol mixes and coffee there’s an eclectic list: orange with salted plum, lemon with menthol, blueberry, guava, and smoothies.
Hours: 7:30am – 9:30pm (7 days); Add: 69/3 Phan Châu Trinh
Uy Viet Café$
With its highly visible sprawling bench overlooking busy Cua Dai Road, wide, open and spacious Uy Viet Café is hard to miss. A scene for young Vietnamese, it offers loud music, great views, terrific coffee, a venue for card games, a catch up with friends or an opportunity to simply stare at the street. Shaded by trees right on the corner of Cua Dai & Pham Hong Thai with a bench that spans three shop fronts, it’s a wonderful retreat from the heat in summer. The Uy Viet Café chain is famous for its unique coffee – thick viscous, smooth and strong with hints of coconut and chocolate. Apart from standard Vietnamese coffee they also sell Americano, Cappuccino, Lattes and Espressos (Vietnamese-style) along with Café Liqueurs.
Hours: 7am – 10pm (7 days); Add: 580 Cua Dai
Long Coffee is ‘The Men’s Café’ which is not surprising is it, with a name like that? So if you haven’t got a long dangly bit you may find it a tad overwhelming walking into this testosterone-ridden, male domain. In the morning it’s packed to the rafters with men from all walks of life: builders, lawyers, laborers and public servants all come here to talk their secret men’s business and drink their men’s coffee. Long Coffee’s brew is famous for its manliness, strong, thick and viscous – this mush is not for the faint-hearted. Any females audacious enough to visit should prepare for the rank smell of men and their glaring, staring, bewildered eyes; their shocked silence testament to this Men Only zone.
Hours: 6am – 10pm (7 days); Add: 218 Ly Thuong Kiet Street
Moc Lan Café $
A cozy haven away from the concrete and beeping horns, Moc Lan Café is situated on a shoulder of the Thu Bon river where time seems to move slower. Not your typical Vietnamese coffee joint, Moc Lan is a quiet, family-friendly café. You can expect a typical Vietnamese menu, ca phe den for 10,000 vnd, ca phe sua da for 12,000. And expect a strong cup of coffee — I was positively buzzed after just a few sips. The café also offers a few sweet snacks, though availability varies by day. Moc Lan only serves Vietnamese coffee (sorry, no espresso here). Be sure to try their lime ‘snow’ (though on the menu it is written lemon), a blend of ice, lime, and coconut juice. The taste is vaguely reminiscent of key-lime pie and can be enjoyed for 18,000 vnd.
Hours: 6:30 AM — 10 PM; Add: 121/2, Nguyen Duy Hieu; Tel: +84 (0) 97 498 90 39
Tinh Thuong Café $
Wanna join the army? Well Tinh Thuong café is right across from the recruiting office! This large, shady, open coffee shop is where all the taxis stop on the corner of Le Loi and Tran Hung Dao. Don’t worry, the screen of trees reduces the noise to the background and it is a cool place to enjoy coffee on a hot day. Tinh Thuong only serves Vietnamese coffee — Trung Nguyen, one of the best Vietnamese blends. The staff are friendly and speak some English. Tinh Thuong is located close to the tourist information centre and Old Town, yet far enough away to get local prices.
Hours: 6:00 AM – 10.00 PM; Corner of Le Loi and Tran Hunug Dao.
U Café $$
Price guide: Organic Ginger & Daldak Honey Tea – $1.60
Hours: 8am – 9pm (closed Tuesdays)
Add: 120 Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street (Hoai Riverside Road)
Tel: +84 (0)235 3 501 118
Gu Go (Google) Café $
Price guide: coffee, 45 – 65 cents
Hours: 6am – 9pm (7 days)
Add: cnr Phan Chau Trinh Street & Nguyen Hue
CococobanaTea Room & Gardens $$$
Price guide: small Mekong quilt bag, $15.27; all drinks $3.18
Hours: 12pm – 6pm (Tuesday – Sunday)
Address: 16 Nguyen Thai Hoc
Tel: +84 (0) 90 388 26 88
Café Hoi An Historic $$
Price guide: coffee $1.14 – 1.36
Hours: 7am – 9pm (7days)
Add: 10 Tran Hung Dao St
Le Fe Cafeteria $$
Price Guide: Ca Phe Sua Da – 72 cents
Hours: 7.30am – 9.30pm (7 days)
Add: 69/3 Phan Châu Trinh
Tel: +84 (0) 90 909 60 02
FB: Le Fe Cafeteria
Uy Viet Café$
Price guide: Coffee – 45 cents – $1.13
Hours: 7am – 10pm (7 days)
Add: 580 Cua Dai Road
Price Guide: Ca Phe Su Da – 50 cents
Hous: 6am – 10pm (7days)
Add: 218 Ly Thuong Kiet Street