It turns out Vietnamese coffee is famous the world over. I did not know this, and practically didn’t care, because I didn’t drink coffee. Vietnam made a compelling argument in its favor though, and that argument’s name is cafe sua nong – coffee milk hot.
The absolute classic way to drink a cup there is with a V-60, a slow, single cup drip strainer device. You order your coffee and shortly after comes a cup with the V-60 on top, packed with ground coffee and covered with its metal lid. The lid isn’t very tight fitting but is important for continued dripping. Taking it off reduces the flow rate to next to nothing. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this but I haven’t done the math yet. Along with the coffee comes a second cup of hot water. It’s kind of like the cup of water you’d get with a Turkish or an Italian coffee, but boiling. I was never able to ask what that water was for, but I used it to get a second pour through the filter, making the coffee considerably less bitter.
The best part of all is the ‘sua’ portion, the milk. When the French colonized Vietnam they brought over a love of bread and coffee with milk. The bread is evident in the bahn mi. The coffee with milk is not as direct – there’s not a huge fresh milk supply in Vietnam, unlike cow-filled France with its butter and cheese and dairy obsession. So to get their coffee with milk fix, the French, and now the Vietnamese, use condensed milk. About a finger of condensed milk is poured into the bottom of the glass before the coffee starts dripping, and each drop ever so slowly permeates the thick sugary layer. To really get them to mix takes dedicated spoon work, they will not blend on their own in any reasonable amount of time.
The result of this whole process is a creamy and -most importantly – sugary coffee flavored concoction, more closely resembling a thin milkshake than anything else. It turns out this is a great way to introduce coffee to a person who doesn’t particularly drink it. There’s the natural buzz of coffee, the added rush from sugar, and any bitterness is masked by the candy-bar sweetness. It’s a lot of sugar and I’m not sure I would have it regularly anymore but it was my go-to drink in cafes across Vietnam.
An honorable mention goes to a drink unique to Vietnam – the egg coffee. A lot like Indonesia’s STMJ, this is a raw egg whisked and whisked and whisked, blended with coffee and sugar and turned into a thick, mildly-sweet, almost pastry-cream drink. A lot like the flavored cream that comes before ice cream. The egg and coffee mixture floats on top of a lake of coffee in the cup, and the flavors between the two are in high contrast. The cream is rich and sweet, the coffee is thin and bitter. Drinking all of the egg mixture without realizing that more coffee lies beneath leaves a now very bitter last taste. It’s better to mix the two a bit. We only tried it once, in a hard to find single-room cafe looking out over the lake in Hanoi. Daily drink this is not, but it was a terrific treat.
Lastly are the infinite variations on the espresso style, all of which are available almost anywhere visitors go in Vietnam. There the delicious taste and aroma of the Vietnamese coffee really gets to shine, unhindered by the almost candy-like levels of sugar found in the other drinks. In this setting the taste is mildly bitter but very deep, with several layers of earthy, sour, and chocolaty flavors that come out at different times. The great taste of the coffee alone doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more desert – we tried an affogato for the first time in a coffee bar in Dalat which cut a nice middle ground between condensed milk and plain coffee, neither too sweet nor too bitter.