The Vietnamese are serious about their drinks

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London Fog and Vietnamese coffee at a cafe in Hanoi.

Drinks are a cuisine unto themselves in Vietnamese culture, with dozens of drinkable delights that you can stir, sip, and chew. Yes, chew.

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Fresh fruit juice and sweetend milk with sticky purple rice.

Two of the defining features of Vietnamese drinks is that they’re 1) almost always decoratively presented and 2) texturally different. It’s not like in the U.S., where the waiter brings you a cold Coke in a can and if you’re lucky, a glass of ice and a straw. Here, you get a drinks with fruit garnishes or served in two beautiful layers that you stir together to make the drink. A diversity of textures is also common, with many containing infused fruits, jellies, or rice ingredients that are chewy, slimy, spongy, or squishy. It’s a feast for the senses.

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Vietnamese Egg Coffee, which mixes a raw egg into hot coffee and forms a thick, creamy foam with the flavor of tiramisu.
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Lemongrass citrus infusion tea at a local cafe.

The most evident example of these drinks are bubble tea/boba. Boba is originally Taiwanese, but the Vietnamese have adopted it with a passion and made it their own. There are boba cafes scattered throughout every city, ranging from simple street stalls to trendy cafes with brick, handmade wood furniture, and décor straight out of downtown Brooklyn. There’s also way more to choose from than just the brown tapioca pearls known as ‘boba’. There are the poppers containing fruit-flavored syrups that burst open when you chew them, which made it to the U.S. a couple of years ago and are often offered as a topping in Yogurtland.

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Plain boba in bubble tea (right) beside a mix of boba and jellies in bubble tea (left).

Then there’s a lot of stuff that also hasn’t gotten popular in the U.S. yet (although I may be poorly informed; it’s been years since I’ve been near a halfway-decent boba café): rainbow jelly cubes made from tapioca and fruit-flavored gelatin, basil seeds that are squidgy and crunchy when you chew on it, sweet black rice that oozes and sits at the bottom of your cup, puddings with a super-soft consistency that burst with the flavor of burnt sugar and flan when you bite down. All of these options and more are laid out before you at the café in neat little containers, a textural symphony waiting to brighten your drink. If you’re a boba lover, Vietnam is your kind of place.

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A full bubble tea DIY mix in, courtesy of Popping Tea in Da Nang.

Vietnamese coffee

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.

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The V-60 standing tall.

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.

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Here the coffee has only begun to drip through.

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.

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Tea latte and cafe sua nong at one of our favorite cafes in Hanoi.

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.

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The egg coffee slowly flows back down to the cup. Very slowly.

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.

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An espresso shot poured hot over vanilla ice cream.

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.

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Thanks for the great introduction to coffee Vietnam!