We’re espresso people: we like our coffee short, black, strong, and hot, Italian-style. Yet in Saigon we found ourselves stopping often for tall, sweet, cold glasses of traditional Vietnamese iced coffee, called cà phê đá or ‘coffee ice’, or cà phê sữa đá when it’s with milk.
Made from Vietnamese-grown dark roast coffee beans, the coffee is first brewed in a French-style drip filter (not our preferred style of coffee-making usually), which is poured into a glass of ice to which sweetened condensed milk is then added and stirred. (I’ll then add lots of sugar.) Sometimes the coffee is pre-made although traditionally it’s individually brewed for each customer in a small metal drip filter, called cà phê phin, which sits atop the coffee glass.
In Saigon, you’ll see Vietnamese coffee sold on virtually every second street block, at small stands usually manned by women, who temporarily turn a portion of the footpath into a pavement café. Tiny colourful plastic stools are scattered about the sidewalk or stacked up against a wall, and customers help themselves to a seat while they wait for their coffee. So you never have to walk far in the sticky heat for a caffeine hit and coolant.
If you’ve had enough of the heat and need some air-conditioning for a while, traditional Vietnamese iced coffee is also sold alongside Italian espressos, cappuccinos and lattes in Ho Chi Minh City’s increasing number of hip cafés (see our picks below), as well as popular, homegrown coffee house chains like Highlands Coffee and Trung Nguyen. So if your preference might normally be for a Starbucks experience, do the right thing and head to Highlands Coffee or Trung Nguyen instead.
The French Jesuits introduced coffee to Vietnam in the 1870s, establishing coffee plantations in the country’s Central Highlands in Dak Lak province. Vietnam is now the second largest coffee exporter after Brazil, specialising in dark, rich, full-bodied Vietnamese Robusta coffee beans, and, to a lesser extent, the more acidic Arabica coffee beans. Robusta actually has around 50% more caffeine than Arabica so has quite a kick, but the two are often blended to create a better balanced, more complex and more rounded coffee.
Fancy taking some Vietnamese coffee home? Then you can pick some up at a Co-op Mart supermarket or the Ben Thanh Night Market (Chợ Bến Thành; at the intersection of Lei Lai, Tran Hung Dao, and Ham Nghi) when you’re souvenir shopping.
Popular Vietnamese coffee brands include Cao Nguyen, Tay Nguyen, French Plantation, Blue Cloud, Café Ong Tho, Highlands Coffee, and, probably the most popular of all, Trung Nguyen. Look for Trung Nguyen’s ‘Creative Coffee’ variety, and, if you dare, their kopi luwak or cà phê chồn, also known as ‘weasel coffee’, the world’s most expensive coffee, made from the beans of coffee berries that have passed through the digestive tract of the Asian Palm Civet.
If you’re looking for a chic Saigon café to sip coffee — traditional Vietnamese iced coffee or a strong Italian espresso — try these stylish spots, our pick from Ho Chi Minh City’s abundance of coffee shops:
Traditional Vietnamese Iced Coffee and Saigon’s Best Cafes
We’re not fans of cookie cutter coffee shop franchises like Starbucks and Gloria Jeans with their silly over-sized coffees and lack of table service, so we almost didn’t try Highlands Coffee, with its 40 cafés. Fortunately, Highlands Coffee (top left) has personality, funky contemporary décor, table service, friendly staff, free Wi-Fi, and excellent, freshly roasted Vietnamese coffee. Try 75 Nguyen Du, District 1.
This is Vietnam’s version of Starbucks — only with better coffee — with 10,000 modern cafés across the country, a handful in Singapore, and global expansion plans. This is where you can try kopi luwak or cà phê chồn (see above) or simply sip a strong cup of Vietnam’s most popular coffee. Menus are long and there are coffee accessories for sale, including very cute drip filters. The outdoor branch behind Diamond Shopping Centre has a kitschy coffee cup-shaped entrance.
Handy branches are at Nguyen Hue near City Hall or the corner of Thu Khoa Huan and Ly Tu Trong, District 1.
Head into the Art Arcade on fashionable Dong Khoi, take a right into the alleyway, climb the stairs, and you’ll spot some charming tables and chairs on the balcony of L’Usine. Once inside, you’ll find an airy, light-filled, white-walled space that will — depending on where you’ve come from — remind you of cafés in Paris, Melbourne or New York. Excellent coffee, delicious cakes and sandwiches, free Wi-Fi, and beyond, the beautiful L’Usine shop I told you about in this post.
151 Dong Khoi, 1st floor, District 1.
Enormously popular with affluent locals, this swanky coffee shop on the ground floor of the ritzy Sheraton Saigon boasts a long list of frothy coffees as well as green tea frappes and the like. It doesn’t have a lot of character but it’s fantastic for people-watching.
88 Dong Khoi St, District 1.
This delightful French café-restaurant in a restored old shophouse, has ceiling fans, moody lighting, original art on the walls, and park views. A stone’s throw from Notre Dame Cathedral, and a short walk to the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum, it’s a great spot for a coffee break mid-sightseeing, and there’s a full lunch and dinner menu if you decide to refuel.
23 Han Thuyen, District 1.
Hanging lanterns, Buddha statues, a pond full of koi, trickling water, and comfy sofas make this a welcome haven from the hustle and bustle of the chaotic streets. As well as coffee and cake, there are French baguettes and light meals on the menu.
14 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, District 1.
Du Mien Café
Tranquil ponds, tinkling fountains and lots of lush greenery to calm your frayed nerves after battling the traffic chaos, and good strong coffee (as well as soothing herbal teas) to kick you into action again. Light snacks and meals also.
48/9A Ho Bieu Chanh, District Phu Nhuan.
Mien Dong Thao
Set in a stone village with rock pools, plenty of plants, and cooling mist fans, Mien Dong Thao offers a respite from the heat outside, while a good range of coffees and cold drinks (fruit shakes, smoothies, etc) will keep you sated. Local girls seem to like the American-style cookies and creamy coffees. Snacks and beer served too.
221A Nguyen Trong Tuyen, District Phu Nhuan.
Note: many of Saigon’s cafés have free WiFi though you may have to ask for a code when you order your coffee. Most cafés are open from early in the morning until late at night, many from 10am to 10pm.
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