Photo by, Christian Berg.
Vietnamese coffee’s reputation is well-known and well-deserved. The French brought coffee to this region in the 19th century and to this day, Vietnam has become the second-largest producer in the world after Brazil. The Central Highlands region–around six hours north of Ho Chi Minh City–is home to the farms and fields producing the many varieties of this magical and addictive bean that is stored in pantries worldwide.
What makes this drink so distinctively delicious? Why, it’s the combination of its two main ingredients: the sweet condensed milk –which gives it that toothsome, creamy texture–and the way in which the coffee bean is brewed. Robusta is the bean of choice in Vietnam, as it is cheaper and almost twice as strong as Arabica beans, the more popularly consumed roast everywhere else in the world.
Coffee intake in Vietnam is quite simple. You order your coffee, take a seat and watch the coffee slowly drip through the phin–the famous aluminium steel filtering chamber hitched to the top of the glass. The first sip proves immediately that the sluggish brewing process is well worth the wait.
Ca phe: plain coffee
Ca phe da: straight coffee served with crushed ice
Ca phe sua da: brewed coffee layered over sweetened condensed milk with crushed ice
Ca phe trung: the famous Hanoian coffee topped with a dollop of fluffy meringue
At any time of the day, you’ll be able to find mobile cafe stalls surrounded by tiny plastic stools. Have your coffee right away or take it on-the go, for sometimes less than a dollar. There are also fancier setups, providing both the ambience on top of the promise of caffeine. In Ho Chi Minh City, locals are meticulous in the care and decoration of their cafes, turning them into a whole new subculture of design-minded institutions.
Down each back alley and side street, hidden gems are waiting to be discovered. There are cafes to suit all tastes: for the night owls who enjoy being awake well into the evening, there are the cafes open 24/7. For more nostalgic souls, you can take a walk down memory lane at one of the vintage-themed cafes crammed with wartime memorabilia and peeling wallpaper. Foodies can find solace in the dozens of cafes slash eateries with a range of gourmet treats. Ho Chi Minh city does choice well; there are endless options but in the event you feel overwhelmed, here are some of the top cafes in town.
Sophisticated palates will have a tough time choosing which brew to settle down with from the colossal menu. The Workshop operates more like a coffee/bar/lab, where top class baristas resort to techniques such as Chemex, Aeropress, and Kalita Wave to create the perfect cup of joe. What you won’t find here: traditional Vietnamese coffee. It is a quiet, open and spacious room with a great, highset view to admire the chaos that shapes this vibrant city.
Address: 27 Ngo Duc Ke (3rd floor), District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
This 24/7 hotspot that gathers people from all walks of life. Bohemian-hipster teenagers rub shoulders with curious visitors taking a break from their midday stroll around the city. This remarkable cafe is tastefully decorated with vintage apparel, and it has three friendly English Bulldogs drooling and sleeping on the couches around the place. They have an interesting collection of books, as well as photographs from established, Hoi An based French photographer Réhahn. The signature drink at this place is the egg coffee, a rare find in Ho Chi Minh city.
Address: 10 Pasteur Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
This chain has been growing successfully during the past few years, expanding the branch to other types of business arenas. Each one of their cafes offers something different, but it is worth mentioning their location at 3A Station, a warehouse transformed into a creative space housing a number of design shops and cool cafes. The 3A-located Kujuz cafe, in particular, has been the setting for many photo shoots due to the vibrant and colourful multipaned wooden frames that make up the walls of this venue.
Address: 3A Ton Duc Thang, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
This unique establishment is hidden in one of the oldest and most charismatic buildings from the Old Saigon era. The Mockingbird shares its address with many other shops, cafes and even a tattoo studio. It’s a great place to get lost in and disconnect from the hustle of the outside world. Once you step foot inside the cafe, sneak out onto the lovely balcony to find a bit more privacy and to reconnect with the city on your own terms.
Address: 14 Ton That Dam (4th floor), District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tucked away in one of the many charming alleys down Pasteur, this mellow cafe is the perfect spot to recharge your batteries and also to get some work done. Their super comfortable, made-for-sinking-into sofas paired with the little stream of light coming through their windows makes for the most intimate atmosphere. Don’t be surprised to see Vietnamese adolescent taking a nap in their secluded nooks.
Address: 158D Pasteur (1st floor), District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Another stop you shouldn’t miss on the list: building number 42 on Nguyen Hue Street, Saigon’s designated “walking street.” This emblematic building has quite a war-filled history. Today, the nine-story apartment block has been converted into a shopping arcade with fashion boutiques such as The Maker sitting side by side to a number of designer cafes, many of which have balconies looking out onto the pedestrian street. The best way to get to know the charm of the now-trendy building is to wander up and down the floors and take a seat at wherever suits you most.
Address: 42 Nguyen Hue Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
A charming cafe nestled in a cosy corner of an old colonial building is now one of Saigon’s most beloved lounges. Catch some of the great events they put on, such as their live music nights on Sundays. Their Facebook page is always up-to-date with entertainment offerings. You can grab a bite to eat during showtime as the cafe also doubles as a restaurant.
Address: 44 Ly Tu Trong (1st floor) , District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Like a hidden gem, this cafe is set on the rooftop of a building in front of Tan Dinh market and rewards its guests with some of the most breathtaking views of the city. Frequented by teenagers for its laid-back vibe, you’ll see them out on the two terraces that are filled with greenery and furnished with wooden pallets. In fact, Mary Jane doesn’t stand out for its servings, nor its service, but the view and experience make it definitely a spot worth checking out off the tourist track.
Address: 85 Nguyen Huu Cau (10th floor), District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
The classically French-retro cafe is an absolute must when visiting Saigon for two reasons: their café & bistro –with an exquisite menu that offers more Western fare and has great options for continental brunches– and their unique shop, which stocks boutique clothes and original gifts that celebrate design. There are three branches of this hip cafe found throughout downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Address: L’Usine Dong Khoi is on 151 Dong Khoi (1st floor), District 1, Ho Chi Minh City and L’Usine Le Loi is on 70B Le Loi, (1st floor), District 1, Ho Chi Minh City