The Vietnamese Coffee Guide

I was lucky enough to do some travelling with my now-wife back in 2007, and it’s safe to safe Vietnam was one of the highlights. It’s a beautiful country and the Vietnamese are incredibly friendly and welcoming to outsiders.

They also a have a very particular way of making incredibly rich and luxurious coffee. Without a word of exaggeration if I could choose my final drink it would be a bracing cup of this stuff!

I really hope to return to the country one day, but until then I can at least recreate one of my favorite experiences at home.

In this guide I’ll walk you through the whole process, so that you can give it a go yourself.

(If you want to explore more of my coffee content, take a look at the home brewing guide I have on the site!)

How is Vietnamese coffee brewed?

There’s a very particular process involved in making Vietnamese coffee, and I’ll explain how to make your own at home in the next section.

There are two things that really make this coffee stand out though: the filter and the condensed milk.

Yup, condensed milk. If the basic coffee brew wasn’t potent enough, you add a layer of this super-sweet stuff to the glass before the coffee.

Why condensed milk though? Well, fresh milk is harder to get hold of and store in tropical countries. That’s the reason why this preserved syrupy stuff became so popular in the first place.

You then brew through the filter and right onto the milk. The end result is a bit like one of those multi-layered cocktails, but one that’s packed with caffeine and sugar instead of alcohol.

If you want to do this properly you’ll need to buy something called a phin ca phe (Vietnamese for “coffee filter”).

This little device is a filter that has a lid on top, and holes at the bottom for the coffee to brew through.

It sits on top of the glass your condensed milk is in, and then slowly brews that rich coffee right on top of it.

How to make Vietnamese coffee at home

First up, here are the items you’re going to need to prepare a Vietnamese coffee at home:

  • A Vietnamese coffee filter
  • Your ground coffee of choice. Trung Nguyen is a very popular brand to start with.
  • Sweetened condensed milk*
  • Around an 8oz glass or cup
  • A spoon

(* If you want a truly authentic Vietnamese coffee, try to get hold of the Longevity brand which is the country’s favorite. Western brands like Carnation are thickened with various oils, whereas Longevity is nothing but milk and sugar).

The actual process of making the coffee isn’t too tricky at all, but it’ll take a few attempts to get things just right.

Step #1 – Prepare the condensed milk

First of all, add the condensed milk to the glass.

This stuff is super-sweet, so I recommend starting off with a very shallow amount. Try a single tablespoon at first.

You can add more in future attempts, or even just add a dollop after you’ve had your first sip.

Step #2 – Fill the filter

The next step is to take the upper lid off the filter and add your coffee grounds.

One big tablespoon should do it, but make sure you’re using relatively course grounds as you don’t want any of it to pass through into the drink.

If you’ve used a French Press before, that’s the kind of coarseness you’re aiming for here.

Step #3 – Finish the set up

Put the lid back on top of the coffee filter and screw it down.

The tightness of the lid will affect how quickly the coffee brews, so you may well need to loosen it on future attempts. You won’t know that until you’ve got a feel for things though.

When you’re done, just put the whole filter unit on top of the glass containing the condensed milk.

Step #4 – Just add water!

Next, take your hot water and add a little of the hot water to the grounds.

Wait around five seconds for the coffee to “bloom”. This expands the grounds and improves the brewing process.

After five seconds, press down on the grounds gently, and then add the rest of the water. Put the lid back on.

You should now expect the rest of the brewing process to take around five minutes to complete.

(Some people like to let the boiled water cool for a few minutes before adding it, so try both ways and see which you prefer.)

Step #5 – Judge the brew

Although these instructions are quite simple, it’s worth paying attention to how your first few attempts go.

If the water’s passing through too quickly, you may need to use finer grounds next time.

Similarly, if it’s taking too long to complete, you either need to use coarser coffee, or loosen the filter lid a little (as mentioned in Step 3)

Step #6 – Prevent a mess!

Pop that lid upside down on the table, then place the filter on top. The lid will catch any drips that are remaining in the filter, and help you avoid an annoying mess.

Step #7 – Combine the coffee and milk

Once the coffee’s finished brewing you’ll notice that it settles as a separate layer on top of the condensed milk.

All you need to do now is slowly stir the cup with a spoon until both elements are nicely blended.

When your done, put your feet up, grab the newspaper and enjoy just about the best Sunday morning brew you’re ever going to have!

Practice definitely makes perfect here, but I reckon even your first attempt at making this stuff is going to knock your socks off!

Feeling adventurous?

Those are the fundamentals of making a rich Vietnamese coffee at home.

Once you’ve mastered this basic recipe, here are some other variations that might just end up being your next favorite drink.

Iced Coffee

Just like your favorite iced latte, you can freshen up your Vietnamese coffee on hotter days. Just make the cup as usual and then pour over ice.

Yogurt Coffee

It wasn’t just coffee the French introduced to Vietnam. Yogurt was another ingredient they brought with them. It didn’t take long for it to be assimilated into the country’s culinary repertoire.

If you want a creamy twist on the traditional Vietnamese Coffee, try adding a little bit of natural yogurt to your black coffee. Stir it in slowly, then savor an extraordinarily rich cup.

Egg Coffee

When milk was less plentiful during World War 2, the Vietnamese began experimenting with eggs as a substitute.

Add an egg yolk (not the white) to the condensed milk, and then whip it lightly until it makes a froth. Now pour into the black coffee.

It’s basically the cappuccino of the Vietnamese coffee world, but I have to warn you it’s not to everyone’s tastes…

two men on a vietnamese bike tour
Someone’s had their first cup of the day…

A (Brief) History of Vietnamese Coffee

It might surprise you to learn that Vietnam is actually the second biggest producer of coffee in the world today.

Countries like Colombia, Brazil or Kenya come more readily to the mind, but this is a seriously important commodity for the country. In fact, it represents Vietnam’s biggest global export.

How did it come to be that way though?

Well, the coffee bean first made its way to Vietnam with the arrival of the French in 1857. It wasn’t long before the locals got a taste for the drink, and it quickly became assimilated into the country’s culinary culture.

It’s popularity continued to grow over time, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that production went into overdrive. That was thanks to a series of government policy reforms.

The drink became more widely known in the west when Vietnamese immigration to the US increased in the 70s and 80s. When they arrived, they brought their own take on the cup of joe with them!

About the Vietnamese Bean

My coffee bean guide contains plenty more information on this topic, but Vietnamese coffee is predominantly of the Robusta variety.

The Robusta bean is packed full of caffeine and has a more bitter taste than its Arabica cousin. This goes some way to explaining why a cup of this stuff packs such a mighty punch!

It also does a lot to explain why Vietnam doesn’t spring to mind so readily as a major coffee producer.

We’re just not as big a fan of Robusta here in the west, preferring Arabica beans instead. The bulk of the Vietnamese beans end up in either blends or instant coffee as a result.

The Secret’s in the Roasting

The beans are typically grown in the Vietnamese highlands, where conditions are ideal.

It’s the traditional roasting process that really gives the country’s coffee its impact though.

During the roasting process, additional flavors including vanilla and chicory are worked into the blend. The end result is a coffee that tastes uniquely and unmistakably Vietnamese.

Beans to explore

There are lots of different Vietnamese beans to try, but for my money these are some of the best.

See if you can track any of these down if you want to get serious about this kind of coffee:

Trung Nguyen (Standard)

This stuff was absolutely everywhere when I visited Vietnam. You can consider this the go-to coffee if you want to stock up.

It’s light and smooth, has low acidity, and is actually a blend of all four types of coffee beans. It’s also just the right coarseness for brewing a cup Vietnam-style.

Trung Nguyen (Gourmet Blend)

Another popular product from Trung Nguyen is the Gourmet Blend. Again, it uses all four coffee beans and produces a rich, chocolate taste.

Keep in mind that this one’s sold as whole beans, so you’ll need to grind them first – and do so to the correct coarseness.

I would recommend trying these out once you’ve got the basics of Vietnamese coffee-making down to a tee.

Dalat Peaberry Robusta Coffee

This is another great choice for making coffee the Vietnamese way, and the Dalata Peaberry packs a mighty caffeine punch.

It’s another bean with a chocolate taste, and a very smooth finish. It is very strong, so I wouldn’t recommend glugging this stuff!

a shot from inside a vietnamese cafe

Wrapping Up

There you have it, that’s everything you need to know about one of the world’s truly show-stopping coffee experiences.

Even if you’re a beginner at making specialty drinks, this one is accessible to even the greenest of home baristas. I really encourage you to give it a go.

Not only am I confident this will become a firm favorite of yours in pretty short order, it’ll also be a very easy way of impressing your friends with your newfound skills.

I’d love to know how you get on, so sign up and leave a message in the comments!