Street coffee – A fine drinking culture of Vietnam

Exploring the typical coffee drinking culture of the Saigonese

Each country has its own morning ritual. However, sipping a cup of coffee is generally a worldwide practice at the beginning of the day. In that way, coffee has become a global drink, yet the culture it entails varies from one nation to another. That difference lies not only in the way coffee is made but also in the way it is enjoyed.

While the Americans love takeaway coffee, the Italians like spending hours relishing its bitterness on the tip of their tongue and the French derive pleasure from the moments when they take a sip out of the coffee cup and look out to the bustling streets with hurried people. The Vietnamese also have a unique way to enjoy coffee: sitting on a low stool and having small talks with friends over some iced coffee. The street coffee culture, for this reason, has gradually developed over time.

iced coffee occupies a special place in Vietnamese people’s hearts.

Cafés started to grow in Vietnam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were both indoor and sidewalk cafés back then. A café could be as simple as a front yard or a cart with several stools, yet it was crowded from dawn to dusk.

How coffee is made depends on the time and location. The way different ingredients are mixed and prepared and how the roasting process is performed determines the flavour of the final product. Earlier, people often added some corn extract, strong-flavoured fish sauce and butter to coffee when roasting to make it more aromatic. Today, some believe that coffee tastes the best when no flavourings are added. The way of making coffee has changed as well. Many people prefer using a regular filter to make coffee nowadays, but the traditional method of preparing the drink with a net-filter is still maintained in certain places.

As tastes differ, coffee comes in various types. The middle-aged enjoy having the pure bitterness of coffee in their throat, whereas young people prefer adding some sugar to it.

That explains why there are so many types of coffee: iced black coffee with/without sugar, iced coffee with milk, hot coffee with milk, egg coffee, coffee with fresh milk, etc.   

Street coffee culture is prevalent in the South, especially in Saigon. Coffee is very much like the breath of this city. Even though each of us has our own favourite drink – it could be bubble tea, coconut water, kumquat juice or lime tea, the significance of iced coffee to Vietnamese people is undeniable since it is not only part of our memories but also carries profound values of a 100-year-old drinking culture. Because of that, we can proudly consider it a legend. Vietnamese people are seen drinking coffee before and after work, during a catch-up with friends or anytime during the day. In Saigon, if you take a tour around the Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral, Turtle Lake, the Saigon Opera House or Han Thuyen Street, you will easily see street cafés packed with customers no matter what time it is. Those who come here are equal. Nothing holds them back from expressing their true selves. It is no exaggeration to say that street coffee enables people to be honest with themselves and live life to the fullest, which can hardly be acquired by other coffee drinking styles. What’s more, street cafés are wonderful places where strangers are turned into friends, and stories are exchanged.

Some people say that coffee is neither as elegant as tea nor as strong as wine. It is something between joy and sorrow. No matter how busy life gets, a cup of iced coffee always brings some peace of mind.

Photo by Tri Nguyen – via Flickr

There are different stories about people who drink street coffee.

I see them playing chess, recalling past memories and smoking pipe tobacco with some black coffee in front of them. They are grey-haired men.

I see them enjoying the bitter taste of coffee while attentively reading the morning news. They are middle-aged men who work hard to earn a living.

I see them ordering iced coffee with milk and telling each other about their everyday life. They are mothers who dedicate their lives to taking care of their families.

I see them laughing at jokes about everything while enjoying the pleasant taste of hot coffee with milk. They are young people with big dreams. Iced coffee is always a highlight of the city picture with vehicles weaving their way through the crowded streets. It comes with young people’s laughter and old people’s newspaper and tobacco.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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