Ho Chi Minh City—often called by its traditional name, Saigon—is a vibrant Vietnamese city with ca phe, and modern coffee and tea stores on every corner.
BY TANYA NANETTI
SENIOR ONLINE CORRESPONDENT
Photos by Tanya Nanetti
The first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Ho Chi Minh City is the traffic. It may be early in the morning or late at night, but either way you will find millions of motorcycles on the streets, constantly moving, regardless of traffic lights or crosswalks. But once you realize that yes, it really is possible to go through traffic without running into vehicles, you will be sucked into the energy of Saigon and fall in love with it immediately.
It is at that moment, leaving your preconceptions behind, that you will begin to really explore Ho Chi Minh City and discover all its hidden treasures. Cafés and boulangeries are tucked away on the second floor of dilapidated buildings; restaurants are nestled in the courtyard of dirty parking lots; art spaces may be reachable only by perilous stairs in one of the many skyscrapers.
The classic Vietnamese ca phe is extremely bitter (made with 100% local dark-roasted robusta) but also extremely sweet (with a generous dose of condensed milk) and is ubiquitous on every corner at all hours of the day. But if you want to drink something different, a growing number of specialty-coffee shops and roasters are ready to welcome you with interesting alternatives.
Okkio Caffe – An Unforgettable Robusta
Before my stop at Okkio, I always looked at robusta as a lower-quality alternative to specialty arabica. Perhaps my mindset was a bit narrow, but up to that point I had only experienced robusta as part of commercial blends, usually dark and bitter. Everything changed when I chose a brew from Okkio, the first place we visited in Saigon. For hand-brew they had classic African and South American beans, but I wanted to try something local. The only option was Dak Lak, a 100% fine robusta. I figured, why not? I had already tried many bitter and sour coffees in my life, so I could stand another one.
Fortunately, I could not have been more wrong. Dak Lak had delicious notes of cocoa, orange, jackfruit, and dark chocolate. That incredible robusta turned out to be one of the best coffees I tried in all of Vietnam!
Naii Specialty Coffee – The Local Speciality
After the delicious robusta, I decided to head straight to Naii Specialty Coffee, housed in a quiet inner courtyard just around the corner.
Naii offers a couple of single-origin pourover and cold-brew versions on its menu, as well as some more classic drinks. This seemed like the right place to try a local specialty: egg coffee (ca phe trung).
Sweet and creamy, with an eggy flavor similar to the Italian dessert zabaglione, ca phe trung is an interesting treat that feels more like an afternoon snack than a classic coffee. It’s probably not for everyone, but definitely worth trying.
XLIII Coffee – The Saigon Coffee Experience
In the hustle and bustle of Saigon, with its 7 million people who sometimes seem to be sitting in cafés and tearooms all at the same time, it is quite unique to find a quiet café—something minimal yet cozy, elegant yet still welcoming.
XLIII Coffee, a Vietnamese roastery with locations in Da Nang and Hoi An, welcomes customers with its striking, all-black, truly minimal interior. Upon entering the premises, you will be greeted by extremely friendly and knowledgeable baristas. Their selection of fine beans from around the world can be brewed as a pourover or espresso. If you decide on espresso, it will be something completely different from what you have tried before.
Oshima’s – Unusual Creations
Another oasis of peace in bustling Saigon, Oshima’s welcomes guests with a completely different style. An enclosed courtyard hides a small Japanese-style garden with trees, a glass roof, and a very comfortable seating area.
Here the masterpiece of the menu is a long line of coffee drinks, one tastier (and sometimes more adventurous) than the other. One standout is the Old Pine, which mixes surprisingly tasty espresso, pineapple juice, milk and pandan (a tropical Southeast Asian plant widely used in cooking and jam-making).
My favorite was the classic iced orange juice and espresso, served with thin slices of lime and a bit of sea salt, to be enjoyed like the classic tequila with salt and line. It was unexpectedly delicious.
Bosgaurus Coffee Roasters – The Breakfast Spot
At the suggestion of a local coffee friend, I decided to visit Bosgaurus , another local coffee roaster, and chose to do so at breakfast time. I have never made a better decision.
My partner and I had a croissant that looked like it was baked by one of the best Parisian bakeries, served with butter and a delicious homemade mango jam; a tasty tropical punch yogurt; two delicious lattes; and a not-to-be-missed V60.
And for those looking for something more filling, Bosgaurus also offers a full brunch and lunch menu, perfect for satisfying even the most discerning palates.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tanya Nanetti (she/her) is a specialty-coffee barista, a traveler, and a dreamer. When she’s not behind the coffee machine (or visiting some hidden corner of the world), she’s busy writing for Coffee Insurrection, a website about specialty coffee that she’s creating along with her boyfriend.