Cafe Culture

Stephen Hinchliffe, general manager of Dynamic Food Brokers, the Australian distributor for Highlands reflects on the vietnamese coffee experience:

For most Australians, Vietnam conjures up images of jungle and rice paddies or beautiful women in Ao Dai seeming to glide as they walk. Coffee industry people will know that Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer and exporter.

Unless they have spent time in Vietnam, no one will understand the importance of coffee and its culture to the Vietnamese. In Vietnam, coffee is everywhere. On the bustling streets of Saigon or on a country road, you are never far from a coffee.

Coffee is sold from little kiosks in the markets, by micro cafes with a couple of tables in the front of some ones house, by vendors on country roads who set up a bamboo shade structure and hammocks for travellers to take a break to enjoy a coffee or sugar cane juice or perhaps a young coconut from the palms nearby, and by some of the most amazing coffee shops anywhere in the world.

I first struck the Vietnamese coffee culture in the seaside city of Vung Tau. I had been picked up from Ton Son Nhut Airport in Saigon and taken to Vung Tau by minibus. By the time I had said my hellos to the family and settled in to my room, it was time for dinner.

After dinner my host suggested we go for coffee. We travelled down to the waterfront and to my amazement; everyone in the city of half a million seemed to be there. One café after another lined the road, all of them busy with groups of family and friends enjoying the cool evening breeze with a coffee.

We sat down in one of the cafes, a mid sized affair seating about three hundred, and ordered our drinks.

Soon after, the waitress brought our coffees to the table. This time was the first time I had seen the Ca Phe Phin, the little aluminium filter that sits on top of the cup and makes a single serve of delicious coffee. We also had taller glasses full of ice. It takes about three minutes for the coffee to filter into the glass. We watched the passing parade of motorbikes and people while the group attempted to ask me about Australia in their rudimentary English. Hai showed me how to use the lid of the phin to catch any drips, then stir in a little sugar and tip the thick dark coffee over the ice.

Wow, this was coffee like I had never experienced before.

The rich flavours with hints of chocolate and Vanilla and the strength of the first sip before the ice started to dilute the coffee make an instant impression. Half an hour later, I had another and then like the rest of the group, tipped jasmine tea over the ice and last of the coffee to have a refreshing finish to the evening.

Since then, I have drunk Ca Phe Da (literally, coffee with ice) all over the country. The morning starts with a coffee. If at home I make my own, but in Vietnam, I walk outside and spend about 50 cents on a Ca Phe Da with the first vendor I see.

But most important, I sit down, wait for my coffee to drip into the glass, look around, make contact with people even if it’s just eye contact pointing at myself and saying Uc, the Vietnamese word for Australia. Everyone smiles at each other, the coffee is a relaxation, not something to be carried away in a paper cup and thrown down the throat regardless of taste while you run for the bus or negotiate the freeway.

The west has a lot to learn from the Vietnamese enjoyment of coffee. We have allowed convenience to override our need for time to relax and enjoy one of life’s pleasures. A nondescript espresso or latte, gulped down on the way to do something else, is no substitute for a real coffee break.

Take time to enjoy the range of tastes available in the Highlands range – amaze your friends – above all learn to relax with this most enjoyable of beverages