The amazing world of coffee in Saigon. Photo by Tai Bui, Unsplash

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Saigon (the official name is Ho Chi Minh City) has the combined spirit of free cosmopolitanism from New York and the romantic liberalism of Paris. It has charmed many tourists, seducing the young wanderers from every corner of the world.

As someone living and working in Saigon for more than 10 years, witnessing constant changes in the cultural and culinary landscape, I can tell you that Saigoneers are notoriously frisky.

They are on the constant lookout for something exotic while getting bored easily. Sometimes, a glass of regular iced coffee won’t do.

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This is when the suave baristas pull their tricks: in a spark of creativity, they have created these delightful types of coffee: bạc sỉu, egg coffee and coconut coffee, both to satisfy flighty customers and represent the innovative spirit of Saigon.

The chaotic life in Saigon demands coffee for our motivation and relaxation. Photo by Pham Van Ninh, Unsplash
The chaotic life in Saigon demands coffee for our motivation and relaxation. Photo by Pham Van Ninh, Unsplash

Bạc Sỉu

Bạc sỉu is a coffee-based drink with a milder and less bitter flavor. Photo by Frank Mckenna, Unsplash
Bạc sỉu is a coffee-based drink with a milder and less bitter flavor. Photo by Frank Mckenna, Unsplash

I once attempted to count the number of coffee shops, coffee stalls and coffee “mini-trucks” lining my home street, and I lost count somewhere around five.

And mind you, those are just the ones in plain sight. I’m fairly certain that tucked away in those noodle stalls, some skilled lady can whip up coffee pretty fast for our enjoyment alongside a bowl of phở. That’s the level of popularity coffee enjoys in Saigon.

But wherever you go, you will consistently find three main types: black coffee, milk coffee and bạc sỉu—a uniquely Vietnamese recipe.

The story of how bạc sỉu came into existence is a fun one: for many children and teenagers, coffee is an unpleasant yet intriguing drink. Smelling bitter and looking like the shade of wet soil, yet somehow our parents savor it every breakfast.

The image of Dad sitting on the sofa, calmly sipping on the coffee cup while reading the morning newspaper is ingrained in our memory. It seems so sophisticated and adult-like—and little by little, we crave to have a taste.

Unfortunately, from our parents’ perspective, introducing coffee to an adolescent’s meal plan is not advisable (caffeine stunts kids’ growth). But how can they deny the adorable puppy eyes and the repeated desperate whining?

Bạc sỉu comes to our rescue. Not as dark and bitter as the original Vietnamese iced coffee, a glass of bạc sỉu has a milky and silky flavor, coming from a mixture of condensed milk, fresh dairy milk and a little bit of coffee.

The ratio is important: you want to go generous with the milk and easy on the coffee, just enough to give a vibrant caramel hue. Heap on plentiful blended ice and you have a refreshing drink to distract you from the scorching summer heat.

Bạc sỉu is a simple recipe that can be prepared with readily available ingredients at home. It can be easily adjusted to suit your palate—add a little cocoa powder, more milk and less caffeine if you are like me, constantly struggling with gastritis and on certain days, adhering to the doctor’s advice becomes inevitable.

However, there is still a unique charm to savoring it outside. During my daily commute to work, I frequently pause at my favorite brandless coffee mini-truck or opt for a random one when I’m feeling adventurous.

For most Saigoneers, cheap takeaway coffee in a plastic cup is not simply a drink, but an invigorating and motivational ritual before dealing with whatever school and work are waiting to ambush us.

Hey, even if my budget plan presentation blows up in my face, and I have to endure two hours of the sales manager’s complaints, at least I still have my delicious coffee!

Egg Coffee

Egg coffee originated from Hanoi City, but has found its zealous fan base in Saigon. Photo by Toby Do, Unsplash
Egg coffee originated from Hanoi City, but has found its zealous fan base in Saigon. Photo by Toby Do, Unsplash

Any drink with raw egg can put a doubtful frown on a difficult eater’s face. I recall visiting one of the pioneering cafés that served egg coffee with a friend. When the waitress delivered our order, she (who I often considered an open-minded eater) asked me nervously: “Does it smell weird to you?”

No, it doesn’t. Egg coffee has the most pleasant fragrance I have ever sensed in a drink. It reminds me of a freshly baked Hong Kong egg tart, or a flan just popped out of the mold.

Sound ridiculous? Well, then you know the Saigoneer culinary secret: anything sounding ridiculous on paper is a tasty treat on the plate.

The key is to serve the drink piping hot. Some cafés even step up their game: they serve the coffee cup in a bowl of hot water to retain the heat throughout the tasting.

To make egg coffee, whisk the egg yolk with a bit of honey and fresh milk until airy and fluffy, then pour the mixture into a cup. Then in with the coffee – because coffee has a higher density, it sinks into the bottom and creates a separate layer.

Egg coffee often makes for special occasions. Because Saigon weather is hot and humid all year round, life pacing is fast, I often find it exhausting to appreciate a hot drink. Egg coffee might be my only exception. It demands you to be slow.

Since smell is half of the taste, first allow yourself to take in a slow breath – to catch the whiff of that subtle creamy fragrance. Then, use a tiny spoon to taste the egg foam layer. From there, you can drink the coffee through the egg (let the flavors blend in naturally).

The taste is a pure wonder: that pitch-black coffee is softened by the eggy foam, every little sip feels so calming and reassuring.

This innovation takes its root from Hanoi City, Vietnam’s capital. While I appreciate the satisfying taste of egg coffee in Saigon, I would still plan a trip to Hanoi to experience the original flavor.

Coconut Coffee

Coconut coffee proves that the craving for novelty in Saigon will never disappear. Photo by K8, Unsplash
Coconut coffee proves that the craving for novelty in Saigon will never disappear. Photo by K8, Unsplash

The first time I tried coconut coffee was in a famous café that exuded vibes reminiscent of Vietnam’s interior designs from the 1980s. The nostalgic atmosphere surprisingly matched the drink well.

Oddly enough, it did not occur to me that this was anything coffee-related (despite the obvious dark color). The first word that hit me was “Coconut toast!”.

It’s funny how we often consider coconut milk and coffee as two opposite ends of the flavor spectrum: one is purely creamy (and dare I say, fatty) sweetness and one is intensely bitter. Yet, combining it, we have a flavor we know all too well: a delicious coconut toast. Bless whoever invented this!

The recipe is simple enough: first, you give the coffee a nice toss in a shaker and pour it into a glass (preferably one with a large mouth). Then, blend the coconut milk with condensed milk and ice, top this on the coffee layer. Voilà!

I advise not to gulp this drink down like a glutton. Tasting coconut coffee is a merry trip: first, the sweetness hits the tip of your tongue, then the bitterness starts to dance at the back, together they form a toasty harmony in your throat.

I apologize if this sounds exaggerated, but coconut coffee is four times more expensive than regular iced coffee so that gives me a pretty good reason to be a pretentious poet!

Because of its complex flavor (despite the relatively simple making process), make sure you slowly enjoy this. You won’t get bored or sick of it. I do not have a sweet tooth but every time I treat myself with a glass of coconut coffee, I sip it until there’s nothing left.

Saigon still has many more to offer. Photo by Dang Cong, Unsplash
Saigon still has many more to offer. Photo by Dang Cong, Unsplash

Coffee is a way of life in Saigon. I revel in those moments when I can taste the difference between machine-brewed and “phin” (traditional Vietnamese drip from aluminum filter) coffee.

I also enjoy the fact that Saigoneers keep inventing new concoctions every month—from the seemingly mundane, like adding jelly on top, to the pleasantly surprising, such as incorporating a layer of salt cheese foam.

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Some fail, some are here to stay, but it keeps the bore staying far away. That, to me, is what I appreciate most about this crazy, unpredictable city.

Don’t get drunk on caffeine – coffee is just a starter for all the awesomeness Saigon has to offer.

If You Go:

https://vietnam.travel/things-to-do/11-cool-cafes-try-hcmc

https://congcaphe.com/

https://thecoffeehouse.com/

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Author Bio: Spencer Vo, a freelance writer, is driven by an insatiable curiosity for culture, languages, cuisine and history. Born and growing up in Vietnam, she takes immense pride in sharing her homeland’s rich narrative with the global audience.

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