How to Drink Coffee like a Vietnamese

Meet Phoebe, Vietnamese Fellow at our Tufts University SLE Campus this semester.

Six years ago when I left Vietnam to study abroad in Singapore, I prepared myself for a lot of situations that could happen without my family nearby:getting sick, coming back late, cooking for myself when necessary… Adapting to a new environment always takes time, but those years changed me drastically and mostly for the better.

There is only one problem about living abroad: the coffee. Yes, I love coffee regardless of where it comes from and yes, I still drink coffee to this day. Yet each cup of cappuccino at Starbucks reminds me of home, where coffee has been not only my companion during exams (sounds familiar?) but also my muse, for few things could calm me down like a cup of ‘cà phê sữa nóng’ (hot coffee with condensed milk) in the mist of early morning on a quiet street of Sài Gòn.

The coffee alone is not enough: it’s the way one drinks it that makes Vietnamese coffee particularly authentic.

Before 1888, Vietnam’s main drink was tea (‘chè’, ‘trà’). That year, the French started the first coffee plantation in the northern area. When they left, the coffee tree remained. Today we still call that drink ‘cà phê’, which, as you could imagine, was derived from the French word café. Tah-dah, our coffee! And nope, the next part is not about what our coffee tree looks like.



How do you drink anything with that?

For a start, that cup-like object is called ‘phin’ (derived from the French word), which consists of a cup-shaped chamber, a spanner and a lid. It extracts cà phê from ground coffee beans.



First, place some ground coffee into the empty chamber.



Then put the spanner on top.



Apply some downward pressure to compress the ground coffee. Too much pressure and your cà phê will be very condensed; too little and you get cà phê-flavored hot water. It’s tricky, but you’ll get the drift soon enough.



In slow circling motion, pour boiling water directly into the chamber. You should remove the spanner before that though.



Now sit back and watch your cà phê drips into the cup.

Occasionally, you may be tempted to remove the lid, apply some downward pressure on the spanner and force cà phê down the filter. It works, but you will not be able to extract the full essence of the ground coffee. The whole brewing process takes between ten and forty-five minutes, depending on how eager you are. Consider adding condensed milk or sugar into your cà phê if you prefer it sweetened.

Some of the best places to enjoy cà phê phin are found, strangely enough, not in established, air-conditioned coffee shops but along the pavements where the street vendors are. After all, the entire cà phê culture of Vietnam came from the streets. One should not be in a hurry to drink cà phê because really, the joy of cà phê starts from the moment he/she sits down.

Waiting is not a sign of inefficiency; it’s an acknowledgment that preparing something good and hearty takes time. Drinking slowly means more than letting the liquid cool: it allows the drinker to appreciate the scintillating bitterness of the coffee beans, the quiet sweetness of the condensed milk and the rich aroma of the two combined.

Cà phê has a special place in the heart of the Vietnamese people as it does in mine – come over for a cup some time!


Phoebe is a sophomore at Tufts University hoping to double major in Cognitive and Brain Sciences and Philosophy. She is passionate about songs and dances – to have her full attention, be armed with good food.



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