History and culture in a cup - Vietnamese coffee

Exploring the everyday

When my entire world suddenly shrank to my own immediate living space due to COVID-19 lock down, I couldn’t help but explore the routines I had previously taken for granted.

Last week, I rearranged the furniture in my apartment to look like a conference room. It became apparent how much I subconsciously missed the office lifestyle and the perks that came with it. What’s one of the biggest office perks? –Free coffee and the fancy espresso machine.

Coffee is such an integral part of so many daily routines around the world. Just like the food that we eat or the music that we play, the way we make our cup of coffee tells a story of the history that shapes us.

Vietnamese coffee (Cà phê phin)

Born to Vietnamese immigrant parents, my childhood involved drinking a lot of Vietnamese coffee at local Pho restaurants. But wait, you drank coffee as a kid? –Yes, yes I did. My parents encouraged anything that would give me a competitive edge over other 8 year old 'Mathletes' in my elementary school, which included a healthy amount of caffeine.

Cà phê phin, also known as Vietnamese coffee, directly translates to coffee phin (pronounced like “fin”), is coffee that is made with a phin filter. Robusta coffee ground is drip filtered slowly over a phin, while sweet condensed milk is often added to the bottom of the cup. The result is a bittersweet and very palatable coffee that was the foundation for my 8-year old self’s coffee addiction. When this coffee is poured over ice, it becomes ‘Cà phê sữa đá’ which translates directly to "coffee milk ice", and is even more addictive during hot summer days.

Vietnamese coffee culture is about remembering to slowdown, enjoying the process of coffee brewing, and engaging in good conversations over the slow coffee drip that becomes an aromatic, deeply intense bliss that is known as Vietnamese coffee.

Vietnamese coffee, Hanoi
Dealiem's co-founder enjoying a Cà phê sữa đá in Hanoi, 2019

French colonial influence in Vietnam

The French colonized much of Vietnam between 1887 to 1954. The influence of this era can easily be seen today in Vietnamese architecture, religion, linguistics, and cuisine. For instance, Vietnam uses Latin letters and French accents within our written language. Many words are phonetic copies of their French counterparts. For example the Vietnamese word ‘phô mai’ comes from the French word ‘fromage’ for cheese, and ‘cà vạt’ comes from the French word of ‘cravate’ which means neck tie. The popular Banh Mi sandwich is made with an adaptation of the French baguette with pate, while Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) can be traced back to the French practice of using beef in soup, which is called ‘pot au feu’. Vietnamese coffee is no exception, reminiscent of the French ‘café au lait’.

Salles, Firmin André (1860-1929). Photographe - Bibliothèque nationale de France
Coffee trees in French Indochina, 1898. Photographe - Bibliothèque nationale de France

The coffee plant was introduced to Vietnam by the French, where the perfect climate created a booming coffee industry. Today, Vietnam is a coffee producing behemoth, second in production only to Brazil. In 2015/2016, Vietnam produced 1.65 million metric tonnes of coffee. To put that into perspective, in 2019, Canadians consumed 234,000 metric tonnes of coffee. A single year’s production of coffee in Vietnam can supply Canadians with almost 8 years of coffee.

How is Vietnamese coffee different?

Vietnamese coffee generally contains condensed milk, as opposed to fresh milk. As a country situated near the equator, condensed milk became the preferred milk substitute and sweetener for coffee drinkers in Vietnam as it does not spoil as quickly as fresh milk – especially in the unrelenting Vietnamese heat and humidity.

Coffee consumed in North America almost always uses Arabica beans (instant coffee is the exception, which uses Robusta beans). Vietnamese coffee however is almost always made from Robusta beans, as it is much easier to grow in Vietnam, and costs half the price of Arabica beans. Robusta coffee contains almost double the caffeine (2.2%) and significantly less sugar compared to their Arabica counterpart (1.2%). This also means Robusta coffee tastes more bitter, dark, and earthly, with a lower flavour profile, and more crema.

The nutritional value of Vietnamese coffee will depend heavily on how much condensed milk you use. For a 237ml cup of Vietnamese coffee, using 3 tablespoons of ground Robusta coffee beans and 2 tablespoons of condensed milk, you can expect the following nutritional contents:

  • Calories: 163
  • Fat: 3g
  • Sugar: 22g
  • Protein: 4g
  • Caffeine: 265mg

How is it made?

Vietnamese coffee is relatively easy to make, and requires only need 4 things:

  • Coursely ground Robusta coffee beans
  • Condensed milk
  • A "phin" filter


  1. Add 2 tablespoons of condensed milk to your cup.

    2 tablespoons of condensed milk

  2. Add 3 tablespoons of ground coffee to the phin filter.

    3 tablespoons of ground Robusta beans

  3. Pour just enough boiling water on top of the grounds to cover them to "bloom" the coffee, in which the coffee grounds float to the top of the filter. This step takes roughly 2 minutes to allow the grounds to expand and fully bloom.

    2 tablespoons of condensed milk

  4. Place the perforated filter press on top of the grounds and apply very gentle pressure to lightly compress the grounds.

    Place perforated filter on top of the grounds

  5. Fill the filter chamber with boiling water.

    Fill the chamber

  6. Cover the top of the filter and agonizingly wait for the coffee to finish dripping.

    Phin dripping

  7. Mix the coffee and condensed milk.

    Mixing condensed milk and coffee

  8. Optional: Pour over ice, and stir like crazy.

    Pour over ice

Not feeling like making your own Vietnamese coffee?

Today, Vietnamese coffee is enjoyed in all climates, hot and cold. Nearly every Vietnamese restaurant will have a variation of this drink on their menu. Like in Vietnam, cash is still king in most Vietnamese Restaurants. While some places will give you a discount when paying with cash, other places are strictly cash only.

Next time in the Coffee World Tour series, we'll be experimenting with Dalgona coffee, the quarantine drink.

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Last Update: August 4th, 2020
Charlie L.

Charlie L.

Technical writer, Honours Bachelors in History, and Ph.D in finding sweet deals and eating tasty food.

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