Cafe Culture in Vietnam11 Jan 2015
Coffee and cafe culture is an essential component of life in Vietnam. Not everyone drinks coffee at the same places, at the same times, or with the same flavors, but it seems like every Vietnamese sees the hour they spend every day at a cafe drinking coffee as a ritual they couldn’t live without.
Types of Cafes
There are at least five different kinds of cafes in Vietnam (this is based on what I’ve seen personally in Ho Chi Minh City).
The most simple kind of cafe is just a cart on the sidewalk with an arrangement of small plastic stools. These can be found all over Ho Chi Minh City, usually on quieter streets or tucked into alleys along larger streets. Although the cart is mobile and the chairs are easy to rearrange, tradition and customer awareness of the location ensures that these carts do not often (if ever) change the daily location where they set up to sell drinks.
Then there are slightly larger cafes that occupy a small storefront with an open-air environment. Inside the store is a register and sometimes a display case of a variety of coffee roasts at different prices. There’s seating inside, but these kind of cafes almost always have outdoor seating right up against the storefront that customers prefer (unless it’s raining). It’s common for coffee at these locations to be served with a simple iced tea. Just like the streetside cafes, these open-air small cafes are all over Ho Chi Minh City; it seems like there’s at least one on every block and on some streets there may even be two side-by-side.
Open air or street-side environments can’t suit everyone at all times, so there are also more secluded cafes that are usually indoors. Some of these have been around for a while, but many are part of a fairly new, more modern cafe concept, and there are dozens of them in Ho Chi Minh City but not as many as the open-air cafes mentioned above. The owners rent hard-to-find or unconventional spaces in hip parts of town, decorate and furnish the cafes themselves, compose suitable indie music playlists, and in the evenings may hold live music or art events. In addition to coffee, these cafes may have a selection of imported craft beer or wine as well as hand-made pastries for a more complete and inspired menu than a typical cafe’s offerings. From the perspective of the owner, the end goal seems to be to offer something unique that attracts customers who appreciate their taste. But in my opinion, the environment of these cafes are their greatest assets; coffee at most of these kind of cafes I visited doesn’t seem to taste as good as what can be found from street vendors and open-air cafes.
Another type of cafe worth mentioning are the large Vietnamese cafe chains Trung Nguyen and Phuc Long (there may be others like them, but these are the biggest in Ho Chi Minh City). Unlike urban Americans, Vietnamese do not hold any animosity towards big companies that have many store locations; if anything, having many locations is a sign to Vietnamese that the product is so good that one store is not enough to keep up with demand. Trung Nguyen coffee products have even made it as far as the US. Both chains have locations throughout Ho Chi Minh that are all fairly similar, have slightly higher prices than smaller open-air cafes, and are trusted to be places with top-notch quality coffee but not necessarily the best environment to be a regular customer. Phuc Long’s locations are almost always packed with lines just to place an order, and it can often be hard to find a seat (this is in contrast to the general negative attitude in Vietnam towards queuing to make a purchase or enter a venue). In my opinion, the coffee at these places is truly top-notch and beats the offerings of most other options, so I can see why people decide that it’s worth the wait.
Finally, there are western cafes in Vietnam with western-style coffee. Starbucks and The Coffee Bean are not hard to find in Ho Chi Minh City. A Starbucks espresso-based beverage is so different from anything offered from a Vietnamese cafe that it’s hard to say that the two styles compete against each other in any way. However, a visit to Starbucks for a Vietnamese is probably a substitute for a visit to a Vietnamese cafe, so in that sense they’re still in the same category. These western-style cafes have higher prices and more elaborate menus and as far as I know are no different from these chains’ locations in other countries.
Drinking coffee is a ritual in Vietnam, especially for Vietnamese men. There are several components to the ritual.
First, the coffee itself is important. It’s enjoyed for its flavor and for being cold. It’s not the same as coffee in America where coffee is appreciated for its caffeine and ability to provide energy. It’s also not the same as Taipei and “3rd-wave coffee” where the source of the beans and the brewing method are important to the ritual.
Another important part of the ritual is that coffee is usually enjoyed at the cafe (take-away drinks are sometimes available but are not popular), and this time of the day is a relaxing moment either alone, with coworkers, or with friends. If alone, these relaxing moments may be time to read the newspaper (yes, paper newspapers are still somewhat common in Vietnam), play games on a smartphone, or watch people on the street. If with coworkers or friends, it might be a time to gossip or catch up on current events.
This ritual is a daily occurrence for so many Vietnamese, spending an hour per day every day enjoying coffee and conversation. Over the years it surely forms fond memories of time spent at certain spots on the street with their friends, cafe owners, and other regulars, making it an essential and also a charming aspect of Vietnamese culture.
In Economic Terms
An iced coffee in Ho Chi Minh City ranges from Ð15,000-30,000 (US$0.75-1.50) at most streetside and open-air cafes. The more secluded cafes, Vietnamese chains, and western cafes may charge more, from Ð50,000 (US$2.50) to even Ð100,000 (US$5.00) for their beverages. My impression of cafe culture in Vietnam is that it is not something only for the rich; even those making between four to eight million Dong per month (US$200-$400) are often still regular cafe patrons. In economic terms, this cafe ritual is a large expenditure! A month of daily cups of coffee totaling to more than Ð600,000 (US$30) altogether is for some more than ten percent of their monthly income. But these economic terms do not seem to be encouraging people to save money and give up their precious hour of relaxation.