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Saigon’s Curbside Coffee Culture

I made the rookie mistake of wearing new sneakers on my first day out in Vietnam. I arrived in Saigon a bit after midnight.

After depositing my things at the hostel and after catching a few winks to recuperate from the sleepless night, I went about the 1st District of Saigon to get a feel of the surroundings and to catch my bearings.  I was looking around for a good place to eat, but somehow, managed to go in the total opposite direction of the food market. I ended up in Ben Thanh district, where Ben Thanh market is located. It is known as a touristy market with trinkets and tacky little souvenirs, and not really for its good food.

However, I did manage to find a bun mam stall which served me a great meal as far as first meals go. On my way back to the hostel, I was already limping and my gait concerned everyone I passed on the street (OMG is he okay?!).  Almost tearful from the blister from the rubbing and chafing of my heel against the new shoe, I chanced upon Vy Café by accident.

I saw a crowd assembled outside a storefront, and at first, I thought it was a throng of football fans catching one of the final games of the 2018 World Cup. However, I noticed that almost everyone was facing the street, and there were no TV or projection screens to speak of anywhere.  Upon closer inspection, I realised that everyone was there to peoplewatch, with their tall glasses of iced coffee and the numerous ash trays spewing all sorts of different aromas: tobacco, clove and some other sweet, chocolatey cigarette. Everyone was chitchatting with their friends. I imagined it as one of the vestiges of the bygone era of the French occupation, as their colonizers are well known for the habit of sitting en terrasse and gazing at passers-by while sipping a cup of coffee. I can recognise this energy from anywhere: that languid, “hanging out” vibe that people project when they have time to kill.

I didn’t know what to expect, so when I was handed a menu and was told to sit down on one of the low stools on the curb, I pointed to a drink that somewhat looked familiar: a tall glass of iced coffee with a thick swathe of condensed milk in the bottom. Ca phe sua da, it’s called in these parts. Iced coffee, Vietnamese style, which is to say rudely strong robusta coffee sweetened with cloying condensed milk. I love this combination any day.

I wasn’t quite adjusted to the dong-peso conversion yet, so I was quite shocked when I realised that the coffee I ordered was twice more expensive than the normal coffee shop cup of joe that I would take. What was the big deal?

It wasn’t even like any sit-down coffee shop where you have plush amenities. I was literally squatting on a very low stool, surrounded by loud chatter and the exhaust from the passing cars.

However, my order arrived and I instantly noticed the smoothness of the coffee. And man, was it a strong cup! I learned through a local that I chatted up that Vy Coffee actually uses high grade Arabica mixed with Robusta beans, all sourced locally. It is almost specialty grade, roasted to perfection. I remembered why bitter, full-bodied coffee actually is supposed to be expensive. Dark roasts are actually lighter, and so roasters would charge more for each pound of bean because more beans actually go into making a pound. The roasting process takes out moisture from the beans, making them lighter, hence, more beans to a bag.

The service at Vy was delightful. They serve your order with jasmine tea, which I find weird considering that elsewhere, they serve a refreshing glass of cold water to go with any coffee drink. Actually, I noticed this in many Southeast Asian cities, too. The idea of flavorful jasmine tea distracting me from the taste of coffee does not sit well with me, but since I was sweaty and hot from walking (or limping) from the market, I took a sip and was instantly refreshed.

I like this still life of Vietnamese culture. They have built a thing out of hanging out, and considering the kind of people and the kind of area that the coffee shop was at, it was something that even rich people would do. It’s a good place to enjoy a good cup of coffee, yes, but it’s also quite an interesting way to see what Saigon was all about. After all, the town is mainly about its people, and there they were, in plain sight, sipping coffees and sitting on squat tools, facing the street.

It was quite a nice break and it allowed the throbbing pain in my heel to go down. The coffee rush made the jaunt back to my hostel almost bearable.

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Vy Coffee
278 Le Thanh Ton, Ben Thanh Ward, Districti 1 

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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