Saigonese Coffee At Alley Shops

Join the Saigonese in their habit of drinking coffee at small coffee shops in the alley just along the stree. / By Quynh Thu

After their first sips of Vietnamese coffee prepaired in a local coffee shop, many foreigners exclaim, it’s so strong!

That’s true if the coffee drinker is, like so many from the West, accustomed to using sachets of instant coffee, which have their drink ready in a wink. But despite the invasion of instant coffee in recent years as a result of more industrialized lifestyle, Vietnamese mostly still prefer to have filtered coffee, cà phê phin, as they call it.

A cup of filtered coffee can be stronger than two or three sachets of instant coffee. The secret lies with the amounts of ground coffee and water put in the filter pot. Serveral teaspoons of ground coffee are put in and less than a cup of boiled water is added. To get a delicious cup of coffee, boiled water is used, preferably water that has just boiled. Water that is not very hot will spoil your coffee.

The poiled water permeates through the ground coffee and drips into the cup under the filter. The slow drip of boiled water makes the coffee atrong. The more teaspoons of ground coffee you want to add into the filter spot, the stronger coffee will become. Using less boiled water will bring about a similar effect.

If you are familiar with the Starbucks kind of coffee, try something different in Saigon. This time to avoid luxurious bars; choose a coffee shop at the entrance of an alley instead.

A coffee shop of this category often welcomes customers from dawn still dusk although it is most likely to be frequented in the morning. Inside the typical shop, three by four meters wide, several sets of wooden tables and chairs are placed. You will see the wooden counter where coffee is prepared as you enter the shop ot it will be towards the rear of the house. On the counter will be dozens of small aluminum, or sometimes stainless steel, filters.

The shopkeeper may know some of the customers so well that he or she knows exactly how many spoons of ground coffee and sugar or milk should be used to satisfy that person’s taste.

So, just sit at your familiar place on your familiar chair, read your favorite morning paper and wait for your cup of coffee to be brought to your table. You don’t have to wait long, just two or three minutes, for the cup of coffee with a filter to be served.

After getting the cup you have to wait for the boiled water to run through the ground coffee in the filter. It will take another five minutes before you can take the first sip.

Many “alley” coffee shops use transparent cups or glasses. This practice lets drinkers watch the drops of black coffee falling from the filter.

At Starbucks coffee shops around the world, you have many different types of coffee. But this coffee seems to come of a product line. You can’t simply add half a teaspoon of sugar or a little milk or a bigger or smaller amount of coffee. It’s different at small coffee shops in HCM city where you can order your “tailor-made” coffee cup at only VND5,000, or 30 U.S cents.

Yet drinking coffee is just part of the cultural asset one can find in an “alley” coffee shop. The other half is formed by the clientele at that shop. They are people who know one another, and are sometimes neighnors. With the habit of visiting the familiar coffee shop, what the customers, especially elderly people and retirees, share each morning is a wide range of stories, from world news, sport events, scandals of famous stars to corruption cases featured in the morning papers, or the news of a neighborhood fire breaking out the night before.

If you aren’t used to drinking strong filtered coffee the way Saigonese do or if you find your cà phê phin too strong, don’t worry. Just ask the shopkeeper to spare one or two spoons of ground coffee. If you find the coffee too sweet, ask them for less sugar or milk. It’s coffee with difference, but that difference makes it worthwhile.

Coffee Tips : These are the words used to order coffee at alley coffee shops.

  • Đen: black coffee (with suger)
  • Đá: iced coffee (with sugar)
  • Sữa nóng: hot coffee with condensed milk
  • Sữa đá: iced coffee with condensed milk

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