Mia Coffee is in Hội An’s French Quarter, east of the old town, another recommendation from the tag team of Bex (Double Skinny Macchiato) and Simon (Fancy A Cuppa). Set back a decent way from the road, Mia Coffee occupies a low, single-storey building with a small, recessed terrace. Inside, the single space is open to the A-framed roof. Like The Espresso Station, it doesn’t have air-conditioning, relying on fans to keep things cool. It also bucks the usual Vietnamese trend of staying open until late at night, closing at five o’clock.
Like most of the independent coffee shops I’ve come across in Vietnam, Mia Coffee is a roaster as well as a coffee shop, championing links with Vietnamese coffee growers and only serving Vietnamese coffee. Unlike some, the range on offer is limited, with a single Arabica blend for espresso and traditional cup-top Vietnamese filter, plus another for use at home, both available in retail bags.
A word of warning: Mia Coffee’s done so well that it’s outgrown its current premises and is moving. If all goes well, come October, Mia Coffee will be across the road in a new, purpose-built café/roastery that was under construction during my visit.
Welcome to the second (I think) of my three-part exploration of traditional Vietnamese coffee. As I explained in Part I, I’ve been exploring the local coffee culture during my time in Vietnam. The Vietnamese are volume coffee drinkers: I’ve not been anywhere with this many coffee shops! They are literally on every corner, often open from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.
However, traditional Vietnamese coffee, made using the cà phê phin, a cup-top metal filter, served either hot or over ice, and often with condensed milk, has a reputation for being strong, sweet and heavy on the Robusta. Sadly, much of that does not appeal to me, but, despite my initially scepticism, I found, to my surprise, that I liked many aspects of both the culture and of the coffee itself.
In Part I, I shared my initial, rather unsuccessful, forays into traditional Vietnamese coffee, followed by my conversion when I tried the combination of speciality coffee and the cà phê phin. In this, Part II, I continue my exploration with coffee over ice plus coffee with condensed milk. Finally, Part III will cover my experiments of using my own cà phê phin to make coffee.
The Espresso Station is a delightful little spot in Hội An, just to the north of the old city and, conveniently, just down the street from my hotel. Despite this convenience, I might have struggled to find it, since it’s tucked away down a narrow alley off the main street, Trần Hưng Đạo. However, forearmed is forewarned and, having read all about it after my friend Bex (of Double Skinny Macchiato fame) adventures in Vietnam last year, I knew what I was looking for.
The Espresso Station occupies a low, single-storey building with its own courtyard, which is where most of the seating is. It’s both roastery and café, with the roaster, a shiny 5kg job, tucked away at the back of the main building. Serving espresso, pour-over and traditional Vietnamese cà phê phin (cup-top filter), there’s also a range of tea, juices, plus a limited all-day breakfast menu and pastries.
There’s a blend for espresso and cà phê phin, using Arabica beans grown in Vietnam’s Dalat region, with a Vietnamese single-origin or another from Panama on pour-over. The espresso beans are available for sale, along with traditional cup-top filter (a steal at 25,000 Vietnamese Dong, or less than £1).
Welcome to the second instalment of the latest Brian’s Travel Spot, the occasional series in which I attempt to catalogue my travels by means other than the coffee shops I visit. This trip began just over a week ago, when I flew out to Vietnam, a new destination for both me and the Coffee Spot. Since then I’ve been in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon as was), first exploring the city (through the lens of its speciality coffee shops), then attending a week-long meeting for my day job.
In an ideal world, I’d be writing things up as I go, letting you know what I made of the city, with regular updates documenting my various adventures and experiences. However, if the last year has taught me anything, it’s that trying to combine travelling, working, keeping the Coffee Spot regularly updated and writing Travel Spots in real time just doesn’t work. Something has to give and, sadly, it’s the Travel Spot.
Instead, let’s skip over Ho Chi Minh City to the second part of my trip, which began yesterday. It’s an epic 36-hour train journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, stopping along the way at Hoi An and Hué.
Vietnam Coffee Republic is part of a small, but growing band of speciality coffee shops in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Like the nearby The Workshop Coffee and Shin Coffee, Vietnam Coffee Republic is a roaster as well as a coffee shop. There’s a second branch, the VCR Bar & Showroom, just around the corner, which is where all the roasting takes place.
On a narrow alley off a main street, Vietnam Coffee Republic is a modest-looking spot, with a small, sheltered outside seating area. However, it’s far bigger than it looks. Long and thin, there’s a seating area at the back and a second seating area upstairs at the front.
When it comes to the coffee, Vietnam Coffee Republic mostly serves blends, with four principle blends containing varying ratios of Robusta and Arabica beans, all grown in Vietnam. They are also available to buy, while if you are drinking in, they are available as espresso or filter, where they’re joined by a single-origin. Options include V60, Aeropress, cafetiere and syphon, plus traditional Vietnamese filter coffee. If you’re hungry, there’s a salad bar, with a range of tasty salads on offer, all made at a second counter upstairs.
The Workshop Coffee, right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon as was) was the one place that everyone said to visit. Tucked away on the top floor of an old building overlooking the main street of Đồng Khởi, it’s a glorious place, open to the roof, which soars high above and with windows on three of the four sides. Although the building’s old, inside it’s very modern, with a post-industrial look and feel, full of exposed brick, concrete floors, iron window-frames and with multiple lights hanging from the ceiling.
In this respect, it could be any coffee shop in any number of cities around the world, a warehouse loft in Brooklyn or Shoreditch for example, making it part of the global phenomenon of speciality coffee. This is followed through with the philosophy of its coffee, with direct trade at its heart, roasting high-quality single-origins in small batches on-site.
At the same time, it’s a very Vietnamese establishment, with an overwhelmingly local clientele and staff. The coffee too, is predominantly Vietnamese, the Workshop championing local Arabica growers, roasting them either as single-origins for filter, or blending them for espresso with other high quality beans from around the world.
In the run up to my current trip, I’d heard an awful lot about the Vietnamese taste for coffee. There’s no doubt that the Vietnamese like their coffee. There are coffee shops everywhere, open from first thing in the morning to last thing at night, ranging from tiny independent hole-in-the-wall operations right through to massive national chains. Starbucks is also here in strength.
However, volume of consumption is one thing, but what about the quality? Yes, you can find speciality coffee in Vietnam, and pretty good coffee at that, but I’m talking about traditional Vietnamese coffee, made using a cup-top metal filter, strong and sweet, served either hot or over ice, often with condensed milk.
I confess that this did not appeal to me. I gave up sugar in my coffee over 25 years ago and the idea of coffee with condensed milk makes me shudder. I’m also no fan of cold coffee, except a good quality filter that has been left to go cold. Cold brew, coffee over ice, anything like that, I really don’t enjoy.
That said, I’m not one to dismiss an entire coffee culture out of hand, so I thought I’d better give it a try…
Welcome to another new destination for the Coffee Spot and for me personally as I set off for Vietnam. Having hardly set foot outside Western Europe and North America, the last 12 months have seen me visit China, Japan and now Vietnam for the first time. As it was with the two previous trips, this is for work, with time for some Coffee Spot duties tacked on at the start/end.
In another first for me, I flew out (and will be returning) on Vietnam Airlines. Again, this last year has seen me flying on a variety of airlines, having previously tried to travel only on British Airways or Virgin for long-haul flights. Other than the annoyance at having my airmiles spread around all over the place, my (long haul) experience has been very positive. Hopefully Vietnam Airlines will continue the trend.
The trip itself will take in a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, followed by a week there for business, then a week-long trip all the way up the coast by train to Hanoi, with stops at Hoi An and Hué along the way. I then fly back from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh and, from there, home.