Vietnam, June 2017

A beautiful vase from Oriberry Coffee in Hanoi.2017 was an interesting year for me, which saw me visit both Japan and Vietnam for the first time. Both trips were for work, with additional time added on for Coffee Spot activities. Just as was the case for my trip to Japan, I didn’t have enough time to plan properly, so I booked flights to/from Ho Chi Minh City, leaving the details of the rest of my trip until closer to the time. For my final planning, I relied heavily on a long series of blog posts from my friend Bex (of Double Skinny Macchiato fame), who had visited almost exactly a year before me.

With hindsight, booking the flights out/back before planning the rest of the trip was a mistake. I ended up following much of what Bex had done, including travelling to Hanoi for the end of my trip. This meant I then had to fly back to Ho Chi Minh City to catch my flight home, whereas I could have flown directly home from Hanoi instead!

Despite this, I had an amazing time and really loved Vietnam, much to my surprise. It was a country I knew very little about prior to my trip, so I came with low expectations which were exceeded at every step. I was particularly impressed with the vibrant, home-grown coffee scene, plus the quality of Vietnamese speciality coffee.

I left Heathrow on Wednesday, June 7th, arriving in Ho Chi Minh City early the following morning, giving myself a long weekend to get over the jet lag, acclimatise and explore the city. I spent the following week in a very swish hotel for work, then, on the Friday evening, 16th June, I took the train from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang, arriving the following day.

Although my ultimate destination was Hanoi, like Bex, I’d broken my journey to visit the historic tourist city of Hội An and the old imperial capital of Huế. From Danang, my hotel in Hội An had a laid on a car and I spent the weekend exploring the town before returning to Danang on Monday morning to take the train along the spectacular coastline to Huế.

After a full day in Huế, spent exploring the ruins of the Imperial Palace, I caught the evening sleeper train to Hanoi, arriving at midday on the following day, Wednesday, 21st June. I then had the rest of that day and all of Thursday and Friday to explore the city before flying back late on Friday evening, first to Ho Chi Minh City, then back to Heathrow and home.

The flights are covered in the Travel Spots below, along with my train journey from Ho Chi Minh City/Hanoi, which I’ve split over three posts to cover the three legs of the journey. You can also read about the Coffee Spots I visited during my time in Ho Chi Minh City, Hội An and Hanoi. Finally, if you are interested in traditional Vietnamese coffee, you can find the short series I wrote about it at the end.


Header Image: sunset from my first night on the train on the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang.


Travel Spots

You can read about the trip in the following Travel Spot posts.

Brian's Travel Spot: Vietnam

My Vietnamese Airlines Boeing 787-9 waiting at the gate at Heathrow's Terminal 4 to take me to Ho Chi Minh City.Welcome to another instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot, featuring Vietnam, a new destination for the Coffee Spot and for me personally. Having previously 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 returned) on Vietnam Airlines. Having previously tried to travel only on British Airways or Virgin for long-haul flights, the last twelve months has seen me flying on a variety of airlines. Other than the annoyance at having my airmiles spread around all over the place, my (long haul) experience has been very positive, a trend that continued with Vietnam Airlines.

The trip itself took in a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, followed by a week there for business, and was rounded off by 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 flew back from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh and, from there, home.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Vietnam By Train, Ho Chi Minh City to Danang

My sleeper compartment on the TN2 train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.Welcome to the second instalment of the latest Brian’s Travel Spot, the occasional series in which I catalogue my travels by means other than the coffee shops I visit. This trip began just over a week ago, when I flew 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.

Ideally, I’d write things up as I go, letting you know what I made of the city, with regular updates documenting my various adventures/experiences. However, the last year has taught me that combining travel, work, keeping the Coffee Spot regularly updated and writing Travel Spots in real time just doesn’t work. Something had to give and, sadly, it’s the real-time Travel Spots.

Instead, I’ve put together a Travel Spot Page to deal with the whole trip, while the remaining posts in the series cover my epic 36-hour train journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi ending with my flight back to the UK.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Danang, Hội An and Huế

Multi-coloured lanterns hanging in a street in the Old Town in Hoi An and lit up at night.Welcome to the third instalment of my Vietnamese Travel Spot, which covers the trip I made to Vietnam exactly three years ago. I wrote some of it up at the time, but never completed writing about my train journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, a 36-hour epic which I did in three stages, Ho Chi Minh City to Danang, Danang to Huế and Huế to Hanoi.

I’ve already written about the first stage, Ho Chi Minh City to Danang, 18½ hours on a no-frills sleeper which left Ho Chi Minh City in mid-afternoon and arrived in Danang the following morning. Meanwhile, the final leg, from Huế to Hanoi, involved another sleeper, and is covered in the final instalment of this series, just leaving with middle section, which is the subject of this post.

I broke my journey like this so that I could visit two contrasting cities, Hội An and Huế. I began with Hội An, a short way south of Danang (and which is bypassed by the train), then took the train from Danang to Huế, without a doubt the most scenic stretch of the whole route, before carrying on to Hanoi after a day in Huế.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Huế to Hanoi

The things you find in Hue... A giant statue of a cockerel on the banks of the Perfume River.Welcome to the fourth instalment of my Vietnamese Travel Spot, covering my trip to Vietnam from exactly three years ago. I wrote some of it up at the time, but never completed the posts about my train journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, a 36-hour epic which I did in three stages.

The first stage, Ho Chi Minh City to Danang, was 18½ hour overnight journey on a no-frills sleeper leaving Ho Chi Minh City in mid-afternoon and arriving in Danang the following morning. The second stage saw me spend a couple of days in Hội An before travelling by train from Danang to Huế, the most scenic part of the route.

This, the final stage, covers my time in Huế, plus the last leg of my journey, from Huế to Hanoi. This involved another sleeper, which left Huế late in the evening and arrived in Hanoi just before midday the following morning. I then had three days to explore the Vietnamese capital before flying back late on the evening of the third day, first to Ho Chi Minh City, then back to Heathrow and home. This, incidentally, was the first time that I flew in business class!

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Brian's Travel Spot: Flying Business Class with Vietnam Airlines

My Vietnamese Airlines Boeing 787-9 waiting at the gate at Heathrow's Terminal 4 to take me to Ho Chi Minh City.Welcome to another instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot. This is part of my series on Vietnam, which started with my flight over, and which, logically enough, would conclude with this, my flight back However, I’ve long since given up on assuming that there will be any logic to the order of these posts, so while you still await my thoughts on Vietnam itself, the final instalment of my three-part series on Vietnamese Coffee and the culmination of my trip up the coast by train, here’s a piece on my flight back from Vietnam, which marked, in another first for me and the Coffee Spot, a long-haul flight in business class.

I should point out that I do have this dream that at some point in the (hopefully not too distant) future, loads of free time will magically appear, allowing me to go back and complete the outstanding Travel Spots. These will then form a coherent narrative, full of useful information for the fellow traveller. Of course, knowing how these things go, it’ll take me ages, by which time they’ll be hopelessly out of date. Plus, of course, I’ll have to completely re-write this introduction.

I’ve clearly not thought this through…

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Coffee Spots

You can read about all the Coffee Spots I visited on this trip in Ho Chi Minh City, Hội An and Hanoi (listed alphabetically for each city).

Ho Chi Minh City

Here are the Coffee Spots I visited during my week in Ho Chi Minh City.

Shin Coffee, Hồ Huấn Nghiệp

A drawing of a Syphon, taken from the wall of Shin Coffee Roastery in Ho Chi Minh City.Shin Coffee is a small, local roaster/coffee shop chain in the Vietnamese capital, Ho Chi Minh City, which I discovered on my visit there this time last year, it having been recommended to me by Vietnam Coffee Republic. This is one of two branches a few blocks apart in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, where you’ll also find the likes of The Workshop Coffee. Unlike the branch on Nguyễn Thiệp, which is purely a coffee shop, this is the original, dating from 2015, and doubles as the roastery, with a pair of roasters behind a glass wall at the back.

Shin Coffee seems to specialise in long, thin spaces and this is no different. Although not quite as elegant as Nguyễn Thiệp, it’s pretty close and has a very similar look, feel and design, as well as offering the same coffee choices and menu. Shin only roasts Arabica beans, with a range of Vietnamese blends and a few single-origins from both Vietnam and around the world. There’s a traditional espresso-based menu (using a blend of Ethiopian and Vietnamese coffee), along with decaf, plus there’s filter through V60, Syphon, Aeropress and Cafetiere, as well as traditional Vietnamese filter coffee.

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Shin Coffee, Nguyễn Thiệp

Synchronicity: two baristas pouring milk in cappuccinos at Shin Coffee, Ho Chi Minh City, VIetnam.I’m currently in Thailand, which, I appreciate, isn’t Vietnam, but the climate and general feel of Thailand very much reminds me of Vietnam, which puts me in mind of my trip there last year. I found a lot of great coffee in Vietnam, including Shin Coffee, a small roaster/coffee shop chain in Ho Chi Minh City. Shin was a recommendation from Vietnam Coffee Republic, which I’d visited the day before. However, on my way there, I’d already spotted Shin and added it to my “should investigate further” list.

Shin had caught my eye from the street, with the rather provocative “speciality coffee” written on the window. Add to this a tagline of “best coffee in town”, this suggests that either it is very, very good, or full of bullshit. Fortunately, it was the former. Shin roasts all its own coffee, all Arabica, including a range of Vietnamese blends and a few single-origins from both Vietnam and around the world. There’s a traditional espresso-based menu (using a blend of Ethiopian and Vietnamese coffee), plus V60, Syphon, Aeropress and Cafetiere, as well as traditional Vietnamese filter coffee. Shin was also the first place I visited in Vietnam that serves decaf.

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The Workshop Coffee

My espresso surveys the room in The Workshop Coffee, Ho Chi Minh CityThe 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.

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VCR Bar & Showroom

The Vietnam Coffee Republic logo: five coffee beans in a circle, taken from the front wall of the VCR Bar and Showroom.Vietnam Coffee Republic is small chain (of two), part of a growing band of speciality coffee shops in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Like the nearby The Workshop Coffee and the various branches of Shin Coffee, Vietnam Coffee Republic is both roaster and coffee shop. There’s a large coffee shop just around the corner, while this, the VCR Bar & Showroom, is where all the roasting takes place, plus it’s a coffee shop in its own right.

Sheltering under the towering edifice of the Roseland Corp Hotel, the VCR Bar & Showroom is easily missed. There’s more seating outside, a lovely area set back from the road, than there is inside, a wide, shallow space with the roaster at one end behind the counter.

When it comes to coffee, which is all grown in Vietnam, the VCR Bar & Showroom has the same menu as its big sibling, serving four principle blends containing varying ratios of Robusta and Arabica beans, plus a single-origin. These are available as espresso or filter, with options including 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.

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Vietnam Coffee Republic

The flat bed of coffee grounds after brewing in a V60 at Vietnam Coffee Republic.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.

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Hội An

Here are the Coffee Spots I visited during my two days in Hội An.

Mia Coffee

The sign for the new Mia Coffee roastery and cafe in Hoi An, two doors down from the original!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.

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The Espresso Station

The Espresso Station logo, taken from a sign halfway down the alley which houses it in Hoi An.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).

July 2017: In a fit of extremely bad timing on my behalf, less than a month after my visit, The Espresso Station closed for a full refit. Judging by the pictures on its Facebook page, you can expect the same excellent coffee, but in a lovely new setting.

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Hanoi

Here are the Coffee Spots I visited in Hanoi during my time in the Vietnamese capital.

Gấu Coffee Roasters

The front of Gau Coffee Roasters in the Old City, Hanoi.I didn’t spend long in Hanoi, at the end of my Vietnam trip, so didn’t have much time to explore. I also didn’t have a long list of coffee shops to visit when I arrived. That I found Gấu Coffee Roasters was entirely down to The Caffinet, which in turn I only found following a recommendation from Oriberry Coffee. Sometimes all you need is a list of one…

On a busy road in the northeast of Hanoi’s old city, you really need to know where Gấu Coffee Roasters is, although if you look in the window, you’ll probably be drawn in, particularly if you see the roaster all the way at the back of the long, thin store. All the coffee’s roasted here, with a range of origins, plus home-grown Vietnamese Arabica. There’s a blend on espresso, with multiple single-origins on pour-over through a variety of methods, plus traditional Vietnamese coffee.

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Oriberry Coffee, Hàng Trống

A beautiful vase from Oriberry Coffee in Hanoi.On my recent trips, I’ve had the very good fortune of having some outstanding coffee shops right next to my hotels, but in this case, good fortune had nothing to do with it. I’d deliberately picked my hotel, buried in the warren of narrow streets west of the lake in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter (Hoàn Kiếm), because it was next to two of Bex (Double Skinny Macchiato) top two recommendations, RuNam Bistro and today’s Coffee Spot, Oriberry Coffee.

Oriberry is a Vietnamese social enterprise founded in 2010 to work closely with Vietnamese coffee and tea farmers, the ideals at the heart of the third-wave coffee movement. Oriberry is a chain of four coffee shops, which also double as retail outlets for its range of pottery, which is handmade in the nearby village of Bat Trang, and coffee, all of which is roasted in-house.

Oriberry serves two espresso blends, one, the 64 blend, a mix of Robusta and Arabica beans, the other, the 73 blend, pure Arabica. Both are available as espresso, while the 64 is also available as traditional Vietnamese Coffee, made with the cà phê phin cup-top filter. There’s also a range of Vietnamese tea and cakes.

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RuNam Bistro, Hanoi

My coffee at RuNam Bistro in Hanoi, made with a traditional cup-top filter and beautifully-presented on a ceramic tray. Note the bowl of hot water the cup is standing in, which keeps the coffee warm.This time last year, I was approaching the end of my Vietnamese trip and, reaching my final stop, Hanoi, I found a small but vibrant coffee scene. My hotel had been carefully chosen, in the heart of the old city and around the corner from both Oriberry Coffee and today’s Coffee Spot, RuNam Bistro, although back then it went by the name Càfê RuNam. A national chain, I had somehow missed its four branches in Ho Chi Minh City, including the one on the same street as Shin Coffee. The Hanoi branch came highly recommended though, by no higher authority than both Fancy A Cuppa? and Bex of Double Skinny Macchiato.

RuNam Bistro is a high-end coffee-and-food spot, offering table service and high-quality food from breakfast through lunch to dinner, all accompanied by Vietnamese-grown coffee, roasted in-house, and served in the most elegant surroundings of any coffee shop I visited on my trip. The coffee is available as either espresso or traditional Vietnamese cup-top filter (cà phê phin). There’s a dark-roasted house blend of Arabica and Robusta beans, plus some 100% Arabica beans, including decaf (a rarity in Vietnam), but you have to know to ask, otherwise you will get the house blend.

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The Caffinet

A traditional cup-top filter at The Caffinet in Hanoi.At last! A coffee shop in Vietnam not recommended by either Bex (Double Skinny Macchiato) or Simon (Fancy A Cuppa). Instead, today’s Coffee Spot, The Caffinet, was recommended by the wonderful folks at Oriberry Coffee (and, in fairness to Bex/Simon, it opened after their respective visits). On a busy street to the northeast of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, it’s another with a modest exterior that hides a delightful, and spacious, interior.

Spread over two floors, The Caffinet (which translates loosely as The Coffee House) opened in 2016 with the aim of serving Vietnamese-grown coffee and tea with a distinctly western-style. It does this using coffee from La Viet, a coffee shop/roaster in the Dalat coffee-growing region of Vietnam, and, tea from Long Dinh, which comes from Vietnam’s Lam Dong tea-growing province.

Unusually, there’s no hulking espresso machine at The Caffinet. Instead, espresso drinks are provided by the ROK hand espresso machine, which sits quietly on the counter. This is joined by a bewildering array of pour-over and immersion brewing methods. I think that the only one I didn’t see was the Clever Dripper! Finally, since this is Vietnam, there’s the traditional Vietnamese cup-top filter. Naturally, all the beans are for sale.

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Vietnamese Coffee

You can also see what I made of traditional Vietnamese coffee in this three-part series.

Vietnamese Coffee Part I

A traditional Vietnamese Ca Phe Phin cup-top filter in use at Shin Coffee, Ho Chi Minh City.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 (cà phê phin), 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…

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Vietnamese Coffee Part II

Traditional Vietnamese cup-top filter coffee with condensed milk from The Espresso Station in Hoi AnWelcome to the second 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 covers my experiments of using my own cà phê phin to make coffee.

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Vietnamese Coffee Part III

My traditional Vietnamese cup-top filter from The Espresso Station in action at my friend's house in the USA.Welcome to the third and final part of my exploration of traditional Vietnamese coffee following my recent visit to Vietnam. Part I covered my introduction to Vietnamese coffee and the traditional cà phê phin, a cup-top metal filter. I explained how, after a few false starts, I discovered a taste for speciality coffee made with the cà phê phin when I tried it at Shin Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City.

In Part II, I continued my exploration, trying traditional Vietnamese coffee, both speciality and non-speciality, over ice, and with condensed milk, with mixed results. I also tried the (in)famous egg coffee, traditional Vietnamese coffee with a layer of whipped egg yolk and condensed milk. Think of it as a liquid pudding rather than coffee and you’ll be fine.

In this, Part III, you can see how I got on making traditional Vietnamese coffee in various hotels and back at home using my own cà phê phin which I bought at The Espresso Station in Hoi Ann. I’ve tried a number of different beans, and used a couple of recipes which I picked up simply by observing baristas making coffee at the likes of Shin Coffee and Hanoi’s The Caffinet.

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