As I was driving home one afternoon from running errands, I stumbled upon something I’d never seen before in my hometown of Portland, Oregon: a Vietnamese coffee shop. Aptly named Portland Ca Phe, the bright yellow bordered sign and red plastic chairs in the front caught my attention immediately, drawing me into its orbit. I stepped inside to a beautiful mural of Vietnam, prominently displayed and marked with certain well-known towns, welcoming me into a world that is by far and large, unknown and slightly obscure—Vietnamese coffee sold at a standalone shop.
Although Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world, and many in the Vietnamese community enjoy the coffee drinking experience, Vietnamese coffee—iced coffee in particular—is not known for its ubiquity. This is because of a slight stigma that surrounds Vietnamese coffee beans. “In general, Vietnam is still not known as a place that can produce high-quality coffee,” the cafe’s owner Kim Dam says, adding that she wants to change the narrative about Vietnamese coffee culture. Not only is Portland Ca Phe a women-owned business, but it’s the first of its kind in the city (and perhaps in the state of Oregon) that roasts its own beans imported from the central Highlands of Vietnam.
Drinking Vietnamese iced coffee is an experience on its own, for it is perhaps the only type of coffee drink where bitterness and sweetness dominate equally in the same cup. To Vietnamese people, it’s more than just tasting a strong, bitter drink. It’s a communal experience that often involves sitting on (often very small) plastic furniture at a coffee shop in Vietnam, defying humidity by drinking a bitter concoction mixed with an intensely sweet, creamy base and topped with a lot of ice while watching people go by. It’s this kind of experience that makes drinking Vietnamese iced coffee its own culture. Time goes by, conversations ensue, and before you know it, you’ve been drinking coffee for hours.
As a first generation Vietnamese American living in Portland, a city with a strong food culture, I’ve always experienced Vietnamese iced coffee at home, never in a storefront setting. Having discovered a Vietnamese coffee shop brings back memories of the time I went back to my country in 2009, when I was in my mid-20s. After being away for almost 15 years, I was taken aback by how common it was to drink Vietnamese iced coffee all day. Little by little, I saw one stainless steel drip after another, a juxtaposition of sweetened condensed milk mixed with dark, bitter coffee on top, dripping slowly and meticulously while its drinkers sat patiently waiting. Once the coffee finished its round of dripping, they’d take a spoon and stir up the coffee, then sip contentedly while talking to others around them. It’s a comforting routine for many Vietnamese individuals, including myself.
The coffee beans are what makes the coffee so good. Many people in Vietnam drink their iced coffee with robusta beans, a bean that does not lose its intense flavor even with the addition of sweetened condensed milk. In fact, adding sweetened condensed milk softens the bitterness of the coffee, thereby making it easier to drink for everyone. And yet, as the Vietnamese population grew in America, so did the inability to import quality coffee. After the Vietnam War ended, many Vietnamese families settled in New Orleans, Louisiana, where Cafe Du Monde, a coffee stand that started in 1862, became a central place of employment. Soon, they began drinking the stand’s coffee, a blend of coffee and chicory. Word spread across the country, and it slowly became the coffee of choice.
Today, the brand is still carried in many Asian supermarkets. When you step into an Asian supermarket, especially one that focuses on Vietnamese groceries, you often find Cafe Du Monde in a large, round tin (similar to a cookie tin), a bright orange invitation to drinking Vietnamese iced coffee at home. It’s a simple process that involves spooning 3-4 teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk (or more if you have a sweet tooth like me) into a standard 12-oz water glass. Next, add two tablespoons of coffee grounds into a stainless steel coffee drip and place it on top of the glass, then add hot water. The drip operates like a French press, dripping on top of the milk—be sure to leave several inches for ice. Once the coffee finishes its drip, about five minutes later, add a generous helping of ice, stir, and enjoy.
These days, if you’re in the Portland area, you can head over to Portland Ca Phe (where you can order online), and across the country Vietnamese iced coffee can be found in many Vietnamese pho restaurants. However, keep in mind that with these restaurants, the main attraction is the food, not the drink.
If you want to have the experience in the comfort of your own home, you can head to an Asian supermarket, where you might be able to find Lee’s Coffee, a concentrated version of Vietnamese iced coffee—you can also buy them online—and a can of sweetened condensed milk for just a few dollars. Lee’s Sandwiches, the parent of Lee’s Coffee, is a large, national banh mi chain with locations all over the United States where one can enjoy the experience of Vietnamese iced coffee, along with a sandwich. Not only that, Lee’s Coffee is a wholesale product that can be purchased in many grocery stores around the country.
Bringing back a piece of Vietnamese culture, especially in person in the post-COVID era, is more important than ever. The ritual of drinking coffee binds people together and cements their sense of identity and belonging, much like it did for Portland Ca Phe’s owner, Kim Dam. “I like waking up in the morning and having a routine, knowing your regulars, just having a good time,” she tells Oregon Public Broadcasting. “To me, it’s a low-stress job, it’s just something that I really enjoy doing, creating relationships with people in your community and just making friends.”