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The Story of Coffee

Saigon’s caffeine addiction has taken on unprecedented proportions

Last Updated: October 10.2014

The Gist
  • Coffee was developed by French colonists as an export good following its first arrival in 1857
  • Government management was largely ineffective until the advent of Doi Moi and the opportunity created by the 1994 salt mist that destroyed Brazilian coffee crops
  • Vietnam became the world’s largest coffee producer in 2012
  • The Vietnamese coffee habit may have its origins in the French aristocracy or in the habits of coffee farmers
  • Coffee is consumed either by filtering it through a specially-designed tin called a phin, or in instant form
  • Coffee resonates deeply with the Vietnamese psyche, and numerous coffee shops open and close on a daily basis

The very first coffee tree that was ever brought into Vietnamese territory arrived in 1857 in the hands of a French Catholic Priest. It was a Coffea arabica tree planted in the garden of a small church in the Vietnamese highlands. Like Catholicism itself, the fruit it produced was destined to change the fate of the Vietnamese nation.

It all started with one little tree

True to its name, this was a species of coffee originating from Arabia. More plants of the same species were brought into Vietnam by French businessmen, hoping that the similar climate would create an environment in which large-scale coffee farms and an export industry could be built. This vision turned out to be unusually prescient – but perhaps not at first.

The Arabica plantations slowly spread down to the central areas (Quang Tri, Bo Trach, etc), and the coffee they produced was then exported back to France under the brand name ‘Arabica du Tonkin’. Despite the best efforts of the French colonists, however, Arabica did not perform very well in Vietnam at that time. The first few harvests only reached a production rate of 400-500 kg/ha, and subsequent harvests only went downhill, bottoming out at 100-150 kg/ha, a third of what it had been at first.

In 1908, French colonists imported two more coffee species into Vietnam, Coffea robusta and Coffea mitcharichia. Production in Vietnam, with the arrival of these new species, did improve somewhat. Under French administration, coffee plantations were created on a large scale and in great numbers in several Vietnamese provinces, such as Ha Tinh, Thanh Hoa, and Nghe An.

In 1925, Tay Nguyen, the highland that would later become known as the premier coffee-growing area in Vietnam, was colonised for coffee plantation. The total area reserved for coffee production in Vietnam soon reached its peak between 1946-1966, covering a total of 13,000 hectares. The five provinces that make up this area today are together responsible for 90% of the total national output of coffee, and the capital of the most productive of these – Buon Me Thuot City – is the centre of the country’s coffee industry and culture.

Central Buon Me Thuot

After 1945, many of these coffee plantations fell in the hands of the North Vietnamese government. They were initially abandoned or utilised for other purposes, but under the pressures of the oncoming war and the need for financial funding, coupled with the fact that coffee-making had now become the livelihood of many provinces and their inhabitants, the operation of these old French plantations slowly started up again, now fully under Vietnamese government control.

Vietnam’s fledgling national coffee industry went up and down as the government was still unused to the management of large-scale coffee plantations, and was largely preoccupied with the war effort. It wasn’t until 1994 that the coffee industry truly kicked into full gear.

1994 was also known as the year of the salt mist in Brazil. A vast mist descended onto the Brazilian shore, bringing with it a salt spray that destroyed the majority of coffee trees throughout the country. A drought followed immediately afterward, and lasted until 1997 – almost cutting the global supply of coffee at that time by half. The vacuum that this created in the market sent the price of coffee skyrocketing.

It was under these market conditions, as well as under the national Vietnamese economic reform campaign Doi Moi which had begun in 1986, that the coffee industry in Vietnam received strong attention and funding from the government.

In 2012, Vietnam surpassed Brazil as the country with the highest coffee production rate in the world.

Most of the world’s coffee comes from small plantations like this one

In the Vietnamese Cup

It’s unknown exactly when the Vietnamese people began to start drinking coffee, or when it overtook the more traditional beverage – Chinese tea – as the favourite national drink. At some point, however, coffee became more than just an export commodity, and started to find its way into Vietnamese cups. Many historical experts have pointed to French influences, starting from the heart of the old colonial urban areas of Vietnam, from large cities such as Hanoi and Saigon where the French and the upper echelons of the wealthy and educated Vietnamese interacted and learned each other’s habits.

Still others consider the coffee plantations of the Vietnamese highlands as the place where Vietnamese farmers, after many long days of hard work, developed the habit of chewing on coffee pods to achieve a temporary spike of energy. Many of these same farmers would then take home coffee pods as gifts for their families and neighbours, unknowingly initiating coffee as a consumable product for the Vietnamese later on.

There are two primary ways in which coffee is made and consumed in Vietnam, one of which is a definite proof of the French influence on Vietnamese coffee culture.

  • Filtered coffee - or cà phê phin in Vietnamese

Considered the classical method, there’s no doubt that filter coffee is regarded as the classiest of the many coffee-drinking styles available to the Vietnamese people. Filtered coffee has its roots in French coffee culture – the roasted seed is ground into fine granules, which is mixed with hot water in a tin filter. Coffee made from this process retains the strongest taste and scent. Most Vietnamese people who drink coffee this way take their time with it, positioning the tin over the cup, waiting patiently as it slowly drips through into a small ceramic mug like a dark, fragrant syrup.

Your everyman’s dripfeed
  • Instant coffee - or cà phê gói in Vietnamese

Instant coffee – coffee for the busy soul. As urban Ho Chi Minh City undergoes the process of modernisation, less and less Vietnamese have the time to sit down and wait for their cup of filtered coffee to drip through the tiny tin. Western instant coffee has grown to accommodate this increasing lack of free time, despite its comparatively mild flavour.

Just what happened to the joy of tea is anyone’s guess. Before the arrival of coffee, tea reigned supreme as the drink of choice for Vietnamese both young and old, rich and poor. These days, it’s hard to walk walk a block in Ho Chi Minh City without encountering coffee of some kind, either served in fancy cafes or sold in little sit-me-down street corners and pavements – whereas a proper tea house has to be deliberately hunted down.

There are only a few tea houses worthy of the name in Ho Chi Minh City, whereas the number of cafés and coffee shops is almost uncountable as new ones small and large alike are opening up and closing down every day.

It’s as if the whole city is on some kind of caffeine rush – and perhaps there’s the answer there.

Coffee has entered mainstream Vietnamese culture as a drink that is both base and refined, both casual and classy. For every instant cup of coffee sold, another filtered, one-roast high-class cup is made.

The word ‘coffee’ alone summons up in the Vietnamese psyche many images: a steaming cup of either sweet or bitter black gold, a sachet of sweetened powder, or the rich brown seeds with their unforgettable fragrances, an afternoon relaxing in a fancy Western-style café, or a more Saigon-spin coffee garden, a breezy morning on the pavement of Thong Nhat park, an evening spent with a date – and many more. Coffee, just like many other things, has taken on a life and culture all of its own in Vietnam. It has become the new rice of the Vietnamese people.

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