Will Frith
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» As it cools

Specialty coffee in Vietnam: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) coffee shops, roasters, and baristas, and Dalat green coffee farmers, processors, and evangelists.

Saigon > Dalat > Saigon >

View from our temporary apartment balcony The time between cities has really become blurry and I regret not writing while out and about now. It's increasingly difficult to retain ideas and thoughts in long form as they recede into yesterday, two days ago, a week... Mistakes, I suppose, are my "chosen" form of learning. Geez, I hope that doesn't become too common a methodology.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mind being wrong. And, in the long-run, those hard lessons stick better. But dang, I like being right, too.

We spent the first days recovering from jet lag by forcing ourselves to stay awake until 8pm local time, getting out of the apartment and staying distracted. The search for good coffee in Ho Chi Minh City has not only been great addiction-maintenance, but fuel to keep us going to the next stop without stopping in a park to take a nap.

Man, this town has changed in major ways! There are about three times the number of skyscrapers compared to before, modern conveniences abound, and cars have multiplied by at least 500%! Large infrastructure projects have just "popped up" everywhere - bridges, wide streets, segregated traffic lanes (bikes and motorbikes, buses, cars, lorries). The number of wealthy people flaunting their bling (like giant villas in expensive districts, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, BMWs, iPhone 5's, iPads, malls with Versace, Prada, Jimmy Choo, and more, fancy restaurants, grocery stores and just maximum luxury in general) has skyrocketed, and long-time expats and repatriated overseas Vietnamese I know (and folks overheard in cafes) make comments about Nouveau Riche at least once every couple of days. Many of my landmarks have been replaced by Bigger & Better, Inc. and some streets have changed to one-way-only (which is a headache! I think it would almost be better if I hadn't known some of these streets at all...).

Here's a new landmark that I won't forget:

Biggest, fanciest SBUX retail ever, on one of the more expensive blocks in the city

They're opening in a few short weeks, and I take it as a sign that I'm on the right track. Let them foot the bill for marketing quasi-specialty to the mainstream market, R&D and customer education. I hope to ride the wake, because no matter how many ways the big guys can beat me (R&D, marketing, etc) I can always win on quality and transparency. That sounds more bold than I intended... trust me, I know the definition of hubris. Maybe I can dedicate a mini-post to why the Bux model can't compete with the little guys when it comes to transparency and quality. Later. (don't worry, I'll start a draft this time so I don't forget. See? I'm learning already)

There are also a couple of these now (pre-bux):

4oz double espresso in a paper cup. "For here." It was pretty gross.

I hear that Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf HCMC once had a promotion in which Ladies over 165 cm were entitled to free drinks. #wrongfordat And, they're openly insulting Vietnamese coffee production, saying they have to import their own coffee (which is nearly indistinguishable by origin anyway) because Vietnam just doesn't produce quality coffee. #noteventrying

There's this:

excited, until I saw the beans...

I got really excited when I saw a La Marzocco GB5 until I remembered that it was in Gloria Jeans' store, combined with how the beans in the hopper of their Swift grinder looked (black, oily). I ordered a Mango Black Tea. Bleh.

A few smaller brands have popped up, with the same pre-2000s approach (dark and oily, it's not TRUE espresso if there's no Robusta in the blend, and Italy still makes the best coffee ever) and are peppered throughout the central districts.

There were some glimmers of hope, such as Zip Coffee:

Zip Coffee, in District 7, owned and operated by Jo Young Jin, a Korean expat.

Jo runs the show, sourcing and roasting, training and brewing, and working the bar. He was surprised to have another coffee nerd in the house, and we talked a little (some lost through my lack of Korean language/cultural skills and his lack of English conversation skills, but we managed). He offered to buy my copy of Wintgens' Coffee: Growing, Processing and Sustainable Production on the spot, and I was sad that I had to decline. If I make it big, I'm buying him a hardcover copy right away. On offer was a basic espresso menu, pourover (Melitta) and iced drinks. He had two Vietnamese coffees, a Robusta called Saigon Number 1 and a Catimor from Dalat, along with a Colombia Supremo (no regional/cultivar/producer/coop distinction) and a House Blend. The espresso and drip were well-prepared, but the origins and dark roast profile were a little out of my preferential range.

Imagine that, proper coffee mugs and demitasses!

He's doing good work, though, and any amount of attention/accolades are unnoticeable, as he is extremely humble. He has two Proaster shop roasters (complete with afterburners, which aren't common at all since there are no laws concerning roaster exhaust) and a respectable collection of coffee brewing toys (siphons and all...). I really admire his work ethic and determination and will be visiting him again when I can bring some green coffee his way. For now, I'll play the part of interested tourist and hope he lets me hang around often.

I finally found a good-plus espresso (to be safe, I ordered ristretto, which was actually an option on the menu) at L'usine, a French restaurant in District 1, across the way from the Opera House. It had beautiful reddish crema, good aroma and a subtle dried cherry acidity with a lingering caramel finish. No burned and bitter aftertaste to speak of. If I had to critique it, I would have to say it was a little flat, but by the time I came across this demitasse I was so desperate for pleasant acidity without acrid bitterness that I was thankful to have patronized the place. The food looked really yummy, too, but we had just eaten (dang, guess I'll have to go back).

Finally, a good espresso!

Unfortunately, the manager (who apparently is the only one who knew anything about where the coffee is from) wasn't around for me to chat up. Next time.

There was a magical trip to Dalat buried somewhere in the last week and a half, but I'll save that for the next post.