YOUR INSIDER'S CAFÉS GUIDE
IN HO CHI MINH CITY 🇻🇳 SINCE 2008
SAIGON INSPIRATION GOING OUT cafes A CHAT WITH CAFE RUNAM
An interview with Cafe RuNam CEO
Citypassguide.com sat down with Chris Ngo, Cafe RuNam’s Chief Operating Officer, to discuss how Cafe RuNam is slowly changing locals’ minds about the concept of “pure” Vietnamese coffee. Through a meticulous selection process where only a minor percentage of beans make it through inspections, Cafe RuNam is all about consistent quality and traditional taste. It even took their Italian roastmaster months to achieve the perfect blends of Arabica and Robusta beans for the brand.
What does “RuNam” mean?
Chris: Ru is understood as a lullaby song for a child, Nam stands for Vietnam, of course, since this is a Vietnamese brand. RuNam is “the lullaby of Vietnam”, the spiritual baby to be flourished with love, care and affection, bringing the best Vietnamese coffee to the world.
Who is behind Cafe RuNam?
Chris: Mr. Nguyen Quoc Khanh and his wife Mrs. Ly Q. K. Trinh. Mr. Khanh, Chairman of AA Corporation, an established construction company specializing in premium interior design, is taking care of the basic construction and designs of RuNam restaurants while Mrs. Trinh is the soul of the brand, a perfectionist. Her personal touch and exaggerated expectations are shown in the little details of our cafes.
How do you roast your beans?
Chris: We have our own roasting facility and coffee testing lab located in Binh Duong province. Our Italian Roastmaster has been researching suitable roasting methods for Vietnamese coffee blends. There are several blends of Cafe RuNam differentiated by the percentage of arabica and robusta in the mix and roasting timing according to specific temperature adjustments. There are also many different types of each bean, so the entire process of finding the right method of roasting this mix was much more complex than simply roasting one type of bean. The difference between a perfectly roasted coffee and a burned coffee is a matter of seconds.
How are you bringing “pure” coffee to Vietnam?
Chris: What locals often drink in streetside cafes is not necessarily coffee. So introducing pure coffee, without additives or artificial flavors like caramel, soybeans, and corn was a crazy idea at first. From the locals’ perception, this is not real coffee, but we patiently change that perception by introducing the highest quality blends from our homemade production, from highly selected fresh green beans to monitor the roasting process to crafting each coffee cup under consistent training procedures, as well as regular system audits from RuNam barista artists. Therefore we believe the culinary marriage of Vietnamese coffee beans with Italian roasting techniques works well. As a result, we currently have a large number of loyal customers and fans who love our coffee and the soul behind it.
Do you have additives in your coffee?
Chris: No. We use 100% coffee beans. That is the most challenging factor we’ve faced in the first several months of preparations before introducing our blends to the market. In the beginning, most Vietnamese coffee drinkers didn’t like the taste. This is something really new for them. We started to explain to our customers the reasons behind the taste and how it’s different from what they usually have. If they still don’t like it we can change the beverage or give them their money back.
Do you have a secret ratio for your blends of arabica and robusta?
Chris: Actually, this depends on the roastmaster. Depending on the season and the beans and the taste, he decides what is best suitable according to our blend guidelines and standard SOPs.
Do you import any coffee beans?
Chris: No. We use 100% Vietnamese beans. Although it’s very difficult to find good arabica here in Vietnam. The coffee growing conditions in the highlands is challenging for producing good arabica. Our roasting master has to occasionally sample different sources of beans from different plantations in order to keep up the quality and consistency of the coffee blends.
What are your best sellers?
Chris: Our ca phe sua da, ca phe da and cappuccino. These three have been the favorite of our customers. We received numerous compliments for our coffee drink menu. I have been tasting different Vietnamese coffee or cappuccinos whenever I travel or during my free time, I couldn’t find anything like it. The ambassador of Italy came to Vietnam in early 2015, and she first came to Cafe RuNam to have a cup of cappuccino, which was recommended to her by the previous ambassador. She loves it.
How did you personally get into coffee?
Chris: I got to learn about coffee when I was with KFC Singapore when we started to launch KFC breakfast. Before joining Cafe RuNam I was the Training and Development Manager for The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. I was sent overseas for barista training. I was a barista judge for some competitions. I was trained again with the RuNam roastmaster. The company sponsored me, some key managers and key baristas for Espresso Italiano Experience Seminar by International Institute of Coffee Tasters (IICT – Italy branch) to get myself ready for Cafe RuNam.
Have you created a signature Cafe RuNam coffee drink?
Chris: We have Madam RuNam, an iced latte with condensed milk and some secret ingredients. Also Sand Dune: a very unique coffee alcohol drink with Kahlua, Bailey’s, and some in-house ingredients. Besides those, we have many delicious in-house creations coming soon.
Who are your customers?
Chris: Café RuNam’s customers are comprised of the following target groups: affluent local residents, middle to upper-class tourists, local business people, and the young at heart. This depends on our store locations. In the South, it’s mostly Vietnamese and Việt Kiều. In the Center, it’s mostly tourists. And in the North, it’s like in the South – mostly Vietnamese and Việt Kiều.
Have you started exporting your beans?
Chris: Yes, we already have partner restaurants in several countries. However, the production at the moment is pretty tight since getting quality beans is difficult right now. We have a list of potential domestic and international customers who proposed to be partners with Cafe RuNam, but we’re not ready for this at the moment.
What’s the future of RuNam?
Chris: We’re in the process of spreading our brands to all the big cities in Vietnam where our main target customers are located. We already have our focus on the premium coffee market. Therefore selecting distribution partners or cafes needs a proper process of brand evaluation. We send barista trainers to the partner facility to train them on brewing, crafting, and displaying coffee products according to Cafe RuNam standards. For the long term, we plan to bring the best of Vietnamese coffee to the world.
How many cups of coffee do you drink every day?
Chris: About four to nine cups [laughs]. On some days I can’t even open my eyes without going to work and getting a coffee. And when I’m on holiday, well, those are hell. I try to drink other brands, but nothing comes close to what I want. I usually have cappuccinos, ca phe sua das, and espressos. I must have two to three cups of cappuccino and/or cafe sua da a day, at least! That’s just my life. Do you want another cup of coffee?
How do you educate yourself about coffee?
Chris: I read about it. I research it. I sign up for quality coffee courses. I practice crafting coffee whenever I can. Recently, I started writing about it. Besides coffee knowledge, my writing also includes how coffee became a part of my life, my search for answers about the coffee industry and culture, and how coffee got me where I am standing today. I share what I write with my team. I may publish it one day when I am ready for the fame it may get me. For now, I want to stay focused on flourishing my spiritual RuNam baby.
Do you like to drink any other coffee in town?
Chris: I actually check around every day to try different coffee. If I know any new coffee shop that just opened I check out their coffee. Traveling to any new city, I try the coffee there. Coffee is mostly my life, having a good cup of coffee everywhere I go, for me, is a way of indulging in life.
Anything else you’d like to mention that we haven’t covered?
Chris: We are promoting not just coffee but Vietnam’s traditional aspects to our customers. One of the distinguishing symbols of Cafe RuNam is the art of the coffee filter (phin). For foreign friends, if you come in a small group, and you want to learn more about the coffee phin-making process, we have well-trained barista artists (or you could simply ask for me, I am usually based in Ho Chi Minh City) to personally present the uniqueness of the Vietnamese coffee filter culture for you and your guests.
SAIGON INSPIRATION GOING OUT cafes FINE COFFEE SHOP WORKSPACES IN SAIGON
In Saigon, we simply love to work in Coffee Shops
Everyone would know by now that Saigon is a coffee paradise with loads of cafes, street vendors, coffee chains, international coffee franchises, and, well, you will always be able to get a cup no matter where you are in the city. However, beyond the beverage, coffee places are also excellent places for work, especially for freelancers or those looking to set a business meeting outside the office. Excellent Wi-Fi, no loud music, a relaxing ambiance, and of course, great coffee with local and foreign brews will help towards a conducive working environment.
Thinker & Dreamer
Level 4, 42 Nguyen Hue, D1, HCMC, Vietnam / Facebook
Pricing: VND 50,000-VND100,000
Ambiance: Cosy yet roomy with pockets of space
Variety of Coffee: Espresso, Cappuccino, and their own creations called Mr. Dreamer which contains soymilk, and Mr. Thinker which features a secret recipe.
Food Options: Snacks such as pastries and cakes.
On the 4th floor of the iconic 42 Nguyen Hue building, Thinker & Dreamer could come across as a hipster’s joint with a neat Instagram page with plenty of followers. However, the establishment was set up as an artistic space for customers to think, relax and daydream. Another go-to spot for the creative professional, the decor oozes inspiration, and although a tad small, the layout is well-planned to create pockets of space that allow your mind to wander. The staff is also really warm, approachable, and friendly.
Besides the usual coffee, they are also famous for their flowerpot cakes and most items on the menu are really affordable, considering its location. This is one of those places where you could spend hours and not even realize it. Kind of like a home away from home.
Work Saigon Cafe
384/7 Đ. Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Phường 8, D3, HCMC, Vietnam / Facebook
Pricing: VND 40,000-VND100,000
Ambiance: Spacious and very quiet
Variety of Coffee: Standard fare from ca phe da to long black
Food Options: All-day breakfast, pizzas, sandwiches, and main-course dishes like pasta.
Probably the most aptly named establishment on this list, Work cafe was created for the purpose of … you guessed it, customers to get their work done away from the home or office. Located off Dien Bien Phu in District 3, this place is primarily a co-working space with the upper floor hosting office spaces for actual companies whereas the bottom floor remains open to public.
A sprawling layout with open tables and plenty of power sockets, this is also the quietest venue on the list, to the point where the silence might just seem a little tense. All you need to do is make your order, pick a table and it’s all yours and you’ll hardly get disturbed. Perfect for the introverted freelancer or the hermit who likes working in peace. There is also a free swimming pool that nobody actually uses, and a resident dog that walks around offering a pleasant distraction every now and then.
15 Huynh Khuong Ninh, D1, HCMC, Vietnam / Facebook
Ambiance: Classical, and the top floor feels like a lounge.
Variety of Coffee: There’s a diverse menu of ‘special’ brews such as Kenyan, Laotian, Red and Yellow Bourbon, Sidamo, and others.
Food Options: Cakes, cookies, and tiramisu.
A quaint and classical-themed cafe, [a] Cafe is at Dakao ward in District 1 and feels more like a home than an actual establishment. It was actually home before it was refurbished into what it is today. With two levels available, the bottom floor features long, flat tables with upright chairs while you get a more lounge-like experience upstairs with comfortable seats and a chilled-out atmosphere.
This is where you get a slow-drip coffee and get a seat and then let your creative juices flow. If you’re feeling hungry, there’s a limited food menu but there is a banh mi stall just a short walk away that offers a pretty neat banh mi bay ho every afternoon. Although there is some music that fills the cafe, it’s mostly classical music at a moderate volume that’s loud enough to be heard but not loud enough to distract you.
Hoang Thi Cafe
33/72 Nguyen Trung Truc, D1, HCMC, Vietnam / Facebook
Ambiance: Cosy and bohemian
Variety of Coffee: Lattes to Americanos, featuring local and foreign beans.
Food Options: The cafe doesn’t really serve food although it’s surrounded by really good street food stalls.
This entry might be a little debatable for some. Unlike the other establishments, it doesn’t have air-conditioning and its open-door concept means you get quite a bit of noise from the road. However, this is an ideal spot if you’re a writer, musician, or artist. Perfect for those who have just moved to Saigon and are working or looking for opportunities in Saigon’s burgeoning arts scene, this cafe was opened by an artist and is frequented by artists.
Featuring a very local clientele, on a typical day you would see someone writing tunes with an acoustic guitar, and another person engrossed in writing an article on her laptop. It’s colorful, inspiring, and addictive so you might keep coming back. The woody interior and vintage decorations give the whole place a very artistic yet cosy vibe, but the biggest selling point would be that this is a decent place to work, but a great place to find a collaborator or maybe even a creative partner.
SAIGON INSPIRATION GOING OUT cafes WHAT’S REALLY IN YOUR CA PHE SUA DA?
Is Ca Phe Sua Da the most addictive cafe type in the world?
After the introduction of the first coffee plants in Vietnam in 1857, coffee production grew steadily. Only interrupted by the American War, the growth continued to the present day. In the 2014/15 harvest, Vietnam produced an estimated 29.3 million 60kg bags, which comes to 1,758,000 tonnes of coffee, of which roughly 97% are of the Coffee Robusta species. The other three percent are shared by Arabica, chair, and catimor.
“They produce 1.5 tonnes of fake coffee a day, out of soybeans, corn, and chemicals.”
The produced coffee from Vietnam in 2013 came to roughly 1,461,000 tonnes according to the statistics by FAOSTAT. Thus, Vietnam is the second largest producer and exporter of coffee worldwide right after Brazil, and the largest exporter of robusta beans. For the country itself that means that coffee is only second to rice in terms of export value. The probability that a blend of coffee of any brand in the world contains Vietnamese coffee beans is very high.
However, in Vietnam the focus lies on mass production. Coffee robusta is, as the name already indicates, very robust and grows at lower altitudes than the more expensive Coffee Arabica. Also the yield is much higher. Arabica trees need much more attention and care. One hectare of Arabica trees yields about seven tonnes of coffee, while the same area planted with robusta gives three times as much.
Talking about the taste, Arabica contains more acid but less caffeine, while robusta is stronger in taste and caffeine. Most coffee blends use robusta beans to make the finished cup taste fuller and rounder. Mass production however has its price in the long run. Farmers produce as cheaply as possible and at the end of the year, they need to collect every last coffee cherry (what the fruit that contains the actual coffee beans is called), just to pay their debts.
"This is why Vietnamese coffee is internationally considered to be of low quality.”
Even if the Vietnamese value drinking coffee as one of the cornerstones of social life, consumption per capita is very low. The Atlantic mentions 0.034 cups per day and per person, which puts Vietnam at #71 according to The Atlantic’s ranking system. This data sheet is rather vague though and should not be taken as facts carved in stone. Another data sheet assembled by Google from Wikipedia data puts Vietnam at #89 with a consumption of 0.7 kilograms per capita and year.
According to Dietmar Vogelmann, founder of Farmer’s Blend coffee in Mui Ne where we purchase our office coffee, an average cup of coffee requires at least 20g of coffee beans.
“The Vietnamese drink on average 35 cups of coffee per person per year.”
This raises some questions. If all the people I see drinking ca phe sua da every day would actually consume coffee, the statistical amount should be much higher than 35 annual cups. And this question brings us straight to the issue of “fake” coffee. Even if Vietnam currently focuses on producing cheap coffee, the actual price of pure coffee is quite high.
On Alibaba.com you can buy roasted robusta beans from Saigon port for around six U.S. dollars per kilogram if you agree to buy several tonnes. Green coffee beans are much cheaper, but you need a roastery to make them drinkable, and during the roasting process they lose 20% of their weight. However, there is a simple solution popular in Vietnam to cut the price and create greater revenue for your coffee business, be it at a café or a streetside stall: Add some fillers!
In August 2014, the American Chemical Society released an article about their development of a chromatographic test, using Brazilian coffee. The leader of the research team, Ph.D. Suzana Lucy Nixdorf says: “With our test, it is now possible to know with 95 percent accuracy if coffee is pure or has been tampered with, either with corn, barley, wheat, soybeans, rice, beans, acai seeds, brown sugar or starch syrup. The reason for developing this test is the growing worldwide demand for coffee, combined with the lower yield due to climate change and failing crops.
“Vietnam is the second largest producer and exporter of coffee worldwide after Brazil”
The most common fillers in Vietnam are soybeans and corn. While corn usually is only common in ground coffee, most people can’t distinguish roasted soybeans from actual coffee beans. The aroma of coffee with soy reminds of hazelnuts. But even if the aroma of the coffee is an indicator of its purity, how can anybody distinguish the smell, if Vietnamese coffee is soaked with natural and artificial aromas? This is probably the greatest pet peeve of coffee lovers in Vietnam.
It seems that the Vietnamese taste buds got so used to not tasting actual coffee, that some of the coffee sold on the street doesn’t even contain one single coffee bean. On August 26th, 2012, Thanh Nien News published an article about fake coffee that is produced in Ho Chi Minh City. One of these factories, Thong Phat, produces around 1.5 tonnes of fake coffee per day from soybeans, corn, and a mix of partially unidentified chemicals that reporters named “life-threatening”.
“The tremendous amount of artificial flavoring that drenches the taste of coffee.”
Vietnam Breaking News published an article on 16 September 2014, as another fake coffee producer got busted by the authorities. The inspectors did not find one single coffee bean, just soy, corn, and several unidentified chemicals. Apparently, they did not find any “coffee money” as well, otherwise, the workshop would probably continue production, quite like the above-mentioned Thong Phat company, which received the rating “good” after a food safety inspection, while the HCMC Department of Health issued a “failing to meet requirements” to the same company.
“Retailers buy the fake coffee and after grinding and packaging, they sell it to Vietnamese coffee shops for VND60,000 to VND120,000 per kilogram.”
If you compare the price here to the wholesale price of real coffee, you know where the cheap coffee actually comes from. While one-time consumption of fake coffee does not permanently damage your health, daily intake of chemicals like industrial colorings, sodium lauryl sulfate, carboxymethyl cellulose, chloramphenicol, and sodium cyclamate can poison your liver, bone marrow, and kidneys, cause cancer and even genetic defects in unborn children, such as Down’s Syndrome.
This is a pretty dire picture, painted on Vietnam’s vibrant and lively background, and it mars the overall cultural experience of enjoying a glass of ca phe sua da and a nice chat with a friend on the colorful sidewalks of Saigon. So let’s put this aside and focus on the variations of traditional Vietnamese coffee. The Vietnamese like their coffee dark roasted. Even darker than Italian espresso roasts.
“After the roasting, they add some butter and additional flavorings, like spirits, salt, or fish sauce.”
These additives are supposed to give the finished coffee a richer umami taste and the thick, oily consistency that is typical for Vietnamese coffee. I remember my first cup of coffee in Hanoi and I was more than a little surprised about the salty taste.
At Farmer’s Blend coffee, they add just a little French butter to the still warm beans and a dash of rum, to give their Vietnamese blend a traditional finish. “I experimented with soybeans and other ingredients, to create a product that is similar to the popular brands of coffee in Vietnam,” disclosed founder Dietmar Vogelmann in our recent interview, “but the process is too complicated and some of the ingredients are too dodgy, so I gave up on soybeans and only process pure coffee beans.”
“These ingredients can poison your liver, cause cancer and defects in unborn babies.”
In the South, people usually pour their beverage over ice, while in the Highlands or the northern provinces, coffee is best enjoyed hot. That is mostly an issue of the climate. The use of condensed milk dates back to the French, who traditionally add milk to their coffee. Vietnam however did not have a mentionable milk production back then, so the French imported condensed milk from Europe. The excessive sweetness of the milk reduces the bitterness of the dark roast and makes the beverage even thicker than before – exactly how the locals love it.
The use of fresh milk is still not very popular, since most milk offered at the supermarket is just rehydrated powder anyway. Real pasteurized milk like Dalat Milk, for example, comes at double the price per liter as the product of Vietnamese market leaders. Also, people fear that adding fresh milk may water down their coffee.
People who don’t add condensed milk to their Vietnamese coffee usually add loads of sugar instead. This version is called ca phe den, black coffee. Coffee drinkers who don’t like their coffee sweetened at all meet incredulous stares and unless you specify that you don’t want any sugar, the staff may even add some despite you ordering sugar-free.
Vietnamese coffee is traditionally brewed individually with a small metal French drip filter (ca phe phin). You put the dark-roasted and coarsely ground coffee powder into the phin and pour water on it. Depending on the phin, it can take several minutes for the coffee to drip into the cup or glass, containing condensed milk or sugar. If you want to pour the finished beverage over ice, feel free to do so.
At many roadside kitchens, the coffee is already brewed in advance and stored in plastic bottles under the counter. The coffee lady pours one measure of the concoction over ice and adds the condensed milk on top to create a nice effect of white and brown.
How to find good, and especially real coffee in Vietnam then? Well, one option is to make friends with a farmer. The other one is to find reliable sources for your coffee. We will introduce Saigon’s specialty coffee scene soon, where you can sample the best-rated beans in the world and be properly amazed.