Best Souvenirs to Buy in Saigon

By: Kristian Goodchild

Successful souvenir buying is a lost art to many. The knack of picking an item that embodies something unique about a place, that feels authentic and emblematic yet not too twee or stale, is a subtle skill.

Vietnam is so blessed with a marvellous array of handicrafts and unique, delightful items that it can be hard to decide what to buy. So how best to go about it? What should you buy for your friends, kids or parents? Let us guide you through the best souvenirs that Saigon has to offer.


Souvenirs for friends

Ao Dai

Beautiful Vietnamese girl wearing a ao ad

Traditional, beautiful, flowing ao dais are central to Vietnamese ceremonial life. Worn for weddings, festivals and formal functions, the ao dai lends majesty and grace to any wearer. They make a breathtaking gift for anyone with exotic dress sense. However, be careful: ao dais are usually made to fit, so make sure you have a rough idea of the recipient’s size, and if in doubt, over-estimate: you can always get it brought in back home. A good option for tourists is to check out the Ao Dai Museum’s Si Hoang Show on Saigon’s walking street Nguyen Hue. They also sell magnificent ao dais!

Wartime Zippo Lighters

Wartime Vietnam Zippo

Since the end of the American war, US Zippo lighters have been big business for souvenir vendors. Marked with the insignia and heraldry of the various units that served in Vietnam, they present a somewhat macabre reminder of the individuals who were sent to fight here. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, markets teemed with genuine Zippos, discarded by fleeing or slain troops. Today the lighters are likely to be fakes, but the effect remains the same. Pop down to Dan Sinh Market (also known as Yersin Market) in District 1.

Non La (Straw Hat)

Non La

There is little more iconic and unmistakably Vietnamese than the non la straw hat. The supporting star of every Vietnamese film of the last 50 years, it is instantly recognisable and, still today, ubiquitous throughout the nation. Our advice is to seek out a market stall selling only non la, and haggle down to no more than VND 100,000 (maybe less if you’re patient). Plain non la are preferable to the gaudy painted variety in tourist traps, so head out to smaller, heartland markets and rummage around with the locals for authentic hats and best prices.

Propaganda Art

A propaganda shop in Bui Vien

Undeniably kitsch, stylish and relatively unattainable outside Vietnam, cold-war era propaganda art makes for an excellent souvenir. These are perfect gifts for that friend who wants a quirky addition to his Che Guevara poster. Check shops abound throughout the city, mainly in touristy areas like Pham Ngu Lao and Ben Thanh.


Souvenirs for Kids

Bamboo Dragonflies

Bamboo Dragofly

With their ubiquity throughout Vietnam it’s easy to forget that these delicate, simple novelties are unique to the country. Hand-painted and infuriatingly easy to break, they demand extreme care in transit, but get them back in one piece and they will mystify kids with their graceful balance and gentle movement.

Musical Instruments

Colorful guitars

A perfect gift for any family you don't have to spend too much time with, a Vietnamese flute, rattle or drum will keep kids entertained forever while slowly driving their parents insane. Target wisely. Try out Saigon’s Music Street on Nguyen Thien Thuat in District 3.

Bracelets

A set of bracelets

Simple yet effective, the hand-woven bracelets sold throughout HCMC by street vendors make for fantastic, easy presents. Many of them are parents from the North of the country who sell their wares in the South to fund their children’s education, so get to know your vendor before making a bulk purchase. The story of where the money went will keep you smiling long after your gift.

Hand-Embroidered Clothes

Hand-embroidered clothes in a shop

Vietnamese embroidery is world-famous for its delicate intricacy and vibrant colour. The attention to detail and level of craftsmanship is such that you might not think of it as a suitable adornment for children’s clothing; however, with relatively low prices it is possible to obtain magnificent children’s-wear at bargain prices. Check the items at Ninh Khuong’s website to see what’s available – well worth it for that niece or daughter you've been itching to spoil. Mekong Quilts is another great place to shop for hand-embroidered clothes, and a non-profit organisation!


Souvenirs for Parents

Coffee

Vietnamese coffee beans

Vietnamese coffee with its unique chocolatey smell is the ultimate gift for anyone who likes a morning brew. Quintessentially local in flavour but with a universal richness that any coffee lover will enjoy, it can be ground to suit any coffee maker in most shops. However, for an authentic experience, why not buy a Vietnamese coffee filter to go with it, that simple three-part aluminium ensemble that sits on your morning cup of ca phe sua? Slightly more expensive stainless-steel gift sets are widely available and provide a functional gift for even the most discerning coffee snob. Phuc Long and Shin Coffee are the classics for coffee souvenirs. Check out our Ultimate Buying Guide for Vietnamese Coffee Lovers.

Ceramics and Lacquerware

Lacqueware candles

The ceramics of Vietnam are internationally sought after for their durable quality and craftsmanship. Similarly, the vibrant colours of the lacquerware make wondrously bright centrepieces for any living room or kitchen. Available throughout the country, be prepared to haggle furiously if you buy in the central markets, as prices are staggeringly high compared to the markets of the outskirts and smaller towns. Be sure to check out Authentique Home to find some of Saigon's most beautiful ceramics and lacquerware. For something a little different from the usual bright colours, try Amai in District 2 for something with a more minimalistic cool and chic.

Silk

Coloured silk

Vietnamese silk is under-appreciated around the world, yet represents some of the finest the region has to offer. Thai Tuan Silk are the experts in town. The Chinese market in District 5 has some excellent varieties on offer, for surprisingly low prices. Raw, un-stitched silk makes an excellent gift for the handy parent who likes to work with fine materials. Alternatively, take your silk to one of the many seamstresses around the city with a pattern or just a picture of the table cloth, dress or whatever you like, to create a unique and beautiful present.

Sand Pictures

Beautifully ornate and painstakingly tricky to create, Vietnamese traditional sand pictures create breath-taking dioramas with the careful layering of coloured sand. Available in various sizes and levels of detail, they can fit any budget. Be careful when travelling, though: the pictures are best transported in your hand luggage as sudden knocks can shake the sand out of place, leaving you with less of a masterpiece and more a blurred mess.


The Rise (or Fall) of Mall-Based Retail in Saigon

By: Mervin Lee

The history of shopping malls in Ho Chi Minh City is relatively brief. The country re-opened to foreign investment in the early 1990s, a time in history when inhabitants of numerous major cities in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok were receiving their glutton-like shares of retail therapy via the introduction of mega malls. Investors eyed every possible inch of land in these metropolitan places, effectively holding citizens hostage by nurturing a mall-based retail culture that has, so it seems, never truly hit Vietnam, even until now.

Malls Take Over Valuable Real Estate in Saigon

The first modern ‘mall’ in Ho Chi Minh City, Diamond Plaza, opened its doors in 1999, superseding the antiquated Thuong Xa Tax on Le Loi street, built by French colonialists 136 years ago, as a retail pilgrimage spot for middle class and wealthy Saigonese. The establishment was, however, not very much different from its de-facto ancestor: effectively a departmental store with limited choices of food & beverage (F&B) establishments and recreational facilities such as an arcade, bowling alley and a billiards club.

Fast forward to 2013 where Vincom Centre began operations at the junction of Le Thanh Ton and Dong Khoi street. The arrival of a mall and office tower worthy of presence in even bigger cities signified a rather revolutionary change in retail trends in Vietnam: American apparel brands and fast food chains such as DKNY and Carl’s Jr featured as neighbours beside popular Vietnamese F&B chains including Pho 24 and Highlands Coffee. Between 2013 and 2018, numerous other notable malls such as Saigon Centre, Crescent Mall, SC Vivocity and The Garden Mall began taking over the most valuable plots of land in District 7, District 1 and District 5.

Malls in SaigonImage source: aeonmall-vietnam.com

A walk in these malls, however, easily sparks a common sentiment: most retail tenants in these places seem to be focused on F&B. In fact, this phenomenon has also sparked the birth of an indie-style retail culture in downtown Saigon, where several colonial-era residential buildings such as 42 Nguyen Hue and 26 Ly Tu Trong are now filled with independent cafes and fashion boutiques, many of which cannot afford the sky-high rental costs at larger malls.

Has the convenience of e-commerce and online shopping already beaten mall-based retail to its own game in Vietnam?

An article in April 2018 by the Financial Times stated that the Vietnamese are one of the largest sources of digital consumers, commanding a solid 35 percent of the total online population, compared to 24 percent in Thailand and a measly 3.2 percent in Singapore. Mr. Tran Ngoc Thai Son, founder of Tiki.vn, began with online sales of hard-to-acquire English language books in 2010 and has now expanded to a huge variety of products including electronics and promotional flight tickets. He shared that Vietnam is a “very young country going through a golden population period”. Incidentally, the youth are the most enthusiastic users of mobile devices in Vietnam, potentially the reason e-commerce could be a success here. Amazon is also set to enter the Vietnamese market shortly, competing directing with Lazada, the most popular e-commerce operation in the country. Chinese giant Alibaba owns 83 percent of Lazada, having injected another US$2 billion worth of investment into the company earlier last year.

Malls in SaigonImage source: Shutter Stock

However, tales of smuggled and pirated goods on e-commerce sites are not unheard of. An article by tuoitre.vn showed examples of household appliances by popular brands such as Panasonic and Philips being sold at less than 30 percent of their recommended retail prices on sites such as Lazada, Sendo and Shoppe. The origins of these items are hardly traceable. Could such problems spur consumers back to traditional shopping?

The Changing Architecture of Retail Zones

On the other end of the spectrum, the freedom to operate F&B and retail business from almost any property has turned entire residential enclaves into non-mainstream, open-spaced shopping complexes. The best example is the Thao Dien ward of Saigon’s District 2, known for its high density of villas, condominiums and international schools which mainly serve the foreigner and expat population in Ho Chi Minh City. Xuan Thuy street and its immediate surroundings at the heart of Thao Dien is now a respectable foodie haven; from an American burger bar, barbecue diner, craft beer bar to Hakata-style pork ramen, Danish sorbets and even a celebrity-level duck balut joint, a VND100,000 note suddenly becomes rather powerless in a country known for its cheap eats.

Malls in SaigonImage source: static.asiawebdirect.com

Huynh Van Banh street in Phu Nhuan district is another apt example. Known to young fashionable locals as a mecca for cheap apparel deals, one would wonder why these flamboyant youths would ever bother to sacrifice commuting convenience and low prices to shop at large and intimidating malls. One easily finds similarity to Bugis Street in Singapore, effectively a fashion bazaar built on a now-defunct street between two parallel lengths of old colonial buildings. A feasible strategy would be for the local authorities to designate certain areas in suburban Saigon for similar purposes. Nonetheless, locals may still remain skeptical unless rental rates and shopping can be kept affordable; it is unavoidable that any ‘night market’ or ‘fashion bazaar’ pop-up in Vietnam would quickly be disregarded when compared with highly successful fashion and food bazaars found in downtown Bangkok—potentially leading locals into yet another self-induced bout of inferiority complex.

Perhaps it is time for local mall operators to up the game by identifying the causes of discomfort and local aversion to physical shopping. The reliance on motorbikes as the main form of transportation is a key point that should not be ignored. Parking in malls can be intimidating to some locals; extended walking distances and searching for one’s motorbike in a large parking lot is an uncomfortable experience for many. The purchase of bulky items and groceries is also a challenge: uncomfortable and possibly dangerous.

Thank God for our hardworking ‘shipper’ guys who will stay relevant, regardless of whether malls are here to stay.

Banner Image source: livinglocal.triip.me


Vietnam’s Rising Ecommerce Industry

By: City Pass Guide

Vietnam’s ecommerce industry is increasing at the second highest rate in the Asia-Pacific region, and growth is clearly expected to continue throughout the next five years, raking in an estimated $10 billion by the year 2020.

What does this mean for the retail market, and how will it affect local and international shops in the future, if at all? According to the Vietnam E-commerce Association, the online shopping industry is expected to rise around 30% or more each year throughout the next decade. As of now, a huge portion of the revenue made from online shopping has been highly concentrated in Hanoi and HCMC. However, once ecommerce hits the outer provinces and countryside areas, this could mean unprecedented growth in the online shopping sector.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade claimed that there are currently around 220 fully functional online shopping websites, all of which have combined to generate about VND1.66 trillion to date. One of Vietnam’s most prominent online retailers for clothing and accessories is Leflair.vn. I sat down with their CEO, Loic Gautier, to get some insight on the current state of the ecommerce market, the struggles of start-up, branding and the direction ecommerce is headed.

leflair.vn founders Loic Gautier and Pierre Antoine Brun

Who is Shopping Online the Most and What are They Buying?

Most might light heartedly joke that, yes, women do the most online shopping and the statistics show that this is in fact true. Overall, females aged 35-44 make the most online purchases and Leflair.com states that about 80% of their purchases are made by women as well.

MasterCard surveys have stated that the top three shopping categories for Vietnam are airline tickets, home appliances and electronic products. It is estimated that more than 50% of consumers are shopping from their mobile devices like iPhones and tablets, and, as expected, the peak time of day for purchases made in Vietnam is in the morning (before work) and the evening (after work).

Branding/Foreign Investment

There are a limited number of international brands available for sale in Vietnam due to the fact that foreign investment is a tricky subject. Obstacles like high taxes and inadequate information result in less foreign interest in the market. As a new online shopping company, big name brands can be hesitant to trust your website due to a lack of established online shopping sources in the past. Since ecommerce just kicked off five years ago, there is still a lot of work to be done in order to establish a trusted industry model. As long as online shopping continues to offer a sound alternative to retail shopping in regards to products, brand options and convenience, ecommerce will certainly continue its upward ascent as it gains the trust of even bigger brand names.

Competitive Market

Although there are a lot of online websites currently functioning in Vietnam, the competition for sites that sell globally recognised brands is limited. Despite the fact that there are many regulations currently in place, the Ministry of Industry and Trade has realised the economic potential and has decided to spend more time promoting ecommerce. They have initiated numerous training programmes, as well as launched several of their own enterprises geared at vamping up the market. Currently, some of the most widely used websites are Leflair, Hotdeal, Lazada, Muachung and Chotot. However, as entrepreneurs become more educated, and more expats integrate into Vietnamese markets, we can expect an increase in competition as well. Those who survive will be the ones that keep one step ahead of the game. Ecommerce requires a depth of technological insight and a marketing savvy both online and off. Social media is clearly another key component to success and it will, in my opinion, make or break future ecommerce sites.

What’s Next?

There is no debate that this is a booming industry. However, it is difficult to predict the direct effect it will have upon the retail market scene. Will they evolve together, or will online shopping steal the crown? Perhaps ecommerce will be a way for local independent designers to platform their designs and avoid the ridiculous rental prices in prime shopping areas. Whatever the outcome, it certainly rings true that everything digital is advancing, and taking place of more antiquated industrial avenues.

Sources: Thanh Nien News, AmCham Vietnam, The Saigon Times, Vietnam News
Header photo by: Robbert Noordzij


Hanoia Boutique is Now Open in Ho Chi Minh City

By: Sivaraj Pragasm

Hanoia, a high-end lacquer producer, has just launched its first boutique in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday July 3 in Ao Dai House (107 Dong Khoi, District 1).

hanoiaImage source: hanoialacquer

The store features exquisite lacquerware, including luxurious and elegant home decor, fine and fashionable jewellery, which combine both contemporary inspirations and traditional Vietnamese craftsmanship. As part of their grand opening, Hanoia boutique will offer special gifts for the early buyers.

Hanoia is the first haute-lacquer house in Vietnam, and its products are recognized by many luxury fashion boutiques around the world. Established in 1997 in an old lacquer village in Binh Duong province, Hanoia specialises in fusing traditional Vietnamese lacquerware with contemporary designs.

hanoiaImage source: hanoialacquer

Hanoia started when a group of European designers teamed up with the most qualified craftsmen from Hanoi, the Vietnamese lacquer capital, to revive a Vietnamese craft that was in danger of being lost. With the love of colours, effects and patterns evoking a sense of nostalgia, they work towards crafting a unique experience in a quality and detail-oriented process using ancestral techniques.

Hanoia owns two workshops in the north and the south of Vietnam with 300 artisans from traditional lacquer-producing villages and talented designers from Europe. Pursuing a philosophy based on innovation, the use of materials, effects, colours and shapes, Hanoia has continuously launched new and unique product lines.

hanoia

Image source: hanoialacquer

Hanoia has quickly gained a following from local and foreign artists, and fine art enthusiasts living in Hanoi, along with visitors from all over the world.

Contact:

Add: Ao Dai House – 107 Dong Khoi, Q.1, Ho Chi Minh city

Tel: +84 28 3827 9383

Website: www.hanoia.com | FB: facebook.com/hanoialacquer

Banner image source: hanoialacquer

 


Saigon’s Secret Organic Food Suppliers

By: Molly Headley

The search for truly organic food in Vietnam has always been a bit difficult.

Ines Quoico, owner of The Organik Shop and Organik Da Lat Farm, previously told City Pass Guide that not only are there no certifications issued for organic farms in Vietnam, but the ordeal of getting certified through the European Union, a similar US food safety body or another certifying organisation involves finding land that is not infected with dioxin, then flying in auditors to test the soil, the water, the fertilisers, and to perform countless other trials.

Yet, without these certifications the word “organic” holds no weight. What’s more organic farms are complicated and costly to run as a result.

ShoppingImage source: foodsafetycertifiers.com

Yet, these challenges don’t change the fact that there is a demand for safe, well-made food in Vietnam. When people read another news story about a food scandal such a battery acid allegedly being used to darken coffee, or formaldehyde extending the shelf life of noodles, they turn towards labels they feel like they can trust and organic fits that bill. A report in Vietnam News estimates that organic food revenues have reached VND3 trillion.

So where can you go to find products with that little green organic label? Most supermarket chains carry at least a small selection of organic fruits and veggies from Da Lat at this point but the big players in the organic food scene are mainly in well-heeled D2. Nam An Market and The Organik Shop are the places to go for the biggest selection but Annam Gourmet and BlackMarket also feature a nice choice of organic offerings amongst their international imports. D7 and D1 have similar stores.

ShoppingImage source: ibb.co

But where do you go if you’re interested in smaller businesses, specialty products, or food delivery? Read on.

Farm to Doorstep

Looking for a food delivery service that is a bit more health conscious than Domino’s Pizza? Vuon Rau can deliver boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables right to your door. The organic products are clearly marked across the top with a green banner. The website is in Vietnamese, use Google Translate to navigate. Plus, then you can enjoy reading through some of the blog posts that read like Williams Carlos Williams poems such as this one:

It was a red plastic tray, lined with thick, golden sheets of paper, in which ripe tomatoes were sitting next to each other listening to the car's sound at night.

ShoppingImage source: happydaytravel.com

Chopp delivery is a grocery delivery service that consolidates all of your market shopping into one easy to use website and app. A quick search of the word “organic” pops up 274 products, from imported baby food to fruits and vegetables that the service will pick up for you at Naman, The Organik shop or numerous other locations.

Vegan Snacks

La Holista is more than just a place to grab healthy food. It’s a one-stop shop for a full body recharge. La Holista focuses on health coaching and meal plans for corporations and schools as well as cooking classes and healthy shopping tours. But most importantly they’ve got great snack options, such as organic cashews, quinoa salad and kombucha. Products can be ordered on their website and delivered to your door in HCMC.

ShoppingImage source: laholista.com

For more vegan snacks in Thao Dien, check Patty’s Kitchen out. They offer vegan options such as dips, dishes but also meal prep plans and cooking classes. Their best seller is definitely their hummus. They cook MSG and sugar-free food and use as little oil and salt as possible.

ShoppingImage source: simplyrecipes.com

Where to Get Your Greens

Green Around the Corner (23 Street 61, D2), a light-filled café tucked into the hems of Thao Dien, can be hard to find but it’s worth the search. Not only can you curb your mid-day hunger pangs with hearty vegan salads and nut-based cheeses, you can also buy their products to take away. This is the place to go if you want to do your part in reducing plastic waste—here, you can pick up a set of reusable glass, stainless steel or bamboo drinking straws.

ShoppingImage source: facebook.com/greenaroundthecorner

The Organik House in District 1 serves healthy vegetarian fair with an international flare. Their juices are organic but that’s not all: this is one of the few places in town that you can buy truly organic wine.
Address: 7F Nguyen Thị Minh Khai, D1

ShoppingImage source: facebook.com/TheOrganikHouse

Sustainable Farming & Accountability

Les Vergers du Mekong does not list their products as organic, however, the company does make available information on how the fruits and vegetables used in their products are being farmed and whether it is sustainable. Les Vergers du Mekong prides itself on its traceability, meaning the consumer can follow the path of where the fruit was grown, what was added to it and how it was transformed into the product you hold in your hand. Ethically-sourced, juices, james, Fair Trade honey, coffee and tea are available.

ShoppingImage source: image.brigitte.de

Food vendor Maifarmi has a Facebook shop filled with photos of bright leafy greens and branches drooping under the weight of the ripe avocados on their farm. As with Les Vergers du Mekong, Maifarmi does not tout their organic certification but they are part of the farm to doorstep movement that is just beginning to get a foothold in Vietnam and are worth mentioning. You can order by contacting the growers on Facebook and they will deliver directly to your home.

If All Else Fails …

Grow your grub yourself. Saigon’s climate is perfect for balcony or windowsill gardening. Interested but don’t know where to start? Gagaco (So 2, Street 53,D2) is a shop for amateur greenskeepers to get all the gear—wooden planters, water systems and seeds—as well as to gain knowledge. Gagaco offers free gardening advice to anyone who asks.

Video source: FuseSchool - Global Education

Banner Image source: europarl.europa.eu


The Ultimate Buying Guide for Vietnamese Coffee Lovers

By: Mervin Lee

Vietnamese Coffee is known for being some of the best available. The country is the top producer of Robusta in the world. Therefore, it is unsurprising that for travellers and expats in Vietnam, coffee is the top sought after souvenir and most often consumed beverage product.

However, with Ben Thanh Market and other familiar tourist destinations filled with hundreds of potentially dubious brands and nameless packets of coffee grinds roasted and left to stand for months and possibly even years, consumers are rightly apprehensive about the quality of what is on display.

vietnamese coffeeA dazzling display of coffee beans and powder at Ben Thanh Market - by Mervin Lee

We’ve put together a concise and simple to understand guide to help you understand java-science so that you can choose Vietnamese coffee of good quality which, hopefully, agrees with your palate!

Definition of ‘Vietnamese Coffee’ and Relieving the Confusion

Vietnamese Coffee refers to both a style of traditional Vietnamese roast and a style of brew. It is possible to brew Italian-style roasted beans with the ubiquitous Vietnamese phin drip filter, and likewise, also possible to brew traditional Vietnamese-style dark roasts with a foreign device such as a French press.

vietnamese coffeeSaigonese street coffee being mass-brewed using Vietnamese phin drip filters - by Mervin Lee

Traditional Vietnamese techniques involve roasting Robusta coffee beans very dark with additives such as butter, salt, whisky, rice liquor or even sugar and fish-sauce. These additives help to elevate the savouriness and palatability of the notoriously harsh and bitter tasting Robusta beans.

Chemical flavourings and fragrances are often added, with the most common being vanilla and hazelnut, the former an age-old cliché aroma sought after in Vietnamese coffee powder.

Fillers such as roasted corn, soybeans and red beans are common and some recipes call for filler content of up to 50%. Fillers are used to thicken, darken and somewhat sweeten the coffee and they also increase profits. Connoisseurs who are seeking pure coffee should note that it is practically impossible to gauge the purity of coffee in Vietnam based on looking at grinded coffee powder. Diligent people should opt to purchase whole beans at shops before requesting them to be grounded on the spot.

When extracted using the iconic Vietnamese phin drip filter, the espresso-like liquid is then served with or without ice, and preferably with condensed milk to offset it’s bitterness. This popular beverage is known as ca phe sua da, the renowned mascot of Vietnamese coffee.

vietnamese coffeeEnjoying a cup of ca phe sua da on a hot Saigonese day - by Mervin Lee

Advancements in coffee farming has allowed the development of higher quality Robusta and Arabica coffee beans. Globalisation and changing preferences has resulted in a trend of roasting pure, additive-free coffee and subsequently brewing them with a wide range of foreign methods such as Italian-style espresso and paper filter. When these coffees are brewed using a phin, the technique remains Vietnamese.

Thus, the first item that you should procur is a high quality Vietnamese phin drip filter if you desire a strong and traditional Vietnamese brew. The phin works by filtering coffee through 2 layers of tiny holes and allowing the coffee to fall with the help of gravity.

City Pass Guide recommends the Trung Nguyen phins made of quality aluminium and available at all Trung Nguyen coffee shops. For connoisseurs who prefer a non-metal solution, Minh Long offers a series of beautiful porcelain Phins handcrafted in Binh Duong Province.

Roast Levels and Blends

Taste preference differs between individuals. Not everyone enjoys bitter coffee without sugar, and although many people do not appreciate light roasted and acidic coffee, third-wave coffee snobs may insist that such qualities are preferred.

vietnamese coffeeImage source: sc02.alicdn.com

The three-waves of coffee culture was described by Jonathan Gold in his 2008 article “La Mill: The Latest Buzz" for LA Weekly.

“The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet's and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.”

Robusta coffees are generally bitter and harsh in taste, while Arabica coffees are often more acidic, higher in natural sugar content and superior in fragrance. As a general guideline, a medium roasted coffee is a good balance between intensity, acidity, sweetness and fragrance, since ample time has been given for bitter compounds to degrade. Light roasted Arabicas are acidic but preserve the original aroma and flavour compounds, known as ‘origin character’ in third-wave coffee-speak. Dark roasted Arabica coffees are savoury and intense in flavour, having lost most of its acidity through the roasting process and may be bitter if coffee caramels have begun to burn in the roasting process if beans are not roasted with skill and care. French-style roast is an example of very dark roasted coffee.

As such, the skill of the coffee roaster and the art of blending different types of beans at different roast levels becomes extremely crucial for Italian-style espresso and Vietnamese phin coffee since these styles involve extracting coffee with very little water, resulting in highly concentrated and intense brews. Arabicas may be added to a predominantly Robusta blend to introduce pleasant acidity, aroma and to relieve the blend of dullness. Likewise, Robusta may be added to a predominantly Arabica blend to introduce body and crema for Italian-style espresso.

vietnamese coffeeImage source: i.ytimg.com

Common ratios and names of these ratios at specialty coffee shops in Saigon include 20-80, 50-50 and 80-20, describing the percentage ratio of Arabica to Robusta coffee.

Here is a breakdown of the various types of coffee beans and species that may be found by examining the printed contents information on packaged commercial coffee.

Arabica - The most popular and widely consumed coffee species in the world with countless cultivated varieties. It is known for its nuanced, alluring floral and fruity notes, which vary wildly depending on region and varietal. Arabica is disliked by some due to its acidity, which can be mildly sweet and berry or citrus-like in specialty varieties.

Culi (Peaberry) Arabica - In normal circumstance, a coffee cherry contains two coffee beans. Peaberries, known as culi in Vietnamese coffee-lingo, are coffee beans that have developed into a single spherical bean due to the lack of fertilisation of the other bean. Culi Arabicas are very rare and known for a higher intensity of Arabica’s attributes.

Robusta - The underrated Robusta is known for being bitter and harsh but is the choice for daily indulgence in Southeast Asia due to its natural lack of acidity. Advancements in cultivation and coffee processing has improved it’s flavour drastically.

Culi (Peaberry) Robusta - Culi Robustas are known to be more bitter, but also sweeter, and are said to contain considerably more caffeine.

Liberica and Excelsa - Rare and related species of hardy, tropical coffee plants. Liberica is popular in Malaysia and the Philippines and is liked for its attractive and earthy aroma that is often accompanied by a smokey taste resembling dark chocolate, berries and tropical fruits. Excelsa coffee is similar and is known to be tart and fruity with a lingering finish.

When buying ground coffee, It is critical for a buyer to check for the coffee roast date. Dark roasted coffees oxidize faster and light roasted coffees last longer if kept in airtight mason jars. As a rule of thumb, buy coffee that is as fresh as possible! When buying from shops that are able to grind fresh coffee beans, one should choose the grind size based on the intended brew method (e.g.: coarse for French press, medium-fine for paper filter and fine for espresso).

vietnamese coffeeImage source: caphenguyenchat.vn

If you’re intending on becoming a coffee snob, investing in a coffee grinder and relying on coffee beans may be your best bet if you’re a sucker for freshness.

Common Vietnamese Coffee Terms

Bột - Powder
Nguyên hạt - Unground coffee beans
Hạt Rang - Roasted coffee beans

Cà Phê Nguyên Chất - Pure coffee without additives
Cà Phê Rang Xay - Roasted and ground coffee
Cà Phê Hòa Tan - Instant/dissolvable ground

Cà Phê Mít - Mít means jackfruit in Vietnamese and Cà Phê Mít has nothing to do with the yellow-fleshed tropical fruit and refers to Liberica and Excelsa coffee.
Cà Phê Chồn - Civet coffee. Often known in the western world as weasel coffee. A coffee processed from faeces of civets which consumed coffee cherries. Natural wild civet coffee is very expensive while farmed varieties are more affordable. Most civet coffee in Vietnam is a made with chemical flavouring and/or artificial enzymes.

Video source: Best Ever Food Review Show

Hương - Artificial fragrance
- Butter
Rượu - Liquor

Price List for Some Popular Coffee Shops and Brands in HCMC

The Souvenir Favourites:

Trung Nguyen
20+ Locations around Ho Chi Minh City
VND50,000 - 100,000 for 340g of the popular Sang Tao 1 - 5 ground coffee series featuring various blends

Highlands 
20+ Locations around Ho Chi Minh City
VND40,000 - 75,000 for 200g of ground coffee featuring various blends

The Enthusiast Range:

Mr Viet Coffee 
Available at Annam Gourmet Market at Hai Ba Trung Street or Saigon Center

They have 4 types of coffee beans available in the 250g size:
Đà Lạt VND89,000
Good Morning VND107,000
Arabica VND137,000
Hương chồn VND163,000

The Coffee House 
19 locations around the city
VND100,000 for 250g of The Coffee House’s signature Arabica & Robusta blend

Tractor Coffee 
98 Lê Lai, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, D1

For 250g:
VND60,000 of Robusta
VND120,000 of Specialty Arabica

The Specialty Group:

K’ho Coffee 
K’ho Coffee can be sampled and purchased at Trekker Cafe
21 Nguyễn Văn Tráng, D1 “Journey sandwich & coffee
6 Lê Văn Miến, Thảo Điền, D2 “Soma art coffee
VND125,000 for 250g or VND250,000 for 500g of K’ho Coffee’s excellent specialty beans offered in light, medium and dark roast levels.

Shin Coffee 
13 Nguyễn Thiệp, D1
18 Hồ Huấn Nghiệp, D1

They have 9 types of coffee beans available in the 200g size.
Spirit Of Eakmat - VND300,000
Ethiopia-g1 - VND240,000
VN Phin - VND100,000
Shin Espresso - VND300,000
Khe Sanh Blend - VND100,000
Sơn La Blend - VND180,000
Shin Blend - VND300,000
Đà Lạt Blend - VND150,000
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe - VND240,000

Vietnamese Coffee Republic 
8A/7B2 Thái Văn Lung, D1

Republic Blend - Arabica/Robusta
30-70 VND115,000 for 250g
50-50 VND135,000 for 250g
70-30 VND155,000 for 250g
100 percent Arabica VND185,000 for 250g

The Workshop Coffee 
27 Ngô Đức Kế, Bến Nghé W, D1 (2nd floor)

For 250g:
Vietnamese coffee beans - VND240,000
Foreign coffee beans - VND315,000

A Cafe Specialty Coffee 
15 Huỳnh Khương Ninh, D1

For 250g:
Espresso - VND188,000

Arabica - Robusta Blend:
50-50 : VND90,000
70-30 : VND82,000
30-70 : VND98,000
100 percent Arabica - VND110,000
100 percent Robusta - VND70,000

City Pass Guide highly recommends readers to visit, like and share the Facebook pages of these excellent coffee cafés and suppliers for more information!

Banner Image source: Mervin Lee

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