If you’ve ever had a Vietnamese coffee, there’s no forgetting it. The dark, syrupy brew is slowly filtered and usually served iced with and sweetened condensed milk.
It’s not just a coffee, but a whole experience!
If you want to recreate this cold treat at home, just follow this simple guide on how to make Vietnamese coffee. We’ve also included alternative methods if you can’t get your hands on a traditional Vietnamese coffee filter.
- What You Need
- The history of coffee in Vietnam
- What makes Vietnamese coffee different?
- Which coffee should you use?
- What is a phin coffee filter?
- How to serve Vietnamese coffee
- How To Make Vietnamese Coffee
- Making Vietnamese coffee with a French press
- Making Vietnamese coffee with cold brew
- Final Thoughts
What You Need
Prep time: 2 mins
Cook time: 5 mins
Total time: 7 mins
Makes 1 cup
- 2 tablespoons Trung Nguyen or Café Du Monde ground coffee (see note below)
- 2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk
- Hot water
- Ice cubes
- Phin coffee filter (see note below)
- Heat-Proof glass
The history of coffee in Vietnam
The French had been drinking coffee since the 1600s, so when they colonized Vietnam, the coffee came with them. It’s believed that the first beans planted in Vietnam were the Arabica variety, sown in 1857 by a Catholic priest. By the end of the 1800s, the French had established a thriving coffee industry. Shortly after, they introduced the Robusta variety. In the 1950s, production took another step by constructing a plant to process instant coffee (1).
Of course, the Vietnam War wreaked havoc with coffee production and left the industry floundering. Yet, by 1985 the market finally began to recover, and the country now produces the second-highest amount of coffee worldwide. After Brazil, that is.Despite the unique coffee culture in Vietnam, coffee is predominantly an export crop rather than domestic consumption (2).
What makes Vietnamese coffee different?
A few elements make Vietnamese iced coffee stand out from what you might find in other parts of the world. It’s a very strong, often bitter brew, which is tempered by the addition of sweetened condensed milk. Condensed milk came to the country by way of the French, who found fresh milk hard to come by. The addition of large quantities of sugar and the removal of a lot of the water made it easier to store for long periods.
The most popular is the Longevity brand, which can be found in many Asian grocery stores. If you can’t find this brand, any other will do. Just make sure it’s sweetened condensed milk and not evaporated milk.
But most importantly, perhaps, is the brewing method, which you do with a phin dripper. Making coffee with a phin doesn’t just determine the brew’s unique taste, but its slow pace is essential in creating the Vietnamese coffee shop experience.
If the coffee is served this way, it forces you to slow down and savor the experience.Alison Spiegel, Huffington Post
The time it takes the water to drip through the coffee grounds slowly is time to be spent relaxing with a newspaper or even just people-watching.
Which coffee should you use?
The good news is that you can use any coffee to create this drink. However, if you want the most authentic experience, you should try to get your hands on one of the famous Vietnamese coffee brands.
Use only Vietnamese coffee beans, as they are more robust with nutty, chocolate, caramel notes.Luke Nguyen, chef
Trung Nguyen and Café Du Monde are the most widely available, which is a pre-ground mix of coffee and chicory. Technically, Café Du Monde coffee isn’t a Vietnamese brand; they produce it in New Orleans. However, you’ll find that this chicory coffee is a standard fixture in both US Vietnamese households and Vietnamese restaurants (3). When Vietnamese immigrants and refugees arrived in the wake of the Vietnam war, they found this blend much closer to the coffee they used.
But if you can’t find these specific brands or other Vietnamese coffee beans, don’t worry too much. Any dark or French roast Robusta will do the trick. While Robusta beans are considered lower quality in most parts of the world, they’re grown widely in Vietnam and used for their daily coffee (4).
What is a phin coffee filter?
The phin filter is the key element to creating a traditional Vietnamese coffee. It is available in different sizes, but the most commonly seen in the single-serve option.
It’s an all-metal device that consists of four different parts. The base is the perforated saucer, which allows the phin to sit firmly on the cup while allowing the coffee to drip through. On top of this sits the brewing chamber, which is where the magic happens. This is where you place the coffee grounds and has a perforated base that acts as the coffee filter.
Inserted into the brewing chamber is the coffee press. The press holds down the grounds in a way similar to a French press. Some phins have a screw filter that allows you to adjust and maintain the pressure, but others are simply tamped down. Finally, there is a lid, which helps to retain heat while the coffee is brewing.
How to serve Vietnamese coffee
What most of us know as Vietnamese coffee is the sweet, iced version we’ve replicated here. This is called cà phê sua dá in Vietnamese and literally means “coffee milk ice”. However, it’s not the only way you’ll find coffee served in Vietnam. First thing in the morning, people often sip on a cà phê nóng (hot black coffee) or a cà phê sua nóng – hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk (5).
If you have a more adventurous palate you can opt for sữa chua cà phê (coffee with yogurt, sometimes topped with fruit), or a cà phê trứng, where the sweetened condensed milk is first whipped with egg yolk to create a thick, airy foam (6). Egg coffee is more of a dessert than a drink, with some people equating it to the Vietnamese version of tiramisu.
How To Make Vietnamese Coffee
Now that we’ve discovered the basics of Vietnamese iced coffee, it’s time to try making one. These simple steps will guide you through creating your very own taste of Vietnam.
Prepare your glass
You’ll need to start with a heatproof glass, as you will be adding hot coffee, followed by ice. Ideally, you want something that’s tall enough to hold plenty of ice cubes, as well as the coffee and condensed milk. Pour 2 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk into the bottom of the glass. Some people add the condensed milk at the end, but by adding it first you allow the coffee to “cook” it slightly, which will add to the overall flavor.
PRO tip: Condensed milk is very sweet, so you’ll need to adjust the amount to suit your tastes. If you find it’s too sweet but still want the milky quality, it brings to the drink, feel free to substitute one tablespoon with half-and-half. It’s not traditional, but it’s still tasty!
Heat the water
As with all coffee, you want to make sure that your water is not actually boiling, but just below. Adding boiling water to coffee grounds will burn the coffee and affect the taste, even with Robusta beans. The ideal temperature for preparing coffee should be between 195 and 205 Fahrenheit/90 to 96 degrees Celsius (7). Some modern kettles allow you to set water temperatures; alternatively, you could use a thermometer.
PRO tip: If you don’t have access to a thermometer, let the water sit for approximately 30 seconds after boiling. This should allow it to cool to within the optimum temperature range.
Prepare the phin
Add 2 tablespoons of dark roast coffee grounds to the brewing chamber of your phin. The best coffee for making Vietnamese iced coffee is a coarse grind, mainly due to the structure of the phin. As there is no paper filter, the grounds need to be coarse enough to stay in the brewing chamber and not slip through the perforations in the metal filter and into your cup.
Insert the coffee press into the brewing chamber and press lightly to tamp the grounds, twisting slightly as you go. If your phin has a screw filter, you’ll have the option to tamp and secure the grounds with a specific amount of pressure.
PRO tip: Rinse your phin with hot water before you start the brewing process. This ensures it is clean and preheats the metal, and allows the coffee to bloom more evenly.
Brew the coffee
With the phin sitting over the cup, add a small amount of hot water to allow the grounds to bloom. After 30-40 seconds, fill the phin to the rim with hot water and add the lid to retain the heat. The brewing process should be very slow. You shouldn’t see the first drips until about two minutes in, and it should ideally take around five minutes in total for the phin to empty completely.
If you find the water passes through more quickly than this, you will end up with a weak and watery coffee. The solution is to apply more pressure when tamping or to use a slightly finer grind – you may need a combination of the two. If the brewing process takes more than five minutes, you’ll end up with over-extracted, bitter coffee. The remedy is lighter tamping or a coarser grind. With a screw filter phin, you can tighten or loosen the pressure to adjust the drip-rate.
PRO tip: Don’t despair if your home-brewed coffee doesn’t have the thick texture that you might have experienced while traveling in Vietnam – you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s actually common for street vendors to add ingredients like corn or soy to thicken the coffee (8). If you’ve got your heart set on replicating this exactly, try adding a little coconut oil with the condensed milk.
Stir and add ice
Once the coffee has finished dripping, it’s time to turn this brew into an iced coffee. First, you’ll need to stir to combine the coffee and condensed milk, which is a little tricky if you wait until after you’ve added the ice. Now add ice to reach the top of the glass and enjoy!
Don’t forget that the ice you add will ultimately end up in your drink. For this reason, you need to pay attention to the quality of water you use to make them – don’t freeze any water you wouldn’t be happy drinking on its own.
PRO tip: If you want to experience a cà phê sua nóng (hot milk coffee), it simply a matter of skipping the ice cubes. For an extra warming brew, try preheating your glass before adding the condensed milk and coffee.
Making Vietnamese coffee with a French press
If you don’t have access to a traditional Vietnamese coffee filter, the French press’s next best option. Use the same French roast coffee that we have listed here in the exact amounts, adding 2/3 cup of hot (not boiling) water to brew. Depress the filter and leave the coffee to brew for four minutes. Pour the brewed coffee into the glass with the condensed milk, stir well and add ice cubes.
Making Vietnamese coffee with cold brew
Perhaps you’re wondering why a recipe for an iced coffee starts with a hot brew. This technique is traditionally used to get the strongest flavor from the ground coffee in a short amount of time, but you could indeed make this drink with cold brew too. For this method, you’ll need to start preparing the coffee the day before, then add the cold brew to the condensed milk and ice as usual. You can find instructions on how to make cold brew here.
Check out some of our other instructions for making a latte or how to use the Aeropress.
You don’t need to travel to Vietnam to enjoy the rich, indulgent flavors of the country’s coffee. Our guide should tell you everything you need to know to whip up a glass of Vietnamese coffee in your kitchen. It does require some unique ingredients and equipment, but the payoff is more than worth it.
Have we taught you how to make Vietnamese coffee? Let us know!
You can make Vietnamese iced coffee with instant coffee, but the flavor won’t be the same. To use this method, make a strong, short coffee in a separate cup and simply pour it over the condensed milk, then add ice as mentioned above.
Vietnamese coffee is so strong because they use Robusta for making coffee. You’re not imagining things! It’s probably stronger than what you’re used to. Producers often overlook Robusta because it’s more bitter than Arabica. But it does have more of a kick, with almost double the caffeine content (9).
Vietnamese coffee is not bad for you. Despite being prepared with a different method, Vietnamese coffee is just coffee. However, as we’ve mentioned, it does have higher caffeine content. If you’re drinking your daily brew as a cà phê sua dá, you will be taking in a lot of sugar with the sweetened condensed milk.
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- Ewbank, A. (2018, February 05). The Secret Ingredient to America’s Vietnamese Coffee. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/chicory-vietnamese-coffee-cafe-du-monde
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- Bogenschutz, B. (2016, February 03). How to Order Coffee in Vietnam Like a Local. Retrieved from http://thehungrysuitcase.com/how-to-order-coffee-in-vietnam-like-a-local/
- Rosen, E. (2020, February 11). A guide to Vietnamese coffee. Retrieved from https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/a-guide-to-vietnamese-coffee
- How to Brew Coffee. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/How-to-Brew-Coffee
- What is a Vietnamese Phin Filter? (And How to Use It). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://nguyencoffeesupply.com/blogs/news/vietnamese-coffee-phin-filter-stainless-steel
- Pike, M. (2018, January 23). How To Drink Coffee Vietnamese Style. Retrieved from https://theculturetrip.com/asia/vietnam/articles/drink-coffee-vietnamese-style/
Husband, father and former journalist, I’ve combined my love of writing with my love of coffee to create this site. I love high end products, but write all my content with budget conscious coffee enthusiasts in mind. I prefer light roasts, and my normal brew is some sort of pour over, although my guilty pleasure is the occasional flat white.