Ho Chi Minh City exists on a permanent caffeine high. Coffee flows through the streets both day and night, alongside the endless stream of people, scooters and noise. It’s an intoxicating place to be, pulsing with energy and fuelled by cà phê sữa đá - traditional Vietnamese coffee, thick with sweet condensed milk and served hot or over ice. It might sound cloying, but you’ll soon be as hopelessly addicted as the eight million residents of the city.
The coffee 'scene' is far more than just a scene here - it’s a way of life. Vietnam is the largest producer of robusta coffee in the world, churning out over 28 million 60kg of bags of the stuff last year alone. The local economy - like the local population - runs on coffee. And Vietnamese coffee is nothing if not robust - drink more than two in a day and you’ll likely end up in a heady caffeine daze.
Vietnam has a unique style of serving coffee - very sweet, with condensed milk, over ice - and café culture has mushroomed in Ho Chi Minh over the past few years, with new hangouts sprouting at great speed across the city. There’s a style to suit every kind of coffee-sipper, from kitsch ‘nostalgia’ hideaways to warehouse-style urban haunts, trendy expat hotspots, and leafy garden lounges that provide a brief escape from the sprawling bustle.
This is Saigonese cool at its best - a grand, airy café decked out with comfy armchairs, edgy local art, and faded portraits of Vietnamese royalty. It’s a sophisticated loft space with huge windows and high ceilings, serving sweet, potent cà phê sữa đá until 10:30pm at night. The atmosphere is distinctly Parisian, making it a firm favourite with the expat French crowd. It’s an elegant spot for some serious people-watching, overlooking the wide boulevards of Ho Chi Minh’s financial district, with distant views across to Bach Dang Wharf.
The Fig is a zen-like little oasis in Ho Chi Minh’s ‘coffee triangle’, where you’ll stumble across a concealed café at every turn. Hidden down a small alleyway, it’s a secret window into the underground Saigonese coffee scene. The design is Buddhist in flavour, with trickling water features, minimalist decor and earthy, organic tones. It’s a rising star and somewhere to sip on a cà phê sữa đá in peace. Popular with Vietnamese young professionals and expats with fingers on the coffee-pulse, it’s a great retreat from the raucous streets of District 1.
Tucked out of mass tourist reach in Binh Thanh District, this really is the ultimate garden café. Overtaken by lush tropical plants and laced with babbling streams, it’s somewhere to forget about the city for a brief, magical spell. Small wooden bridges criss-cross the grounds and tables are scattered under leafy canopies or shady umbrellas. Every table feels private, giving you a chance to let the city melt away while you sip on a trademark cà phê sữa đá. At night, lanterns twinkle in the trees and reflect in the fishponds, creating a magical atmosphere.
While there are plenty of garden cafes across Ho Chi Minh, this one is local through and through. It takes some effort to get there, but it’s completely worth the journey. The out-of-the-way location and the lack of publicity make Thuy Truc a secret garden in a coffee-saturated city. It’s the perfect place to take both a book and a quiet deep breath.
Just behind Ben Thanh Market, I.D. café is something of an institution and super-accessible for visitors to the city. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but set foot through the door and you’ll find yourself in a modern-retro temple. A two-storey building packed with squishy 70s armchairs, vintage typewriters and and walls of vinyl records, it’s a highly addictive urban hangout. Funky but unpretentious, I.D. is an all-round winner.
The scene is a harmonious mix of hipster locals, expats and tourists. The cà phê sữa đá is very tasty, making it ideal for a coffee break between shopping stints at the market. If you don’t make it here in the morning, no matter. It’s open evenings too, serving beer, wine and fusion favourites. You’re certain to hit the market during your stay in Ho Chi Minh, so you’ll have plenty of chances to seek it out.
While the café scene in Ho Chi Minh is impossibly cool, the very best place to drink a Vietnamese coffee is arguably on the streets. Pull up a miniature plastic stool, or - even better - a coloured deckchair, and sip a cà phê sữa đá like the locals. It may not be so peaceful, but it’s impossible to be bored. Sit yourself down, watch street sellers pound the pavements, stare into the tangle of scooters and soak up the atmosphere of the city. You’ll find ‘chairs’, as they’re known, on almost every street in Ho Chi Minh - they're cheap, authentic, and sure to get your eyes open.
And just as an added bonus, here's Nick waiting for his coffee in Hoi An - as you can see, an authentic Vietnamese coffee takes a while to prepare! If this article has made you eager to try it for yourself, you may be interested to learn that Ho Chi Minh City isn't the only crucial hub that runs on the stuff - Selective Asia HQ does too! We source ours from the lovely folks at Dragon Coffee, and get through bags of the stuff, although because we're in breezy Brighton we tend to enjoy it hot and black, instead of cold and sweet.
Today's Selective Six was written for us by experienced traveller and avid Instagrammer Bryony Holland.