Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Michael Fountoulakis

Tea (tra)

Tea has been grown in Vietnam for over two thousand years. Most black tea is exported, but is becoming more popular with the younger generation of tea drinkers. Green tea, however, remains the drink of choice for most Vietnamese. Served in small ceramic cups without milk or sugar, it is drunk at all times of the days.

No social occasion is complete without a few cups of the strong and slightly bitter brew—and you never have to go far to get a cup of green tea. The Vietnamese drink it on any occasion, anywhere—at weddings and funerals, at home, in the office and at the numerous sidewalk tea stalls. It is even served on the side of coffee! More often than not, it is a social drink, used to ease conversation between friends and colleagues and particularly to welcome guests. In fact, offering green tea is an absolute must at any first meeting.

In the north, green tea is customarily a hot drink, even when the temperatures and the humidity soar in summer. In the tropical south, green tea is often served over chunks of ice (tra da). It is important to brew the tea with water just below boiling point; if the water is too hot, it will make the tea too bitter and harsh on the palate.

Both green and black tea come from the same plant grown in the cooler climes of the Central and Northern Highlands, but while the leaves for black tea are fermented, the young, tender leaves used for green tea are steamed and then simply dried. This preserves the natural chemicals in the plant, which apparently make green tea a drink for the health-conscious. Green tea is high in antioxidants, contains caffeine (although less than coffee) and is said to reduce cholesterol, lower the risk of cancer and even promote weight loss.

For special occasions, there are also perfumed teas such as the popular lotus tea served during Tet. As the name suggests, it is infused with the scent and flavour of the lotus flower, traditionally by storing the tea leaves in the flower itself. Other popular infusions are chrysanthemum and jasmine.

Coffee (ca phe)

The French introduced the coffee plant to South-East Asia in the early nineteenth century and made Vietnam one of the few countries in the region where the locals enjoy a good cup of coffee. Even today, there are still some coffee houses in Hanoi, such as the famous family-run Café Mai, have served the strong black brew since colonial days.

The coffee plantations originally established by the French administration were virtually wiped out after the American War, but in the 1980s, Vietnam rediscovered the coffee plant as a profitable cash crop and started a major campaign promoting coffee farming in the Central Highlands. Twenty years later, Vietnam had become the second largest exporter of coffee after Brazil, flooding the world market with its robusta coffee beans and sending the world coffee prices tumbling.

More than half of the country’s coffee is grown in the Central Highlands, where coffee plantations are now competing with the more traditional forms of farming. The most common variety grown is still the robusta bean, but more and more farmers are looking towards other varieties such as arabica to avoid another robusta glut and price drop.

Vietnamese coffee is often made in the traditionally French way with a little bit of chicory. Sometimes butter, or even fish sauce, is added as part of the roasting process. The end product is a very strong coffee with a slight taste of chocolate.

Despite the numerous coffee houses, getting a caffeine fix in Vietnam requires patience. A small stainless-steel filter is placed on top of a glass, and filled with boiled water. The water is allowed to slowly drip into the glass—so slowly, in fact, that the glass stands in a bowl of hot water so the coffee will not get cold before all the water has gone through the filter.

Coffee is served in a variety of ways, ranging from simple black coffee (ca phe den), to milk coffee, where a layer of sweet condensed milk is placed at the bottom of the glass and the black coffee sits on top (ca phe sua). In summer, this type of coffee is often served over ice (ca phe sua da). Then there is the ‘Vietnamese cappuccino’, ca phe trung – a layer of strong black coffee topped with a thick, zabaglione-type cream made from beaten raw eggs and sugar.

The oddest coffee variety, however, is undoubtedly the so-called ‘weasel’ coffee (ca phe chon), where coffee beans are fed to weasels and later collected from the droppings. The digestive juices are said to cure the bean and give the coffee a smoother taste.

Beer (bia)

Beer is another legacy of the French, who established Vietnam’s first brewery in the 1890s. In colonial times, beer was an expensive luxury which few Vietnamese could afford. But when the French left and prices plummeted, beer quickly conquered the palates of the country’s drinking population and gave traditional rice wine a run for its money. The Vietnamese liked it so much, they even started cooking with it. Seafood, particularly, is often steamed in beer.

Bottled beer has made some inroads into the Vietnamese market. Both national and international brands such as 333 (pronounced ‘bababa’), Halida (Carlsberg) and Tiger are readily available. Regional brew made in the lagerstyle such as Hue Festival Beer, Biere Larue from the coast and Mekong Phong beer are also reasonably popular.

However, the real beer of Vietnam is bia hoi, fresh draught beer, brewed locally and delivered daily to countless drinking establishments all over the country, which are also simply called bia hois. This cheap and cheerful local drink is ideal for the Vietnamese hot climate—an alcohol content of only three to four per cent, low carbonation and no additives make for easy drinking.

Bia hois come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from hole-in-the-wall neighbourhood places where punters perch on miniature plastic stools, to huge beer gardens catering for entire neighbourhoods. The beer is delivered in plastic kegs and because it has no preservatives, it must be drunk on the day. In the absence of refrigeration, wet hessian bags are often thrown over the kegs to keep the beer cool and fresh, and the beer is poured over chunks of ice. bia hoi publicans have to accurately predict in the morning how much they will sell during the day—and it is not that uncommon that bia hois run out of beer halfway through the evening.

Rice wine (ruou)

Ruou, which literally means ‘alcohol’, is made from fermented and distilled rice. It is the common name for a wide range of rice wines, traditionally made as moonshine by ethnic minorities from recipes which vary from village to village. Ruou plays a great part in ancestor worship and on special occasions such as weddings, and it inevitably appears on the table when a show of hospitality is needed.

One of the most recognised varieties is ruou can from the Northern Highlands. Made from sticky rice, it is a slightly sweet, almost sherry-like liquor drunk through long bamboo straws out of a communal earthenware jar.

For a while ruou went out of fashion with drinkers favouring Western brandies, whiskies and cognacs over the paint-stripping qualities of a lot of commercial rice wine. But in recent times, it has been making a comeback with a number of smart ruou bars opening in the cities. The most common commercial brand is the rough and ready Nep Moi, but there are now a number of smaller distillers whose aim it is to create high-quality rice liquor. A good example of this is the Highway 4 restaurant in Hanoi. Named after this particularly scenic route from Lang Son to Cao Bai in the north-east of the country, it has launched its own range of ruou for the more discerning drinker marketed under their Son Tinh label.

Ruou can be clear or infused with herbs, spices, fruit and even animals. More often than not, the main reason for these infusions is medicinal. Silkworms, seahorses and curled-up whole snakes are floating in big glass jars of rice liquor to improve the health of the drinker—silkworms are good against coughs, seahorses help with backaches, and snake wine ‘makes one strong’, which is to say, it takes care of a man’s virility.

Soft drinks

The Vietnamese love a sweet drink between meals. These are sold at cafés and street stalls, often as a takeaway in small plastic bags the top tied shut with a rubber band and a straw sticking out.


So thick that it is more a drinkable snack than a regular soft drink, Che is a sweet treat for woman and children mid-morning or afternoon. It consists of layer upon layer of red kidney beans, lotus seeds and crushed mung beans, served over shaved rice with coconut milk. Che can be made from only two ingredients to six or more ingredients, and each region has its own varieties. Hue is said to be the most creative with thirty-six different kinds of che.

Sugar cane juice (mia da)

The Vietnamese have a sweet tooth and street carts selling mia da are virtually everywhere. The old-fashioned carts are operated manually by the vendor, who turns a wheel on the side of the cart to get two rollers moving. Long pieces of sugar cane are fed through and crushed between these two rollers, while the juice is collected and poured over ice. A squeeze of lime or kumquat juice is added to take the edge off the sweetness.

Sugar cane is available throughout Vietnam, but most of it is grown in the south, where mechanised street carts are starting to replace the old-fashioned manual ones. Vietnamese who are after a sugar hit but do not feel like a drink can also often be seen simply chewing on the cane and spitting out the dry, fibrous parts.

Avocado smoothie (sinh to bo)

Smoothies are incredibly popular in Vietnam, and virtually every type of fruit can be mixed with crushed ice and turned into a quick and easy, refreshing drink. March to June, particularly, is smoothie season, when tropical fruits are at their peak and the temperatures are high.

An unusual variation is the rich avocado smoothie, sinh to bo—like che, it is a very thick drink that can easily be eaten with a spoon. The flesh of avocado is mixed with ice and sugar syrup and topped with a layer of sweet condensed milk. This drink works equally well with lighter fruits such as mango, custard apple or jackfruit in place of the avocado. Another variation on the smoothie theme is putting yoghurt into the mix, which goes nicely with dragon fruit, lime juice and a little sugar syrup.

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