Sometimes life requires a good dose – or two – of caffeination. And like many, I love my coffee. And at times, I’ve gotten a little obsessed about my coffee. Sometimes it's the location, like when my wife and I stumbled upon Grado, Italty, this great little beach town in northwestern part of the country while on a recent road trip, and had one of those espressos at the counter – standing up – because it’s cheaper and hey, that’s what the Italians do. Or the super-sweetened Greek coffee on the catamaran we rented in the Greek Isles that our skipper made and drank vigorously throughout the day to ease his hangover from the Greek wine the night before. Or the easiest of coffees out of the first Nespresso machine we used during a home rental in Salzburg, Austria.
In a quest to try and replicate these phenomenal experiences we’ve bought all the gadgets: coffee grinders so we could brew the freshest coffee possible; cappuccino and espresso machines like we were baristas art the nearest Starbucks; Keurigs and Nespressos, because at some point we felt you couldn’t get a better (and easier) coffee than out of one of those little pods (and the Nespresso machines create that great little crema on top with zero effort). But on our most recent trip, we found what may have been the best coffee of our lives and in the most unlikely of destinations:
I know, who would have thought.
I knew little about Vietnam prior to our most recent trip through SE Asia, and what I knew of Vietnam pretty much came from our history textbooks in school. This past summer I got a whole other education about the gems in Vietnam. And one of those is its coffee.
Our first stop in Vietnam was the capital of Hanoi. A crazy, bustling town, with more energy than perhaps any town we’ve come across - and we may have figured out why. Throughout town we continually saw signs for “egg coffee”. And we thought, gross! Right? What, do they just dump an egg in a hot coffee and it sort of sits there and semi-cooks in the coffee’s heat until you quickly choke it down, like Rocky Balboa and his raw egg shakes? Sure, until Caren googled it and find out it’s nothing of the sort and everyone said it's out of this world. We gave it a go and started our morning, even though it was already 95 degrees laden off the charts humidity, with a tall, hot, egg coffee. One sip and the smiles started to creep across our faces. This. Was. Amazing.
The “egg” was in fact a whipped egg white meringue that was placed on top of the hot coffee and when drank (or mixed together), the flavors emulsified in your mouth. Wow. It was like having pop rocks and coke as a kid. Just one of those cool, tingling experiences in your mouth. But waaay better and far more sophisticated.
Egg coffee in Hanoi. One of the best ways to spend $1 while in town.
Proud to come off our morning discovery of egg coffee, we stopped for lunch at one of Hanoi’s Banh Mi stands (this super-sized hoagie where the flavor is bigger than the sandwich. It’s just that good). While ordering, we saw they had egg coffee as well and we thought, the heat may be stifling, but why not? Until the sign caught our eye and it said hot or over ice. Over ice? Best two words I heard that day. So we took on battling the Hanoi heat and humidity with an iced egg coffee, because at this point we felt we had to do our due diligence on whether a cold egg coffee could possibly compare to the hot we had earlier that morning. And it did. I could have stayed an extra week in Hanoi just to roam the streets with a egg coffee permanently in my hand. But our Vietnam travels continued further south, so we left Hanoi expecting to get our next egg coffee during breakfast at our next destination the following morning.
Depression quickly set in when we learned at breakfast that next morning that egg coffees were special to Hanoi, and you couldn’t get them (as readily found) in other parts of Vietnam, particularly where we were on the beaches of Danang. But our waiter recommended to us a Vietnamese coffee, and with a smile and wink he said “I think you’ll like it”.
Vietnam's delicious iced coffee. The secret is the sweetened condensed milk.
Our two Vietnamese coffees showed up (over ice, off course, because now at the beach the weather was really sweltering), and the first thing we noticed was the clear distinction of ingredients: a small something thick and creamy at the bottom of the glass, followed by a large layer of a deep, ultra-dark coffee, with a stirring stick begging to be twirled. One few quick stirs and we sipped the replacement to the egg coffee we just fell in love with. It was fabulous. I drank my glass in about a millisecond and quickly ordered another. Our son, not wanting to be left out, got in on the action and ordered one for himself as well. Our next batch arrived and we were hooked. The law of diminishing returns was broken because over the course of each day’s breakfast I probably threw back about 4-6 of these in quick succession. They were soooo goood. A visit to the barista stand a short while later had me watching how this concoction was made, because this was something we were going to make at home, no matter what fancy contraptions we had to buy to replicate.
Our great baristas at the Sheraton Danang, Vietnam.
Turns out, making a Vietnamese iced coffee couldn’t be simpler. A few tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk (yup, that’s the killer sweetner and thick, milky layer at the bottom of the glass), followed by a individually brewed “pour over” Vietnamese-style, where a little personal metal drip-system filter is placed over your cup and the water, over about 5 minutes, slowly brews into your cup for something delightfully strong. Mix over ice and viola – a Vietnamese iced coffee.
We came to Vietnam to gain a better understanding and appreciation of its people, their culture, and country. We left with all that and an even deeper understanding as to how naïve we really were. For years, we thought our best coffees were coming out of that Italian café on the coast or (gulp) in a pinch at home from our local Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. And here we find that in some of the greatest coffee in the world is coming out of this thin strip of land in SE Asia. Besides the country’s spectacular scenery and their warm, friendly people, it’s the coffee that may be calling for a return visit to this unexpected gem of a destination, just one more time.