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Vietnamese Coffee (Cà Phê)

Text and illustrations by Bryan Wu

You may be most familiar with the rich, sweet iced Vietnamese coffee from your local Phở shop, but what makes Vietnamese coffee different from your local Starbucks?

  1. 1.It’s a drip filter.  A metal coffee filter uses a screw-down mechanism to compresses the coffee grounds into a super-dense layer through which hot water is filtered. Because it takes at least five minutes (often longer) to drip through, the coffee is rich in flavor and essential oils.  It’s also rich in caffeine!

  2. 2.Rich complex blends of robusta, arabica, chari and catimor coffee beans. In the United States, restaurant-goers may be more familiar with popular New Orleans-style coffee blend that includes roasted chicory root. It has a similar grind and perhaps not coincidentally, New Orleans has a bustling Vietnamese community. (The use of chicory root is an example of French influence and was originally cut into the ground coffee beans to extend their use.  France also introduced coffee to SE Asia during it’s colonial period.)

  3. 3.The optional addition of sweetened condensed milk is a distinctly Southeast Asian influence and turns this morning drink into a bit of tasty dessert.

Traditionally cà phê (pronounced cah-FAY) is served with a weakly brewed jasmine tea chaser, served hot.

How to order

Hot Vietnamese coffee, straight up
Cà phê nóng = "coffee hot"
Pronounced like:
cah-FAY nowng (high tone)

Hot Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk
Cà phê sữa nóng = "coffee milk hot")
Pronounced like:
cah-FAY soo-ah (rising tone) nowng (high tone)

Iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk
Cà phê sữa đá = "coffee milk ice")
Pronounced like:
cah-FAY soo-ah (rising tone) dah (high tone)


  1. Vietnamese ground coffee

  2. Sweetened condensed milk (optional)

  3. Vietnamese metal coffee filter

  4. Small glass

  5. Large glass with ice and a long spoon (optional)


1. Add condensed milk (optional)
Pour some condensed milk in a small glass, 1 to 3 tablespoons,
depending on how sweet you like your coffee.

2. Add coffee to filter
Unscrew the filter insert. Add about 2 tablespoons of coffee. Screw insert back in to pack grounds tightly, then unscrew half a turn.

3. Add hot water
Place filter on a small glass and fill to brim with boiling water. Cover with the filter’s lid. [Thy: My youngest uncle always places his glass in a metal bowl, then pours extra boiling water into the bowl to keep the coffee and the coffee glass hot. I do that now, too.]

It should take about a minimum of 5 minutes for the water to filter completely through. If it drips too quickly, tighten the screw with the tip of a spoon.

4. Stir
Remove filter and stir. Sweetened coffee should be the color of dark brown suede.

5. Serve
Serve hot or over ice. Ice helps to dilute the coffee.

6. Hot tea chaser
The traditional way to have Vietnamese coffee is with a hot jasmine tea chaser.


  1. Adjust the amount of coffee and milk to taste.

  2. Tighten or even omit the filter insert to adjust the coffee strength and bitterness. The longer it takes to filter, the more bitter flavor you get which balances out the sweetness.

  3. Store your condensed milk in a syrup dispenser (like for pancakes). It makes for easy pouring with no clean up. [Thy: Sweetened condensed milk doesn’t need to be refrigerated and lasts practically forever at room temp, hence it’s popularity in SE Asia.]

  4. Note that you don't have to use VN coffee, but be sure to get sweetened condensed milk, not evaporated.

I've seen two types of filters: One is stainless steel and has a screw-in filter to compress the grinds. The other is made of aluminum and has an insert that holds down the coffee grounds with gravity only. Either will work fine.


  1. Trung Nguyen - Recommended! Roast coffee w/ 'chari', a species of coffee different from Robusta or Arabica (thanks, Tim). Imported from Vietnam. Very rich, velvety. A premium brand which actually have many high quality Vietnamese coffee blends. Check out their site for more.

  2. Café Du Monde - Roast coffee with chicory from New Orleans (note the French connection). Popular in American Vietnamese restaurants.

Sweetened condensed milk

  1. I prefer Longevity brand condensed milk (the one with the old man on it).

  2. You don't want 'Evaporated' milk. That's something else.

  3. Avoid milks that have the word 'filled' on the label—they contain vegetable oil. Check the ingredients!

Where to buy

Can't find the right supplies at your local supermarket? Can't wait till your next Vietnamese restaurant outing? Fortunately, Amazon has just about everything nowadays. Links below:

  1. Stainless steel Vietnamese coffee filter (about $7)

  2. Trung Nguyen roast coffee (about $11)

  3. Café Du Monde roast coffee (about $6)

  4. Stainless steel Vietnamese coffee filter (about $7)

  5. Various sweetened condensed milks (remember: avoid the 'filled' ones..) (about $2)

January 2007