On our recent 3 week travels through Vietnam, starting the day with a coffee, stopping en route for a fresh juice and finishing the day with a chilled glass of beer or two became a fast established routine to each day. Whilst it could be said that most of what we were quaffing is not particularly unique to Vietnam, the strength of the coffee and the cheapness of the beer inspired me to name my “top 5 things to drink in Vietnam”.
Sua Da – a great coffee buzz
Vietnam is the worlds second largest coffee producer after Brazil and drinking the dark nectar does indeed appear to be a national pastime. They like it strong and sweet. A popular way to drink it is “cafe sua da” but you have to prepare it correctly. The cup or glass arrives at your table with a layer of sticky sweet condensed milk in the bottom and an individual coffee filter on the top. Not much water is used and the almost tar-like liquid starts to drip from the ground coffee through the tiny holes of the metal filter into the milk. Next add a few ice cubes and give it a vigorous mix so it all blends together. You’re then good to go and a few minutes later the combined caffeine and sugar rush begins! It’s normal to get a glass of Chinese tea along with your coffee which is a thirst quenching accompaniment to the strong taste of the coffee.
Bia Hoi – possibly the cheapest beer in the world?
To balance out all that caffeine in order to ensure sleeping at night, a few beers are the order of the day. Well, beer in general but bia hoi deserves its own special mention as it is fairly iconic to Vietnam. Bia hoi, or fresh beer, is supposedly brewed daily and is poured from a metal cask. The taste varies from brew to brew and to be honest, not all of them taste that fresh but for the price you can afford to leave a glass half drunk and move on to the next bia hoi station! The price? The average for a glass a little less than half a pint is probably around 5,000 dong; that’s 15 pence or 24 US cents! But the cheapest deal we found was a “buy 2 get 1 free” deal on a 3,000 dong glass. OK, 3 glasses of beer is not a big ask so doing the maths on that we’re talking 2,000 dong/9 pence/14 cents a glass!!! If you want to splash out bottled beer is also a bargain ranging from around 12,000 dong upwards – Saigon, 333 (pronounced ba ba ba) and La Rue were particular favourites. Vietnam has to be one of the, if not THE, cheapest countries in South East Asia for beer but the Philippines are definitely up there with extremely cheap and chilled San Miguel. From Vietnam we flew directly to Singapore which is surely the most expensive in the region – it was a sobering moment!
Sugar Cane Juice – freshly squeezed sweet goodness
For me, one of the most refreshing drinks around, I could drink gallons of the stuff. Luckily, despite what the name of it may suggest, it contains less sugar than most fruit juices and fewer calories than a glass of skimmed milk! Squeeze on … The juice is produced by passing the thick stalks through a press not dissimilar to an old-fashioned clothes wringer. Two or three stalks are “wrung through” several times to produce the juice; a squeeze of kumquat is added for a sweet fruitiness and it’s poured over ice. All that remains is to sit with your drink on the edge of the pavement on a low plastic stool and watch the world go by. More expensive than beer, a large glass costs from 5,000 dong (between 15 and 30 pence or 25-50 cents). But then, water is often more expensive than beer …
Dalat Wine – a fine vintage?
Wine may not be one of the first beverages that come to mind when thinking of Vietnam but it does grow grapes and produce wine. Most of the wine is produced around the town of the Dalat, in the Central Highlands.
The glass or two that I sampled were probably not the best vintage so I may be doing Dalat Wine a huge injustice when I say that it was … err drinkable, but hey I’ve never claimed to be a wine connoisseur. Ribena with a hint of alcohol anybody?
Fresh Coconut and Other Juices
OK, so number 5 may be a little generic to the region but a Top 5 works so much better than a Top 4! Fresh fruit juices and shakes and plentiful all over South East Asia and Vietnam is no exception. Whatever fruit is in season can swiftly be blended into a glass containing 2 or 3 or your 5 a day within seconds. Fresh green coconuts are another popular drink and the original juice “in a can”. When I was a child and before I started travelling in Asia I didn’t realise that coconuts are only hard, brown and hairy when bought from a supermarket in the UK. Chasing them around the garden patio with a hammer revealed a milk (that often got spilt over the patio if the fall of the hammer was a bit vigorous) and hard flesh inside, but in parts of the world where coconuts are grown they are cut from the trees for drinking as young, green coconuts, before the green husk falls away to reveal the brown “nut”. To serve, chop the top off a fresh green coconut and insert straw – and you have a nutritional and refreshing drink in a clean “cup”. Once the juice, which is clear and much sweeter than from a brown coconut, is drunk, hack the coconut in half and scoop out the soft jelly-like flesh from the inside. That’s the best bit, in my opinion.
I’ve thrown in a picture of a gin and tonic too – yes, I know it’s not a traditional Vietnamese drink but at one dollar (60p!) for glass of approximately 8 parts gin to 2 parts tonic it wasn’t a bad deal either!