Liquid Refreshment in Vietnam – What’s Your Poison?

Whenever we are travelling in Vietnam, when it comes to liquid refreshment, there is a definite pattern to our routine. Our morning usually starts with a coffee, and at least one point in the day, we pause our sightseeing for a fresh sugar cane or orange juice. The day usually concludes with a glass or two of cold beer. These are basically our favourite Vietnamese drinks!

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”.

Ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) – a great coffee buzz

Starting off with one of my favourite (and most of the country’s favourite) Vietnamese drinks. 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 known as ca phe 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 hot 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 cools and blends. 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.

Vietnamese drinks - iced coffee in Tra Vinh VietnamEverything you need to make the perfect cafe sua da – coffee, condensed milk, ice and a pot of tea

ca phe da (black coffee) (left) and ca phe sua da (with condensed milk) (right)

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 (fresh brew) deserves its own special mention as it is fairly iconic to Vietnam. Bia hoi 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 two, get one free” deal on a 3,000 dong glass. OK, three 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!

bia hoi station in Hoi An

bia hoi (left) and Vietnamese bottled beer (right)

Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam 11About US$5 worth of empties!

Sugar Cane Juice – freshly squeezed sweet goodness

For me, sugar cane juice is one of the most refreshing Vietnamese 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, more vitamin C than orange juice 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 juice 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…

A typical sugarcane-juicing machine (left) and the end product (right)

Dalat Wine – a fine vintage?

Wine may not be one of the first beverages that come to mind when thinking of Vietnam but there are vineyards and wineries, mostly in the area 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 … er, drinkable but hey, I’ve never claimed to be a wine connoisseur. Ribena with a hint of alcohol anybody?

Trying wine in Dalat (left) and a photo of a gin and tonic too (right) – yes, I know it’s not a traditional Vietnamese drink but at one US dollar (60p!) for a glass of approximately 8 parts gin to 2 parts tonic on Ho Chi Minh City’s Bui Vien Street, it’s a pretty good deal also!

Fresh Coconut Water and Other Juices

OK, so number 5 on our list of Vietnamese drinks 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 are 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 released clear milk (that often got spilt over the patio if the fall of the hammer was a bit vigorous) and hard white 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 drinking vessel. 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.

A typical coconut stand/cart in Ben Tre, a small city in the Mekong Delta and a ready-to-drink coconut

Cheers! Which one of these Vietnamese drinks is your favourite?