While coffee-based drinks from other countries are quickly growing in popularity throughout Vietnam, the local ca phe sua da (iced coffee mixed with sweet condensed milk) is solidifying its own reputation on the world stage.
The Vietnamese-style coffee conjures up images of Robusta drops dripping into a glass of condensed milk from a shiny Vietnamese aluminum or stainless-steel phin filter, creating a unique creamy mix of bitter and sweet.
The Vietnamese Latte at République
République, a Los Angeles-based modern French restaurant, ranks 34th out of over 9,000 restaurants in the American city on TripAdvisor, and has been recommended by Forbes, Condé Nast Traveler and the Los Angeles Times.
The restaurant’s ‘Vietnamese Latte’ has been on the menu since the day République opened its doors in 2014, and is a go-to option from the weekend brunch menu’s Special Drinks list.
République explains the drink as coffee “sweetened with condensed milk,” similar to the Vietnamese ca phe sua da and served either hot or iced for US$6.
|The iced Vietnamese Latte served at République. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
In an email to Tuoi Tre News, chef Walter Manzke, the restaurant’s owner, said the Vietnamese Latte is a constant source of positive feedback from guests.
Despite neither Manzke nor his wife having Vietnamese origins, the drink was inspired by his fond memories of the ca phe sua da he took from Vietnam over a decade ago.
“I first tasted Vietnamese iced milk coffee during my trip to Vietnam ten years ago and I liked how the condensed milk complemented the strong coffee,” he told Tuoi Tre News.
“I wanted to offer something with a similar flavor at the restaurant and decided to serve it as a latte.”
|Chefs Walter and Margarita Manzke, owners of République, in a photo provided by the restaurant|
“The Latte was amazing, not too sweet and deliciously creamy,” a diner from Hawaii commented on American review site Yelp.
Another from LA commented that she could “drink a gallon of this” while another one from Arcadia said, “my Vietnamese Latte was creamy with the perfect amount of sweetness.”
“Vietnamese Latte was absolutely delicious! It was just so smooth and easy to drink,” a third from Alhambra, California added.
But of course, when unique eats or drinks are involved, not everyone always shares the same opinions.
Some who have tried République’s version of ca phe sua da shared that they simply did not enjoy the sweetness of the condensed milk mixed with the coffee, though complimenting the coffee was good.
Others complained that the latte was not as strong as the traditional ca phe sua da.
“We pull a double shot of espresso over condensed milk, stir well, then we steam milk and pour into the espresso and condensed milk,” chef Walter Manzke explained his version of the drink.
|The hot Vietnamese Latte of République in a photo provided by the restaurant|
In addition to serving the drink at République, the Manzkes also offer it at their Wildflour Bakery & Cafe locations in Manila, the Philippines.
Three coffees a day
Though she is currently in the U.S., food and travel blogger Casie Tennin speaks fondly of the ca phe sua da she tried during a visit to Vietnam in late 2017.
After a long flight from the U.S., she needed some caffeine to keep her awake and a hostel staffer offered her a cup of ca phe sua da.
“I had my first sip and it was life-changing,” the 27-year-old blogger recalled.
“The sweet, creamy richness combined with the robust, full-bodied coffee flavor. I was in love.”
|Casie Tennin is seen in a photo taken from her blog awanderingcasiedilla.com.|
Hooked on the flavor, Tennin drank three coffees on her first day in Vietnam, but it did not take long for her to realize so much caffeine was a big mistake.
“I was so excited by the coffee when I arrived, I drank three cups on my first day and then my left eye started twitching. I couldn’t stop talking and my hands were shaking,” she recounted.
“Little did I know how caffeinated those things are, lesson learned.”
Tennin became such a big fan of ca phe sua da that she drank one every day during her first four months living in Vietnam, before cutting down to once or twice a week for the rest of the year she spent living in the central city of Da Nang.
On her blog awanderingcasiedilla.com, Tennin even ranked her experience with ca phe sua da as better than when she “sipped on Italian espressos in Venice, had French press coffee in a famous café in Paris, was caffeinated by iced Freddos in Greece, had countless cups of café cortado in Spain, and spent shameful amounts of dollars on Instagrammable coffee in NYC.”
Meanwhile, travel blogger Kesley Madison of milesofsmiles.co, who is living in Hanoi, shared that she has loved the creamy mix of condensed milk and punchy Robusta since her first taste on a Hanoi sidewalk.
To Madison, ca phe sua da is a must-try delicacy when visiting Vietnam.
|Kelsey Madison enjoys Vietnamese coffee at a coffee shop in Hanoi. Photo: milesofsmiles.co|
The challenge of sweetness
One of the biggest challenges that ca phe sua da gives first-time drinkers is its sweetness.
“The Vietnamese like their ca phe sweet. Real sweet. As if spoonfuls of sugar weren’t enough, they also add sweetened condensed milk. I never sweeten my coffee, so I’ve had a hard time adjusting,” Michael Powell and Jürgen Horn from travel blog for91days.com recalled their experience in Vietnam.
“Oh, what a liar, I don’t know why I even typed that! It took me like thirty seconds to adjust. The truth is, even for those of us who normally avoid it, Vietnamese coffee tastes better with a touch of sugar. And that’s because they serve it strong. I couldn’t believe the amount of grounds they use for a single cup. Without sugar, it’s tough to get down,” they added.
During their three months in Ho Chi Minh City in 2017, the couple from Germany and the U.S. did not miss the chance to try ca phe sua da, and even made a YouTube video on how to make the drink after learning from the staff at a café they visited.
|A set of 'tools' to make ca phe sua da. Photo: for91days.com|
“Even if ca phe sua da is very sweet, it's also extremely delicious. You have to try it once!” they said in an email to Tuoi Tre News.
Meanwhile, British Philip Genochio who has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for the past eight years, said, “I think everyone knows ca phe sua da.”
The man from London said he personally finds it interesting to see “how ca phe sua da fits into the new wave of coffee and coffee shops.”
"Coffee shops are now serving ca phe sua da more ‘seriously,' with ‘proper’ coffee, not just the cheap everyday 'coffee to go' that it used to be, or not just some black coffee made hours before chucked in a glass with ice and then some milk added on top," he commented.
“Some stores also make ca phe sua da with other methods such as cold brew and espresso. Ca phe sua da has now been priced at VND50.000-60.000 VND [$2.1 to 2.6] per cup at some places, so they need to present it well,” he added.
|A glass of ca phe sua (coffee with sweet condensed milk) outside Tan Dinh Market in Ho Chi Minh City is seen in a photo taken by Swede photographer Tanya Olander. Photo: @somewheresaigon|