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'Ca phe sua da': A classic drink of Saigon

Monday, November 20, 2017, 14:12 GMT+7
'Ca phe sua da': A classic drink of Saigon
Try this drink when visiting Saigon. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen

Driving along the street as early as 6:00 am, one can easily spot people young and old sitting by the roadside with a ca phe sua da glass in hand.

The famous and classic drink has long been part of the daily routine of the people of Saigon, the old name of Ho Chi Minh City many still prefer now.

Be they college undergrads, office workers or blue-collar employees, young people in the vibrant city love kicking off their day with a glass of milky iced coffee.

Taste it and one will never forget it. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen
Taste it and one will never forget it. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen

The drink has the power to ignite the brain, wake up neurons key to mental activity, relax stiff muscles after a long night’s sleep and dripping fresh energy into a new work day.

The best place for ca phe sua da should not be a fancy restaurant but a streetside (often makeshift) coffee corner with low tables and tiny plastic or folding wooden stools.

Warm air and the echoing noise of traffic intensify the taste, like the special effects of a Hollywood blockbuster.

With prices anywhere from 50 cents to less than a dollar, one can buy a ca phe sua da from any coffee vendor, mobile cart, roadside table-and-chair, or takeaway stall on just about any corner of the bustling city.

A man reads a newspaper next to a glass of ca phe sua da in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen
A man reads a newspaper next to a glass of ca phe sua da in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen

What sets it apart, though, is its taste and recipe.

Ca phe sua da has a sweet taste unlike that of a hot chocolate, and definitely is not so strong as black coffee.

Some have compared the Saigonese specialty to the world-renowned Baileys Irish Cream, an Irish whiskey and cream-based liquor.

But the aromatic flavor actually varies based on the proportion of milk and coffee.

Try making it and enjoy the taste. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen
Try making it and enjoy the taste. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen

It takes only one coffee filter, pronounced ‘fin’ in the local language, which costs as little as US$1.5-3, freshly ground roast coffee at $8-15 per kg, sweetened condensed milk at $0.88/can, and boiling water (jeez, DIY!).

To make it, fill ¼ of a small cup with sweetened condensed milk, then place the filter over that cup.

Put three tablespoons of ground coffee into the filter, then pour boiling water in for brewing. Be sure to adjust the filter so that coffee can actually drip out. The recommended time for a drip is 3-5 minutes.

Once the coffee has completely covered the milk, stir the mixture well with a long spoon. Then, pour the brew into a longer glass filled with cubed, chipped or shaved ice before serving.

Young people chat while enjoying ca phe sua da in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen
Young people chat while enjoying ca phe sua da in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen

There is another term popular amongst locals, especially sweet-toothed fellows. It is bac siu da.

This refers to a somewhat upside down ca phe sua da, where the sweet condensed milk outweighs the actual coffee. It is often referred to as iced coffee milk.

Whatever the level of sweetness, the drink has successfully 'dripped' into the daily appetite and life of a large proportion of the Ho Chi Minh City population, now hovering around 8.5 million.

For ca phe sua da lovers, a sit-down by themselves or with companions is a daily norm.

Two men play chess at a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen
Two men play chess at a roadside coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tam Bui - Trung Nguyen

A roadside coffee cart is the ideal place for gatherings amongst college students discussing school work, the elderly gathering to tell 'tales of the old days' or simply some good old-fashioned people-watching.

Businesspeople even take their work there considering the low cost, easy parking and laid-back atmosphere of most outlets.

They might focus on their own work, carry out simple transactions or meet up with partners and do customer service.

An office worker brings a ca phe sua da into his workplace in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Viet Toan/Tuoi Tre News
An office worker brings a ca phe sua da into his workplace in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Viet Toan/Tuoi Tre News

The morning is not the only time when people order their iced milky coffee, however. To recharge their batteries after a tense morning shift, many also turn to the drink in the afternoon.

They may stroll out of their workplaces for a ca phe sua da under shades or in air-con, where their minds will be put to rest while the powerful sugary liquid penetrates their every fiber.

Some may not even really need the caffeine boost, but continue to drink the famous drink out of habit. For them it is ‘mission impossible’ trying to work without a fresh ca phe sua da sitting next to the mouse.

Truth be told, many people di ca phe (go for a coffee) whenever the moment calls.

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Duc Tien / Tuoi Tre News

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