Caffeine addicts will have no reason to fret while traveling in Southeast Asia. Delicious, heavenly, earth-shatteringly good coffee is never more than a stone’s throw away. Coffee in Southeast Asia, which is often sold by vendors on the street, is much different than what Westerners may be used to. Coffee sizes in the U.S. generally are between 12 ounces (smallest) to 20 ounces (largest). Even a 12 ounce coffee is gargantuous compared to coffee cups in Southeast Asia. Two of the best places for coffee in the region are Singapore and Vietnam.
*Travel language tip: Make sure to specify which variety of coffee you want when ordering.
Coffee: “cà phê” (ca-fe)
Iced-Coffee: “cà phê s?a ?á” (ca-fe-sooa-da)
Vietnamese coffee is world famous for its rich, buttery flavor. The country hasn’t been a coffee growing and exporting hub, for the French colonialists introduced the drink to Vietnam in the 19th century. Now, Vietnam exports hundreds of thousands of tons of coffee every year and is the number two coffee exporting country in the world.
Where to find it:
Vietnamese coffee is almost as ubiquitous in the country as are steaming bowls of pho. Coffee vendors often line the streets and tiny cafes are tucked away in all corners of Vietnamese cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Keep your eyes peeled for people sitting on small plastic stools around vendor carts. For a more laid back coffee experience, try one of the street vendors. The coffee is guaranteed to be cheap and delicious. For a more restaurant-like experience, find a cafe. Cafes in Vietnam, which also serve a smattering of sweet pastries, have a very French vibe. If you were to close your eyes for a moment, it would be easy to image yourself sitting at a street-side cafe in Paris.
How It’s Made:
Vietnamese coffee is often served complete with a Vietnamese metal coffee filter on top of the cup (See image above). Beans are ground and placed in the cup-like apparatus with holes in the bottom. The metal filter is placed on top of the cup and water is poured in. The coffee slowly trickles down to the cup below. This is truly fresh coffee: watching it brew right before your eyes.
Although you can get your coffee black, most Vietnamese prefer theirs with sweet milk mixed in. The sweet milk (also known as condensed milk) is a syrupy and creamy, and makes the coffee incredibly sweet. Sweet tooths will rejoice, but those who prefer their coffee black might be taken aback at the extreme sweetness of Vietnamese coffee. The vendor will serve the cup with sweet milk already at the bottom, so when the coffee is done filtering you can simply stir it up and enjoy.
*Travel language tip: Make sure to specify whether you want black coffee or coffee with milk when ordering.
Singaporean coffee, similar to Vietnamese coffee, packs a big punch in a small package. The coffee shop, also known as a “kopi tiam,” is about as ubiquitous in Singapore as shiny high rises and sparkling Mercedes taxis. Kopi tiams can be found in the bottom floors of office buildings, in malls, in hawker centers, in MRT stations, on street corners and in bookstores. In a word, you’re probably never more than a block away from coffee while in Singapore.
Although not all kopi tiams uphold this method, coffee beans in Singapore are traditionally roasted with butter to enhance the flavor and oily qualities that make the taste incredibly rich. Once the beans are roasted, they are brewed in a metal pot to create a powerful, black elixir. The price for a mug full of Singaporean coffee is very reasonable, depending on where the kopi tiam is located, a cup could cost anywhere from 25 cents to $1.50 (USD).
How To Order:
There are specific ways that coffee must be order to get the desired brew. Singaporean coffee traditionally either comes black or with sweet, condensed milk. It you want to consume in the kopi tiam or hawker center, it will be served in a glass mug that will be collected when you leave. The other option is to order the coffee “to-go” if you’d like to drink it on the run to school or to work. Here is how to properly order your drink:
Black coffee (no sugar, no sweet milk): “kopi-O” (ko-pee)
Black coffee with sugar and sweet milk: “kopi”
Coffee to-go (will be served in a plastic bag): “kopi-O take-away”