Street Food and Coffee Culture in Ho Chi Minh City
It’s lunchtime in Ho Chi Min City’s Tran Khac Chan Street. Scorching sun filters down through this labyrinthine alleyway in streams, where on either side of the road, locals and ex-pats alike teeter on plastic blue stools in the pockets of shade afforded by a colossal banyan tree. Suit-clad businessmen, teachers, cement-stained builders, and ancient grandmas are all waiting for their bowl of Com Tam and ice-cold Caphe Sua.
In Vietnam’s electrifying metropolitan centre, street food and coffee don’t so much have their own culture - but their own ecosystem. Each of Ho Chi Minh’s 24 districts is a biome of sizzling pancakes, soy-soaked vermicelli, and coal-grilled seafood: all washed down with a glass of rich Vietnamese Coffee.
Cà Phê Culture In Ho Chi Minh City
In the peripheral vision of District five’s (comparatively empty) Starbucks outlet is perhaps the most famous example of Ho Chi Minh City’s infamous street coffee. Upon reaching the entrance of Phùng Hưng Street, the caffeine-deprived city dwellers must simply follow the scent of burning popcorn and crackling beans - to where the owners of Cafe Ba Lù are roasting their coffee amid plumes of smoke. One man rotates the industrial cylinder by hand: a tiring job made easier by chatting to his customers: many of whom have been sitting there since 6 am drinking rocket-fuel coffee for just 10,000 VND (£0.35) per cup.
While it’s rarer these days for Ho Chi Minh City’s coffee beans to roast on its pavements, drinking it here is still very much the norm. The culture of drinking Cà Phê Bệt, meaning “coffee on the flat ground”, is pervasive - especially among the young Vietnamese population. Every evening, the city’s youth gather in the green expanse of Reunification Park to sip iced coffee: away from the prying eyes of lecturers and parents.
Like clockwork, street vendors arrive at 5 pm to set up shop: their silver trolleys piled high with red cans of condensed milk, sacks of ground coffee and buckets of crushed ice. As the sun sets, hundreds of students laze on newspaper mattresses discussing politics and novel ideas over endless cups of Cà phê sữa đá in a way that feels rebellious: essentially, because it is.
The street coffee culture is strictly prohibited by authorities: with countless signs reminding street vendors and students in bold lettering not to sit and drink their coffee on the grass. However, this has only added fuel to the fire of Cà Phê Bệt: an example of how coffee culture in Ho Chi Minh City isn’t just about enjoying the flavour of Vietnamese Robusta: but facilitating social freedom for its young people.
While the city’s students enjoy the practice of Cà Phê Bệt, they’re equally proud of their coffee heritage. It’s the older Vietnamese generation that run the iconic alley-way coffeehouses, knows the perfect ratio of espresso to condensed milk, and harbours the ancient coffee-making techniques that form so many people’s morning routines.
Nothing is more emblematic of Ho Chi Minh City’s traditional coffee culture than Cà Phê Vot, or “net-filter coffee”: a nostalgic, southern-Vietnamese variation on the classic hot brew. Back in the day, Cà Phê Vot spots - taking barely furnished, living-room esque form, were ubiquitous in every hem, or alleyway: until their numbers declined in the 1980s. However, Cà Phê Vot has received a renaissance thanks to viral videos on Tik Tok inviting young locals and ex-pats to taste the old Saigon.
The resulting boom in custom is palpable in each Cà Phê Vot shop: many of whom brew coffee according to an 80-year-old tradition, but nowhere more so than the iconic cafe on Phan Dinh Phung Street, Phu Nhuan district. Here, coffee is brewed using cloth filters and beetle-esque clay pots, with boiling water poured on from such a height, that the coffee bubbles like black molten lava. Needless to say, this is a punchy start to anyone’s day, and Cà Phê Vot is often used by young Vietnamese as a ritual to help them start their mornings earlier.
Ho Chi Minh City’s Street Food: The Life-Blood of Vietnam
If coffee is described as the lifeblood of Ho Chi Minh, its street-food counterpart is undoubtedly its beating heart. In a city of 10 million, almost one million make their living through cooking on the street: with each vendor bringing Chinese, French, and western influences to the literal table (or blue plastic stool). This rich cultural tapestry is palpable in the way it assaults the senses: from the crackle of snails being cooked over hot charcoal to the gelatinous thud of rice noodles as they hit the bowl.
Since one man decided to walk the streets of Hanoi selling barrels of soup in the 1900s, street food has consistently adapted to the times. It’s a concept that helped the Vietnamese survive, and then thrive in the uncertainty following the American War, and has since become a tourist industry in its own right.
Countless neon signs in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 advertise street-food tours by foot or motorbike: each promising a direct route to the “most authentic” and “undiscovered” vendors. Tourists emerge from these eating extravaganzas with a new love for Saigonese flavours: filled to the brim with Banh Xeo crepes, crunchy Banh Mi, and sticky banana cakes.
While street food is delicious and varied, its flavours are a reminder of Vietnamese resilience. Com Tam or “broken rice” is a staple street dish in Ho Chi Minh City bridging the already small gap between history, culture, and cuisine. After the American war, growing rice became increasingly difficult, and poor harvests in the ravaged countryside meant quality grain was hard to come by. In the Vietnamese spirit of resourcefulness, families would buy the shunned broken rice and found that, when cooked in a certain way, it tasted better than the more coveted grains.