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Vietnamese Coffee Culture: A Reflection and Photo Essay on Coffee and San Diego’s Vietnamese Community

A reflection about how coffee is a socializing tool for the Vietnamese community, drawing on my own experiences as someone who has been living in the City Heights community for the majority of their life.

In Vietnam, coffee is a socializing tool. While it can be a hassle to wait for your coffee when you're running late, the beauty of Vietnamese coffee is that you can watch the coffee drip as you catch up with friends and family. I don’t want to wax poetic about coffee, but I’ve found that American culture doesn’t permit that sort of simple enjoyment. Our culture is all about getting your drink as fast as possible, with little to no social interaction. Even sitting down to do some work feels lonely. Everyone is at their table typing away on their laptop, and hardly anyone comes in for a chat over coffee.

But in Vietnam, and the Vietnamese diaspora in San Diego, you get together with your friends over a cup of coffee and game of cards. While the latter is a  pastime mainly enjoyed by Vietnamese uncles, it reflects a popular culture back in the homeland. I remember a recent trip to Vietnam where my family and I (all coffee lovers) went to several coffee shops in each city we toured. Right away, I could see a stark difference between the coffee shops here versus the ones back home. Everyone was sitting at tables, body language open and expressive rather than hunched over a laptop. The coffee shops were welcoming, something that American coffee shops lack. 

San Diego is one of the top cities in California with the largest Vietnamese community. The City Heights area in particular houses a significant proportion of Vietnamese refugees who fled during the Vietnam War, just under Mira Mesa. It comes as no surprise then that Vietnamese refugees built a Little Saigon right in the middle of City Heights. If you take a walk down El Cajon Boulevard, you’ll see there’s at least two or three Vietnamese businesses on the same block. A majority of Vietnamese businesses are restaurants, which also happen to serve as social gathering spots for the Vietnamese community. One such place is Nhu Y, where it’s common to always see a group of uncles sitting on the patio, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and playing cards. 

For Vietnamese people, coffee isn’t just a drink you grab on your way to work. There’s a social aspect to it, from its preparation to the act of consuming it. Oftentimes, gathering over coffee is a way for friends and family to catch up. For the Vietnamese diaspora, it serves as a way to build stronger connections in the face of great loss and obtain information about much-needed resources. When you have a chat over coffee, you’re getting more than just a dose of social interaction. You’re also meeting new people, forming new connections, and building a stronger community. It’s why so many members of the Vietnamese community seem to know each other, either intimately or as an acquaintance.

In my personal life, coffee serves as an inconspicuous gateway for socializing with my family. I find it easier to open up conversations with my mother while we wait for our coffee to brew. I’ve learned about her experience as a refugee fleeing the Cambodian civil war this way. Coffee offers a moment of respite for us, and it’s while we wait for the coffee to drip that it allows us to interact in ways our daily lives wouldn’t permit us to. 

Waiting for your coffee to brew isn’t an inconvenience in Vietnamese coffee culture, it’s part of the experience. It’s why you’re served an empty cup with condensed milk at the bottom and a phin filter balanced on top. You don’t wait for the coffee to brew, the coffee waits for you.

To make Vietnamese coffee you will need: a clear glass to watch the coffee drip, condensed milk, ground coffee, hot water and a phin filter (which can be bought online or at a Vietnamese supermarket). Ice optional!

How to make Vietnamese coffee:

  1. While you boil your water, put 1-4 teaspoons of condensed milk at the bottom of your glass, depending on how sweet you want it to be. 

  2. Phin filters come with a metal filter that screws inside, so take it out and scoop 2 tablespoons of ground coffee into your phin filter. Gently spread out the grounds and lay the metal filter on top.

  3. Pour a little bit of hot water over the grounds to bloom the coffee. Once you see coffee dripping, slowly pour in more water; about 6-8oz depending on how strong you like your coffee.

  4. After the coffee is done dripping, take off the phin filter, mix the condensed milk at the bottom and enjoy hot or cold!



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