Old tile floors, low wooden tables, and a narrow balcony that overlooks a crook of the Thi Nghe canal; as Ho Chi Minh City rapidly develops and chain coffee shops strive to out-glitz each other, the quiet, confident charm of Côi Cafe is more than a reminder of the past, it’s a key to understanding why cafes, and even coffee itself, are so central to life in Vietnam.
It wasn’t a recommendation or review, or even an on-point Instagram game that got me there the first time, but a sudden rainstorm and the need to wait it
Some of the best coffee I’ve had in the city and soft Vietnamese music made sure I came back.
Côi Cafe has changed owners a few times over the years and I stopped going for a while when one turned off the music and hung a TV on the wall to play movies like The Karate Kid–the 2010 version. But a pair of sisters recently took over the little coffee shop, took down the TV, and turned the music back on. I’m happy to be working my way back to regular status.I recently sat down with Hoa, half of the sister duo, to talk about reel-to-reel cassette players, good chairs, and Vietnamese coffee.
The following has been edited for clarity and readability
Q: Why do you run a coffee shop?
A: Actually, I just really like coffee. I’m a structural engineer, I was working for a bit and now I’m getting a master’s degree–you can see all my books there–so me and my sister run this shop. I meet many people this way and during free time, I study.
Q: Has engineering helped you with making coffee?
A: Yeah actually, my method comes from engineering. Some people don’t think about the materials and temperature–the heat loss while you make it–but I do. That’s why your coffee took a little while to make!
Q: What’s unique about Côi Cafe?
This is this whole point of the coffee shop. It’s from 1970, so it’s older than me–by a lot! And it’s still running, still working. It’s very special. We play old Vietnamese music here, from the war. The songs are about the soldiers fighting for their country.
Q: Describe your customers. What kind of people come in to the shop?
A: Many people… but mostly old people. I’m thinking about how to get younger people to come, so they can think about the music and old times. I think they will, maybe I’ll decorate the outside, make sure they get good drinks.
Q: How are coffee shops important to the culture of Saigon?
A: Very. You see them everywhere: small coffee shops or modern ones, people drinking coffee on the street. But nowadays, people like coffee shops like this. To come and relax, listen to music, enjoy the view.
Q: Can you talk about where you get your coffee beans from?
A: Đắk Lắk, the central highlands in Vietnam. I have a friend who works with the farmers there and I can always get fresh coffee. I tried a few different kinds before ordering and still, I don’t buy too much at one time, just 10 or 20 kg because after 10 days it loses the fresh smell.
Everyone enjoys coffee differently, so some people don’t like it, but I’m happy to serve everyone and if you just tell me what you want differently, next time I’ll do that for you.
Q: How do you take your coffee? Iced? With milk?
A: Just black and hot, no sugar. Usually I have a cup before breakfast. When you drink it like this, you really taste the coffee.
Q: And what’s the best way to enjoy a cup of Vietnamese coffee?
A: When we enjoy coffee there are so many components: the moment, the place, the music, or the people you’re with, but the most important is in ourselves, that we feel comfortable.
Of course, music and a nice place are very nice too. Also important is a good chair. In Vietnam you sit in a coffee shop for a long time, that’s why you need a good chair. Now many coffee shops have chairs that can hurt your back, like plastic chairs. Côi has good chairs, you can sit in them for half a day–no problem.
Q: How do you feel about people all over the world drinking Vietnamese coffee?
A: I’ve got some friends who say that Vietnamese coffee is nice, nice but quite strong. Many people say this, but some people, after staying in Vietnam quite long, really enjoy this coffee–they order it every time.