During the years of revolutionary solidarity, Ho Chi Minh used to fondly refer to the relationship between China and Vietnam as being “close as lips and teeth.” Here at Velo Vietnam we feel the same way about cycling and coffee.
While Vietnam exports a great deal of anonymous robusta, we are not used to seeing coffees of Vietnamese origin on the shelves of specialty roasters. This doesn’t mean there is no arabica cultivation in Vietnam, it’s just that the market remains small, and almost all of the specialty coffees grown in Vietnam are consumed right here, in the local market.
Arabica in Vietnam actually has a long and fascinating history, and exciting developments in the the nation’s specialty coffee market are under way. Da Lat, one of our favourite places to ride, is also the best place in which to experience the heritage and current state of Vietnam’s top end coffee scene.
In the 19th century, pioneer colonial planters established coffee plantations in the Da Lat region and the Darlac Plateau to the north. Upland peoples such as the K’ho and E’de worked on the French plantations, and became skilled in coffee cultivation well before their Vietnamese cousins in the lowlands. Da Lat identity Rolan Co Lieng, the formidable woman behind K’Ho Coffee, traces her roots in the arabica trade back at least four generations. Doing a cupping with Rolan in her village-based roastery and workshop is an experience not to be missed.
When he returned to Vietnam in the 1990s Pierre Morere, whose grandfather was the first to plant coffee in the Da Lat region, was able to find the original trees his forebear had brought to Vietnam still in cultivation by the Chil people. Today he produces high quality arabica from these heirloom bourbon trees. We were lucky enough to sample it recently when we met Pierre and heard his amazing story first hand while on a road cycling tour / training camp out of Nha Trang with the Project 852 club from Hong Kong.
Da Lat town features several excellent places to sample the ever-improving arabica and hybrid catimor beans cultivated just a few kilometres away in the pine-forested environs of Langbiang. Now that’s a short commodity chain. Perhaps our favourite place to drink coffee in Da Lat is Manki/The 1992, a loving shrine to high quality teas and coffees run by our good friend Hieu. Hieu grew up on a robusta farm outside Buon Ma Thuot, his father a poor, post-war migrant to this rough and ready upland frontier. From these humble origins Hieu has turned himself into the most obsessively perfectionist barista we’ve ever encountered – a sign of just how quickly the gourmet coffee scene is changing in this nation full of talented entrepreneurs and coffee afficionados.
Another great spot to visit is La Viet, a hip coffee warehouse on the grungy outskirts of the city where you can see the whole coffee production process: from husking, washing and drying the green beans, through to roasting, sorting and pulling the shots, all under the one roof. Duy’s The Married Beans, a more intimate location in Da Lat’s old market area, also deserves a visit. We also particularly like Bicycle Up.
When you ride with Velo Vietnam there are endless opportunities to drink roadside coffee the way the vast majority of locals enjoys it. There’s nothing like a caramel-infused, super-dark robusta filter coffee fortified with condensed milk to get you up the next epic climb and on your way to a Strava PR. But we’re always sure to bring along our trusty stainless steel hand grinder made by the amazing folks at Rhino, and our aeropress, so that we can enjoy quality local arabica in the wild whenever we feel the urge.
Pictured above is the Moka Arabica roast from Mia Coffee, which we always pick up on our cycling tours in Hoi An. If you’d like to ride with us and experience the beauty of Vietnam and its coffee, in Da Lat or elsewhere, get in touch to discuss a bike tour.