The History of Vietnamese Coffee: A Tale of Tradition, Innovation, & Resilience

From its humble beginning to the behemoth it is today, Vietnam’s coffee industry had to endure many obstacles and setbacks.

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Vietnamese coffee was introduced in the 1850s by French missionaries. Over the past 150 years it’s transformed into the world's second-largest coffee producer.

From its humble beginning to the behemoth it is today, Vietnam’s coffee industry had to endure many obstacles and setbacks.

In 1987, 30 countries produced more coffee than Vietnam. Now, it's the world's second-largest coffee producer. How did the country manage such a feat?

From a single plant to a worldwide exporting industry, let’s take a closer look at the history of Vietnamese coffee.

History of Coffee in Vietnam

Coffee had a tumultuous start in Vietnam [1]. In 1857, a French Catholic priest brought the first arabica coffee plant to Vietnam, intending to start a small business. 

By the 1890s, French colonists had developed coffee plantations by confiscating land in the highlands, primarily the Dak Lak province, and clearing forests.

Coffee Leaf Rust & The Rise of Robusta

A pivotal turn of events came right after World War II whenHemileia vastatrix (coffee leaf rust) struck arabica plants growing in the region. Vietnam’s coffee production went from 64.5% in 1945 to 1.7% by 1957.

Coffea robusta — a rare species in Vietnam at the time, was able to resist the scourges of the infectious leaf rust. Some farmers turned to producing this bean, but the French discouraged farmers from growing coffee at all. Many moved to the lowlands and farmed rice instead.

The End of French Colonial Rule

In 1954, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu brought an end to French colonial rule, and the new government encouraged coffee cultivation through subsidies, research, and tax exemptions.

This drive only increased in the 1970s, when the Vietnamese government started promoting migration to the highlands by offering cleared land and income from coffee production. The lowlands had become overpopulated, and the highlands had less military control; relocating groups of people to the area would help with the overcrowding and reduce the chances of uprisings from ethnic minorities.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War changed everything, including coffee production, which came to a complete halt. It wasn’t until after the war that the government decided to plant crops in an effort to boost the economy, and coffee was one of them. In a twist of fate, this desperate step threw Vietnam into the ring, and it eventually became a legitimate contender as a large-scale coffee exporter. 

With the economy in shambles, the price of coffee dropped to a point where it became affordable to ordinary Vietnamese people, and drinking coffee became a part of Vietnamese culture. 

The Booming 80s

In 1987, economic reforms opened the country for trade and took Vietnamese coffee from a local delicacy to a worldwide phenomenon. The country didn’t take long to surpass Colombia as the second-largest coffee producer.

Current State of Vietnamese Coffee Industry

As of 2020, Vietnam accounted for 20% of the world’s coffee production, surpassed only by Brazil, which produces 40%. 
Despite the massive growth, Vietnam faces plenty of problems in the coffee industry, namely low prices, limited government initiatives, and an underutilized market [2].

Vietnam has been making efforts to eradicate those issues. A few years ago, it introduced the INNSA (Innovative and Smart Agriculture Platform) project — its goal is to take Vietnam’s coffee industry to the next level and for it to be known for its value and sustainability. 

The main five functions of INNSA include:

  1. Manage and digitalize the coffee value and supply chain in Vietnam
  2. Integrate a traceability technology system
  3. Apply artificial intelligence for farming
  4. Introduce the INNSA platform with a portal
  5. Online exchange of coffee products

The Invention of Vietnamese Iced Coffee (Cà Phê Sữa Đá)

French colonists living in Vietnam in the early 1900s wanted milk for their coffee, but importing it from Europe at this time was next to impossible. 

The next best thing was condensed milk, which needed no refrigeration and had a much longer shelf life. 

The intense sweet flavor of condensed milk was just the _ to balance the intensely bold, strong flavors of Coffea robusta, which proved the best use of the vast expanses of farmland in the lowlands.

The hot, humid weather of Vietnam made hot coffee less desirable, so the Vietnamese started cooling down their coffee prior to drinking using ice.

Over many years, this tradition spread and has become the standard way to consume coffee in Vietnam. 

Robusta vs. Arabica Beans: What Sets Vietnamese Coffee Apart?

Today, you’ll find both arabica and robusta coffee beans growing in Vietnam, but the latter are more common because they are cheaper and easier to grow in the Vietnamese biome. These beans have a strong and bitter flavor profile and a pleasantly earthy aroma.

Robusta plants are easy to please and do well at lower altitudes. They were also able to resist infection from the coffee rust virus that decimated arabica crops throughout Southeast Asia.

In contrast, arabica coffee has a lower yield and is generally more expensive to cultivate. It's much pickier about its living conditions. Despite that, most people are used to drinking arabica since it's assumed to be of better quality and, therefore, what most coffee shops use.

How Traditional Vietnamese Coffee Is Made

Coffee culture in Vietnam is much more than just going on a coffee run. They’ve created a worldwide delicacy, and it’s rooted in traditions. But what is traditional Vietnamese coffee (the drink), and how is it made?

First, it isn’t a traditional Vietnamese coffee unless the coffee is, of course, Vietnamese, like Cafely’s HaNoi Coffee.

The next crucial ingredient is sweetened condensed milk. Add a few tablespoons, more or less according to what you like, into the bottom of a cup (make sure it can handle heat). Add ice if you want it cold.

Then, you have to brew it right. True Vietnamese coffee is made with a phin filter. The process is slow since it uses gravity instead of pressure, like most coffee machines, to push the water through. The phin sits right on the coffee cup, so you can only make one serving at a time unless you have multiple filters.

But good things are worth waiting for.

Use the phin filter according to the directions and once the coffee is brewed, give your drink a good stir and enjoy.

If you don’t have a phin, try Instant Vietnamese Black Coffee or use a French press.

→ Read the full guide to brewing authentic Vietnamese coffee.

FAQs: The History of Vietnamese Coffee

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about Vietnamese coffee and its history:

1. How was coffee introduced to Vietnam?

Coffee was introduced to Vietnam in the 1850s by French missionaries. The initial arabica plant brought by a French Catholic priest in 1857 marked the beginning of coffee cultivation, which the French colonists expanded by developing plantations, especially in the Dak Lak province.

2. How did Vietnam become a major coffee producer despite initial setbacks?

Despite challenges such as coffee leaf rust decimating arabica crops and discouragement from the French, Vietnam's shift to robusta production, government encouragement post-French colonial rule, and strategic moves during and after the Vietnam War significantly contributed to its rise as the world's second-largest coffee producer by 2020.

3. What makes Vietnamese coffee unique?

Vietnamese coffee is unique for its strong, robust flavors from the predominant use of robusta beans and the signature drink Cà Phê Sữa Đá, which combines this coffee with sweetened condensed milk and ice — a method adapted due to the lack of fresh milk and the hot climate.

4. How does the robusta bean contribute to the flavor profile of Vietnamese coffee?

Robusta beans, which are more common in Vietnam due to their resilience and suitability to the local biome, provide a strong, bitter flavor and an earthy aroma, distinguishing the bold taste of Vietnamese coffee from the milder arabica-based coffees. 

5. What efforts are being made to advance Vietnam's coffee industry today?

To address challenges like low prices and sustainability, Vietnam introduced the INNSA (Innovative and Smart Agriculture Platform) project. This initiative aims to digitalize the coffee value chain, integrate traceability technology, apply artificial intelligence in farming, and promote online exchanges of coffee products, pushing the industry towards modernization and global competitiveness.

6. How much caffeine is in Vietnamese coffee?

Vietnamese coffee has quite a bit of caffeine, partly due to the brewing method and partly because of the robusta beans. Two ounces of coffee can have around 100 mg, so keep that in mind if you tend to drink more than one cup a day.

7. Are there other ways to brew Vietnamese coffee than the phin filter?

Just like with any other bean, you can brew it however you want to. The traditional method is with the phin filter, but there’s no reason why you can’t use a French press, AeroPress, moka pot, or make cold brew with the beans.

Experiment, find what you like, and own it. 

8. Does Vietnamese coffee have a lot of calories?

This question is relative. If you compare it to a coffee shop latte, no. The calories in Vietnamese coffee are fairly low. Compared to black coffee, yes. Consider that two tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk have about 130 calories, and a Vietnamese coffee has 1-3 tablespoons of it.

If you’re watching calories, pay attention to how much of the milk you use, and try cutting back if you’re concerned. Otherwise, consider it the treat you deserve.


  1. Doutriaux, S., Geisler, C., & Shively, G. (2008). Competing for coffee space: development‐induced displacement in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Rural Sociology, 73(4), 528-554.
  2. Nguyen, Q. T. (2023). Vietnam’s coffee supply chain challenges: a case study of Dak Lak Province.