Cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with milk) - if there's a better way to wake up in Southeast Asia, we don't know it.
We love Malaysian coffee. Thai coffee, sock-filtered the old-fashioned way (if you can find it), can be lip-smacking as well. Sumatran and Balinese brews give a certain endearing jagged-edged kick (just avoid the loose grounds at the bottom of the glass). A mug of Philippine barako is worth a bit of contemplation. But there is just nothing like a glass of iced coffee Vietnamese-style. So thick, so smooth, so caffeine-laden, yet so refreshing.
We gave up long ago trying to figure out what the secret is. We tried brewing our own at home when we lived in Saigon, using the fiddly local drip-drippy stainless steel filters, then employing paper filters, and then the muslin sock technique. We used highest-grade Trung Nguyen coffee as well as beans proffered by various sellers about town, grinding it coarse and grinding it fine. We bought packets of pre-ground beans adulterated with additives. We stirred in sweetened condensed milk, then tried condensed milk and sugar. In the end our home brew never tasted even an eighth as good as the stuff whipped up by the gals at the coffee shack down the street.
Rumours abound concerning what goes into the stuff. We don't want to know. We don't care. We just want to enjoy our cafe sua da in ignorant bliss.
This proprietor of a neat little coffee room (calling it a 'shop' would be stretching it) on a narrow street in the vicinity of Tan Dinh market whips up her version the standard way, adding a shot or two of pre-brewed pitch black joe to a glass already annointed with sweetened condensed milk, piling in the crushed ice, then adding more coffee before finally giving it a stir. As always, coffee is accompanied by weak tea to 'refresh' the palate and wash away the sweetness of the milk.
We found something a bit different at Ba Hoa market, where this caffeine mistress presides over a short length of a tiled coffee 'bar' (the term is used loosely) with impossibly narrow, low-to-the-ground wooden bench seating.
She starts by stirring the standard sweetened condensed milk-coffee base, but doesn't blend the two compenents completely, leaving a thin layer of untouched milk at the bottom of the glass. Then comes ice and more coffee.
We don't know if her no-final-stir method is aesthetically motivated or if it affects the taste. We do know that this glass of cafe sua da, with it's lovely Jello 1-2-3 effect, is the best we drank in three caffeine-addled days.
We stayed for another glass, and another. And then returned the next morning for three more.
Cafe sua da, anywhere in Vietnam, 24 hours a day.