The Starbucking of Vietnam?


Two springs ago, at Việt Nam’s not-quite-annual international coffee festival in Buôn Ma Thuột, I was offered a small cup of premium “weasel coffee”.

This particular brew, you may have heard, begins with the selection of coffee berries by these critters.

The weasels chew, swallow and digest the berries before passing the seeds – that is, the coffee beans.

The weasels are said to be rather picky, choosing only perfectly ripened berries for this organic process.

This happens in the wild – free-range coffee, you might say – but the Vietnamese entrepreneur I met was showing off some weasels in cages and introduced me to his “weasel hunter”.

With more weasels, he explained, he’d be able to have factory-style production of some of the priciest coffee on the planet.

I took a sip and was not bowled over.

Perhaps it’s an acquired taste.

At any rate, weasel coffee obviously requires a leap of faith.

Could a certification process be trusted?

Could a coffee connoisseur tell the provenance of a cup of Joe the way a sommelier might nail the year of a certain Bordeaux?

Which brings us to the big coffee news in Việt Nam:

Starbucks is coming!

Starbucks is coming!

It’s coming to Hồ Chí Minh City first – and then, who knows?

The world’s biggest coffeehouse chain, which two decades ago came out of Seattle to conquer America and is already in much of Asia, is finally planting a flag in Việt Nam, a nation that has long had a distinctive coffee culture on its own.

Coffee also happens to be one of Việt Nam’s economic success stories.

Once a minor player on the global coffee market, Việt Nam now rivals Brazil for the title of the world’s largest exporter, thanks to a combination of World Bank loans, government policy and the success of entrepreneurs like Trung Nguyên founder Đặng Lê Nguyên Vũ, whom I profiled last year for Forbes magazine.

You might think an American who had a daily Starbucks habit for a decade would welcome its arrival.

But my feelings are mixed.

(One feeling is guilt:

It dawns on me that I consumed literally thousands of cups of  Starbucks.

Thousands of paper cups.

That’s lot of trash.

OK, moving on. . . )

So, yes, I drink a lot of coffee and, yes, I like Starbucks.

I like coffeehouses.

Right now, between taps on my keyboard, I’m sipping from a cup (ceramic) of Americano at Joma, an expat haunt in Hà Nội that I also like for its friendly staff, good lighting, free water and breakfast burritos.

Joma’s coffee is OK – brewed from good Arabica beans grown in Laos, I’m told, not the harsher Robusta in Việt Nam’s stock in trade.

But I prefer Starbucks (sorry), which was absurdly convenient back home.

My old routine of dropping the kids off at school on my way to work would put me in the vicinity of seven different Starbucks outlets, two with drive-thru service.

Starbucks, of course, won’t proliferate in Việt Nam like that; it’s too expensive for most Vietnamese coffee drinkers.

More likely it would add a few outlets over a few years, not unlike America’s Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Hồ Chí Minh City and Hà Nội.

But I don’t discount scuttlebutt I’ve heard from some business people:

Starbucks might find a way to gulp down Highlands Coffee, the chain founded by a Việt Kiều from Seattle that now occupies some of Việt Nam’s prime commercial real estate.

Just like that, Việt Nam would get Starbucked.

The more I think about, the more I find myself rooting for Việt Nam’s smaller coffeehouses and the home-grown chains.

If I really crave a taste of home, I can drop into the Coffee Bean, and I wouldn’t boycott Starbucks as if this was some great moral issue.

In the meantime, I might try more of the local coffee.

Lately I’ve frequented one small Vietnamese shop that combines caffeine and convenience, adding water, ice and sometimes sugar to soften the harsh taste.

In the Old Quarter, I’ve heard, one shop that blends Vietnamese coffee with yoghurt, and another that mixes it with egg.

Sounds odd –but then, I’ve already tried weasel coffee.




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