A Coffee Culture without Starbucks

It’s Sunday morning and I’m hanging out, sipping my latte, and reading the International Herald Tribune at one of the Gloria Jean’s Coffee outlets in Saigon. The scene is familiar if you’re a coffee buff. There are some small tables and there are groupings of other more comfortable chairs in the corners of this fresh, modern space. There is floor to ceiling glass on two sides of the place so customers can watch the traffic outside, and there are three welcoming baristas behind the counter.

And… the lattes are world class with an artistic fern design etched into the perfect foam on top. It’s reminiscent of Monorail, Senso Unico or Vivace in Seattle.

Coffee and coffee culture are important in Vietnam, especially in Saigon. Vietnam grows a lot of its own coffee, and some shops specify that the coffee served there is Vietnamese grown. The local drink is interesting too; it’s made by the cup and filtered through a stainless filter. It’s concentrated like espresso and it’s mixed with condensed milk and then poured over ice. It’s delicious and sweet, but don’t drink it in the evening or you won’t get to sleep.

I’m new to Saigon, so I don’t know how long the current coffee culture has been ascendant. I think it’s relatively recent, because Gloria Jean’s, Highlands Coffee, The Coffee Bean, and Illy, the Italian brand, all have new modern spaces and wi-fi. Espresso is served in most of the bakeries and café’s as well as the coffee outlets and most have pretty good French baked goods as well. The local Vietnamese brand is Trung Nguyen Coffee. Their places look like they’ve been around a little longer than the competition and their outlets look a little more on the shabby chic side – but the coffee there is very good too.

What’s really great is that there isn’t a Starbucks in sight. In the interest of full disclosure I have to say that I don’t like Starbucks. It’s not the company really, it’s the founder, Howard Schultz. Starbucks is a Seattle company, but Howard never was or ever will be a Seattleite. Scratch the surface there and you’ll find a New Yorker tried and true. Give him his due, he made Seattle and coffee synonymous. He built a tiny tea and coffee emporium into a world brand and mega-company. But, he never really adopted the city where he found his opportunity. He clashed with and sued his neighbors over a remodel of his house, he bought the local NBA team and promised to build a winner, but when the going got tough he secretly sold the team to an out of town syndicate and pocketed the cash. I favor the local brand where loyalty is more than the bottom line.

My heart stopped briefly yesterday when I saw a Starbucks logo in a shop at the end of my street. No, no, I said, but on closer inspection it was the authentic logo but the shop was a frozen yoghurt place and they had two bags of Starbucks for retail sale. Still, it gets your attention.

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