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Vietnam:

Where Has That Coffee Bean?

Where Has That Coffee Bean?

A few months back, I made a vacation trip to see and experience Vietnam.  Since the country opened up again for tourism, many people had made the trek to see this once war ravaged country.  I took my family and spent four lovely, relaxing days in Hanoi.

There is no city in Asia that is anything like Hanoi.  Its wide boulevards are tree lined and mercifully absent of the bumper-to-bumper traffic that plagues Bangkok, Manila and Jakarta.  The French influence is evident everywhere from the colonial architecture to the fresh, warm baguettes available in any of the many small boulangeries that populate the city.

From Hanoi, we pushed on to Saigon, nee Ho Chi Minh City, nee HCMC to the local expat crowd.  You couldn’t find two more different cities in the same country.  For every bit of charm and sophistication that Hanoi offers, HCMC offers equal measures of the hustle-bustle found in any typical Asian commercial metropolis.  Both cities are picturesque, full of wonderful restaurants, and old world hotels that radiate charm and romance.  The Vietnamese are quite friendly and welcoming to tourists.  And I still haven’t made it to the Highlands where the verdant countryside rises to 1,500 plus meters, and where you must wear sweaters at night – an irrefutable selling point to anyone living year round in the tropics.

One of the manifestations of the French colonial heritage in Vietnam is a well developed coffee culture.  In most other Asian countries, with the exception of Indonesia, tea tops the hit parade of hot beverages.  In Vietnam, however, coffee is the drink of choice and you can find it in any one of the hundreds of street side cafes.  In fact, Vietnam has become the second largest exporter of coffee in the world behind Brasil.

One afternoon, after an especially taxing day visiting the various tourist sites (including the obligatory visit to the Museum of American War Atrocities, a title that didn’t exactly warm the cockles of my heart) I decided to duck in have my afternoon java fix.

The waiter seated me at my table and handed me a menu that listed more than 30 different varieties of coffee.  I’m a purist, just a ‘black, no cream, no sugar’ kind of guy, but I thought I’d take a look and see what was on offer.  My eyes fell on a rather interesting entry “weasel coffee.”  I figured that must be the brand name, and since it was significantly more expensive, I decided to treat myself.

Coffee bean

The coffee came and I tried a sip.  It tasted unusual, somewhat buttery, a hint of salt with earthy undertones.  It was black as pitch, cloudy and strong enough to wake the dead.  Not really my ‘cup of tea’ I decided, so I had another sip and left about half the cup for next time.

Lucky I did because when I got back to my hotel and opened my Fedor’s guidebook, I happened to notice a featured article about chon weasel coffee.  Reading the explanation left me – shall we say – shocked and appalled.  It seems that Vietnamese weasels, some refer to  them as civet cats, have an ability to smell out, select and eat the best, ripest robusta coffee beans while they are still on the tree.  The weasels ‘process’ the beans in a way Nestle never dreamed of.  After processing, the weasel deposits the semi-digested beans in very special ‘packaging.’  The beans are separated from the ‘packaging,’ dried in the sun and then go through the regular roasting and grinding process.

Slowly recovering my senses, I couldn’t believe what I had done.  The second thought I had, almost immediately was maybe I could lure some of my friends into unknowingly drinking weasel poop coffee, like I had done.  I mean, why I should let anybody I know escape the pleasure and excitement of drinking the product of the excrement of some wild animal?  Why shouldn’t I include them in this wonderful experience of a lifetime, much like I had?  Why, indeed. 

Now if only I could get my hands on some Chon beans.  A little detective work, a little shoe leather and then next thing you know I was buying a 300 gram package of Chon coffee, freshly ground and vacuum sealed.  I added it to my collection of Vietnamese souvenirs and it now sits in my pantry, lurking, waiting to unveil its ugly identity on its next unsuspecting victim.  Oh, I can hardly wait.

Author: Rob Chipman Asian Tigers Hong Kong

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