It was still dark and the streets of Ho Chi Minh were nearly empty at 4:00am when my daughter and I made our way from her apartment above a coffee shop in the center of the city and called for a Grab motorbike, the bright green alternative to Uber in Vietnam. I hopped on the back of one motor bike and secured the helmet, while my daughter Tasia hopped on a second Grab bike and we sped through the nearly empty streets to the Tan Son Nhat International Airport (TIA). Without reading or speaking the language we made our way by following brightly lit signs and crowds of locals to the domestic section of the airport and lined up with weekend vacationers boarding an early morning flight, flying us out of the city and into the mountains of Da Lat, Vietnam. This was my first trip to southeast Asia and I had no idea this was a country filled with beautiful mountains, terraces, and hills of coffee beans.
When I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh on a sweltering summer morning I was swept away by the aromatic streets, whizzing motorbikes, honking horns, food carts, restaurants and hundreds and hundreds of coffee shops, with a cup available and beckoning every few steps along the city streets. Was I in coffee heaven?
I never planned to travel to Vietnam. It was never on my bucket list, but when my daughter moved to Ho Chi Min City for a summer internship, I impulsively bought a plane ticket to explore this country I knew little about. My only reference to Vietnam was associated with the Vietnam War from the U. S. perspective. My only other reference was the Ken Burns “Vietnam” series on Netflix from 2017. So when I discovered this country drenched in my favorite beverage I was smitten.
We stepped off the 55 minute flight from Ho Chi Mihn to Da Lat and found ourselves being sprinkled by tropical raindrops in the city nicknamed, “the enternal spring.” We were shocked by the temperature change and had to run into a local vendor to buy sweatshirts and rain ponchos to acclimate to the 68 degrees, where just one hour before we were in a sultry 90 plus degree heat. Before checking into our Airbnb, we decided to get a lay of the land by renting scooters and downloading a map of the green hills we witnessed in the distance. With bright purple and pink checked ponchos, we hopped on our rented scooters, braved the rain and sped through the city streets, toward the mountains and found our way to the top of the hillside and the K’Ho coffee plantation. Like Kevin Costner drawn to baseball, coffee called to us, “If they brew it, we will go!”
We parked our scooters and entered the humble gift shop of K’Ho coffee where we were greeted by coffee farmer who lead us down a dirt path among the coffee trees, offered us small plastic chairs and shared with us the art of the brew. We learned that instant coffee drinkers from around the world are most likely drinking Vietnamese Robusta grown in the hilly, lush green mountainsides of Da Lat, the capital of Lam Dong Province in the central highlands of Southern Vietnam.
The cool mountain city becomes a bustling vacation hotspot during the sultry summer months where couples can be seen exchanging wedding vows on the lake and families cool themselves in the expansive pine forests, lakes and waterfalls. Tourists and locals saunter the sidewalks in the misty rain in search of Banh Can (mini pancakes) and a cup of Vietnamese coffee, served over ice with sweetened condensed milk.
Coffee is synonymous with Vietnam evident by countless coffee shops, street carts and cafés calling customers to the liquid love. The ice, sweet milk and dark brown brew create a cascade of melting color inside a plastic cup. Each cup is a unique canvas, unable to be duplicated.
The beginnings of this delectable treat can be traced back to the French colonists who in the 1920s introduced the first Arabica coffee trees to Vietnam. The trees were planted and tended by the oldest ethnic group in the country, the K’Ho tribe. The tribe lives mainly in the mountains and their isolated location in the highlands allow many traditions and customs to remain virtually unchanged today including the growing and producing of coffee. The rich soil of the rolling hills of the highland region and the temperate climate is perfect for planting both Arabica and Robusta coffee trees.
The crop cycle is strictly planned and coffee production has helped the tribe move out of poverty. The K’Ho are among the poorest of Vietnamese indigenous minority peoples. Approximately 170,000 K’Ho live in the fertile highlands making their living through animal production, cultivation of crops, like coffee, and handicrafts like forging and weaving.
The K’ho retain many traditional customs including religion. The God blesses the people while disasters are caused by the evils. The K’Ho worship the Sun, Moon, Mountain, River, Earth and Rice Genies, They still practice these rituals in honor of major occasions including weddings, funerals crop prayers and disease killing ceremonies. Animal sacrifice is still performed, a ritual offering to the spirits. They live and work by an agricultural calendar based on the phases of the moon. According to this calendar, the working year ends the first month, after harvest. During the following months festivals are held, houses repaired and family affairs settled.
The K’Ho is a matriarchal society and its members still practice the custom of “catching husband.” Girls must meet marriage challenges of the bridegroom family. Strong men can require large and expensive wedding presents from the brides, therefore weddings can become a burden for the bride family. After the wedding the son-in-law lives with the bride’s family and in her village. Children carry their mother’s family name and daughters are the inheritors.
Villages are run by a an elected “headman” to oversee all the village affairs and local government relations. This elected official also oversees the allocation of land and crops. This organizational structure was established by early French colonialists as an easy way to raise taxes from the K’Ho, pushing them into poverty. The K’Ho and other indigenous tribes are outnumbered by the Vietnamese people by 3:1. Their minority status and threats to their land puts the K’Ho at high risk for losing their traditional lifestyles and customs. Much of their farming land is now endangered due to hydroelectric power plants and logging. The K’Ho often supplement their lost income by selling traditional handicrafts, baskets and weaving.
Rice is main source of food for the K’Ho, accompanied by vegetables and fruit such as corn, cabbage, gourd and watermelon and of course coffee, which is served not just with every meal but at anytime during the day.
The K’Ho tribe has extended their coffee business to more than just growing. They entice tourists by offering tours of their plantations and coffee tastings that require the visitor to pull up a plastic chair and watch the art of the brew while sitting among the coffee bean trees, the beans often green and ripe for the picking. There are no to-go cups here. The K’Ho brewer takes his time to explain his craft and the importance of patience and makes a cup of coffee just like his grandfather did, taking glass, fire, steam and liquid and creating a piece of art good enough to drink slowly. The history of the K’Ho is steeped rich in tradition, just like their coffee.
We slowly sipped our cups of coffee while the rain pattered onto the leaves of the coffee trees that surrounded the outdoor cafe, and gave thanks to the farmers who tilled the land, harvested the beans and had perfected the art of the brew.
Originally Published in Faces Magazine.