Latte Safari

Persuaded to do a taste test in one, caffeine-induced sitting, Julian Ajello tried 10 lattes in the space of a few hours to work out which café serves Saigon’s best latte. Photos by Charles Barnes


Late morning on a perfect Saturday, I set off to find the perfect café latte. Ciao Bella in District 1 was my first stop and had a small table by the glass doors available. Surrounded by French-speaking tourists toting their Lonely Planet guides I ordered up a latte to accompany my lunch consisting of Caesar salad and linguini with white clam sauce.


The star of a latte, beans, roast, and grind notwithstanding, is the milk. Ciao Bella prepares their milk so that you can practically stand on it. When stirred into the coffee it grants it a texture and richness you can savour. I promised myself I would savour it on another visit as I had nine more locations to call on to taste their milk-covered concoctions.


Just across Lam Son Square I sauntered into The Refinery. I plopped down into a soft chair and ordered my latte. The faintest detection of caffeine coursing through my veins began as I noticed that Spaniards surrounded me. The rapid-fire Spanish reminded me of Los Angeles. I sipped at first, then decided to sip a little faster, noticing I was behind schedule. Now restless, I settled the bill and moved next door to Jaspa’s.


The Twitch

I could feel a few stares from the Spaniards as I left. I bet they thought I was moving away from them and their very loud conversation. They couldn’t know I was acting with purpose. I resisted the urge to set them straight. My coffee arrived in a double-walled glass, which made it look less like coffee, but didn’t affect the caffeine content. As I finished I could feel my hands twitch ever so slightly. I left with what I’m sure were the eyes of the Spaniards on me. I didn’t have time to explain that I was on a quest.


Next was L’Usine and their air conditioning. Picking out a table in the middle of the room I flipped through a magazine while impatiently tapping my foot. Thirty seconds seemed a long time for someone to take my order. “Latte,” I said firmly, and went back to not reading the magazine. I looked around and deduced that L’Usine is a scene for the want-to-be-seen crowd. The boutique is eclectic and fun to peruse, but I couldn’t figure out what sort of people chose this cacophony of shoppers, socialites and iPad Samurai as a backdrop for doing schoolwork. On top of all this the music was too loud to ignore and too soft to hear the words. Who does that? Are you playing music or aren’t you? I could feel my pulse pick up a bit and I started to sweat as it became way too crowded all of a sudden.


I made a beeline for Strata in the Bitexco Financial Tower, which I thought would provide the proper backdrop for feeling constricted. In theory, I still think my reasoning was sound, but a ride to the 50th floor in an elevator proved a miscalculation. It was either the slowest elevator on planet Earth, or the caffeine. I couldn’t be sure. Being fifty floors up and experiencing caffeine-induced anxiety produces a mild form of vertigo. Though the staff were friendly and accommodating, I could feel the sweat starting to win the battle with my clothes. Not wanting to stink up the joint, I made my getaway in stealth. I steeled myself for another 50-floor descent in a box and peeled out of the basement parking lot as fast as possible.



I ducked into a bar for a couple of beers hoping it might take the edge off and slow my heart down a little. Two drafts and I felt collected enough to continue on with my caffeine madness. Ciao Café was next. I thought it might offer a quiet respite. If not for the really loud Vietnamese techno music I think I might have found one. I sat in a corner of the café and rocked back and forth while plowing through my huge-mistake-of-an-idea latte. I could tell the waiter was unnerved by my mannerisms, but I couldn’t summon enough English, let alone Vietnamese, to explain I was getting paid for this.

I don’t know if there’s a legal limit for driving under the influence of caffeine, but if there is I was eclipsing it by this point. It was absurd that I found myself pulling into Passio for another cup of joe made from Vietnam’s robusta beans. Sweating, hands trembling, I gulped it down and felt my retinas begin to wiggle. It was a new sensation I felt I could do without. I dropped some money on the table and rode one block to the next coffee shop.


Gloria Jean’s has a reputation for good coffee, but I’m not sure they need to serve it in such huge vats. I felt like I was staring at a convex version of Mt Everest. How in the world was I getting to the bottom of that mug? As quickly as possible as it turns out, and I don’t think it was the best strategy. It was the only one I could come up with, however. As I left I could feel the slightest palpitation in my chest. I thought it was one of those little category one heart attacks that people have but don’t notice because they’re so minor. Or it might have been the caffeine, I couldn’t be sure.


I floated into Highlands Coffee on Lam Son Square and made sure that the waiter knew I needed water in addition to a latte. And I asked that he check back with me every 3 minutes just in case I started to experience cardiac arrest. It crossed my mind to call my health insurance company and ask my rep there, we’ll call him Shane, if caffeine overdoses are covered. Not wanting to know the answer I just soldiered on in ignorance. It took a while to pay the bill because my eyeballs refused to focus well enough to read the amount. I felt bad that I made my waiter read the total to me five times, but the sound of my heart pounding in my ears was getting in the way of productive communication.


Mercifully, I reached The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, the last stop on my odyssey. I ordered up and went straight for the restroom that had a line four deep, naturally. I locked eyes with a young woman, we’ll call her Toniya, who shot me a smile. Despite sweating profusely, being unable to focus my vision fully, experiencing trembling hands, and hurtling towards a heart attack, I asked to join her. She happened to ask what I was doing. I explained the latte safari and the resulting effects of the caffeine and how I was going to be up for 72 hours. Toniya just cocked her head at me and asked, “Why not just order decaf?” Indeed.


The Lowdown

Ciao Bella

11, Dong Du, Q1

Café Vergano, VND55,000

Thick and frothy! You can sink your teeth into the milk if you like. It’s a wonderful latte.


The Refinery

74/7 Hai Ba Trung, Q1

Punto Italia, VND46,000

Less bite, but very light and creamy. Great for those who prefer a love tap to a slap in the face. 


Jaspa’s Wine & Grill

74/7 Hai Ba Trung, Q1

Luciano, VND45,000

Smooth, it’s served with a chocolate cookie and a modest bite. 



151/ 1 Dong Khoi, Q1

Illy, VND63,000

It was stiff and edgy with milk that middled between heavy and light. It had fine texture and a kick that isn’t for amateurs.



50th Floor, Bitexco Tower, 2 Hai Trieu, Q1

Lavazza, VND104,000

Smooth, light, and creamy, it had a mellow taste with pleasant finish. You won’t go wrong here, but you’re paying for the view. 


Ciao Café

74D Nguyen Hue, Q1

Lavazza, VND65,000

Beautiful presentation and a solid, but soft, punch to the mouth. Served with dark chocolate this was the best I tasted. 



53C Nguyen Du, Q1

Domestic Robusto, VND30,000

Classic Vietnamese style, it punches you right in the neck. If you want high octane and don’t mind the bitter flavour, this is your place. 


Gloria Jean’s

2 Bis Cong Truong Quoc Te, Q3

GJC Arabica, VND70,000

Smooth and creamy finish, but not very exciting. 


Highlands Coffee

7 Cong Truong Lam Son, Q1

Highlands, VND49,000

Solid taste, texture, and a gentle finish. Served with biscotti!


Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

12-14 Thai Van Lung, Q1

Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, VND75,000

Bland, bland, bland, and, oh yeah, bland. It was the last latte, though

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated.Basic HTML code is allowed.

Online Partners