As yet another bubble tea joint celebrated its grand opening in the area around the Nguyen Hue walking street on an early May evening in Saigon, excited teenagers could be seen queuing around the block.
With the industry in Vietnam estimated to be worth US$300 million a year, the bubble for this trend shows no sign of bursting.
The science behind bubble tea (or boba tea, as it is also known) is simple. Take some tea, add in some milk, some sugar, before finally the tapioca bubbles are added. There’s a diverse range of flavours to choose from — oolong, jasmine and many more, and the bubbles are sucked through an especially large straw. It’s a sensation akin to hoovering up drowning gummy bears into your mouth.
How loaded with sugar you want the drink is down to personal preference. At most cafes, there will be a sugar chart for the customer to choose from. It generally goes from no sugar to a conservative 20% to 40% to 70% and all the way up to an eye-watering and mathematically challenging 120% sugar. It’s a drink that’s certainly not for the faint of heart, or tooth.
It’s not a phenomenon exclusive to Vietnam. Go to any metropolitan area across Asia and you won’t have to look far to get your bubble tea fix. The drink originated in Taiwan and has gone on to become one of the nation’s best-loved, and most recognisable exports. Vietnamese consumers are partial to anything sweet, so it’s no surprise that Vietnam has been at the vanguard of the bubble tea explosion in recent years.
The drink first arrived in Vietnam around 2002 but it was around 2008 when demand for the drink really started to accelerate. Originally sold by street sellers, the market today is a complex ecosystem of both foreign-owned and Vietnamese brands. The popular Koi brand has 10 locations in Ho Chi Minh City alone.
Spending time in a few of the many bubble tea joints in District 1, it’s plain to see these hangouts are places to see and be seen. They’re a hive of youthful activity, and there can’t be many people here older than 23 or 24. Any young generation likes to have things to call their own, and it’s clear that the youth of today identify with bubble tea as a drink that speaks to them personally. It’s colourful, versatile and the tapioca bubbles give off a slight air of decadence.
Bubble tea drinker, Nhi, believes the success of the drink marks a clear break with the past: “It’s sweet and appeals to the young generation. It’s modern and not something old like coffee,” she says.
This is a sentiment shared by Phuong, who has recently opened a franchise of the ToCoToCo brand in Binh Thanh. She says: “Compared to coffee, bubble tea offers customers different options. You can customise your drink and add lots of different toppings. I believe around 90 percent of young people in Vietnam now drink it and the ability to customise is very appealing to them.”
The generational divide is clear, and most of the young people I speak to baulk at the suggestion that their parents might indulge in a spot of bubble tea. One girl even gives a belly laugh at the thought.
But does all that sugar give them or their parents cause for concern?
It’s estimated that in an ounce of the tapioca balls alone there are 100 calories, that’s before you factor in the milk and sugar and whatever else you might choose to add to your drink.
For Ngan, bubble tea helps her when she is struggling. “When I feel stressed I drink it, it helps me feel comfortable and it also helps me focus,” she says.
But her friend Ngoc is more cautious: “I’m worried about the health issues of drinking all that sugar, it could cause diabetes and we don’t know where all the ingredients come from,” she says.
But to be young is to be carefree, and self-proclaimed bubble tea super fan Nhi puts it best when she says: “It’s just our habit to have lots of sugar, so we’ll just go to the gym to exercise and keep it off. We know it’s not that healthy but it makes us feel good. We’re young — you only live once.”
In Hanoi, bubble tea has also found itself a market. The city has hordes of dedicated bubble tea fans, and they have a lot to say about the drink they love so much.
“It’s a sort of leisure activity. We come here to talk and hang out while enjoying bubble tea. It’s been popular for quite some time,” says Tran, 24.
ToCoToCo (262 Cau Giay) is one of her favourites in Hanoi, but she says that if it’s busy and she has to queue, she will just go somewhere else.
“There are so many bubble tea shops in Hanoi, three just on this street, why would I wait at one when I can walk not far for a different brand?” she says.
Ding Tea, the largest chain of Taiwanese bubble tea cafes, with over 60 locations in Hanoi, is a favourite with the teenagers.
They offer many kinds of toppings in their teas such as jelly, pudding, aloe vera, and of course, the bubbles, which go by the name “pearls” at many of the bubble tea joints.
Ding Tea have two types of pearls, the black, or boba, which get their colour and sweetness from brown sugar, and the white, which are regular tapioca.
“The pearls, both black and white, are the most popular toppings for these drinks,” says the manager at Dinh Tea (9 Thanh Nien, Ban Dinh).
The Kids Love It
The busiest two times for these bubble tea places are the immediate after-school hours, and the after-dinner hours, from 8pm to 11pm. These are the most likely times for their main customers, teenagers, to have free time to hang out with their friends.
“I come to enjoy bubble tea a few times a week with my friends,” some shy teens told us while waiting for their bubble tea in their school uniforms. Others zoomed off unhelmeted on their e-bikes before we could have a chat to them.
The most popular flavour of bubble tea is good old tra sua, simply meaning ‘milk tea’, which seemed to be the speciality of almost every café.
A Little Cheesy
Four Tea Seven (47 Ly Thai To, Hoan Kiem), opened in Hanoi one year ago, is an exception to this standard. Their most-ordered drinks are the apple milk cream, and the mango milk cream. These drinks can either be made with yogurt or, wait for it, cheese. We were astonished when we heard this from owner, Hai, thinking it was something lost in translation. However, after visiting some other bubble tea cafes, we found that it was on a few of the menus. A drink we were not keen to try.
Vua Tao Pho (192 Hang Bong, Hoan Kiem) is yet another Hanoi favourite. Specialising in tao pho — a sweetened soup with tofu served with ice — they also serve a selection of bubble tea drinks. Their main bubble drinks on the menu are the green tea and black tea drinks which come with jelly cubes mixed in with the bubbles.
“The popping of the straw through the sealed lid is something that’s very satisfying to me,” says Phuong, 19.
Readily available, reasonably priced, and understandably social, it’s no wonder bubble tea has taken Vietnam by storm.
Photos by Mike Palumbo and Julie Vola