At about 7am every morning, dozens of people of different nationalities queue up for a cup of genuine Vietnamese coffee at a French-owned mobile cart in HCMC.
On the pavement along Xuan Thuy Street in District 2, people can find the mobile ‘café’, called Coffee Spin, managed by Frenchman Demailly Vincent. Customers are from all walks of life, some of whom arrive on foot and others in luxury cars.
His mobile café is a cart he designed himself and is just big enough to carry all the necessary equipment for making coffee. He serves hundreds of cups of coffee and glasses of fruit juice every day, all of which he makes himself from clean ingredients.
A taste for coffee
Demailly is an artist and designer and once worked for Nike. He came to Vietnam about five years ago and became fond of Vietnamese coffee. He drank several cups a day but sometimes had the misfortune to be served a cup of powder and ground fried maize mixed with just a little coffee or sometimes none at all.
He knew that Vietnam has many good types of coffee and was among the world’s top coffee exporters, so he wondered why Vietnamese people sometimes had trouble finding genuine, clean coffee. From that came the idea of selling Vietnamese coffee himself at low prices (from just VND16,000 a cup). After about four months of research, he built the cart so he could serve cups of clean coffee to different customers around town.
His mobile café hit the streets about a year ago and was warmly welcomed by customers of different nationalities, especially foreigners. Some don’t just come for the coffee, staying on to talk with Demailly, who is not only fond of Vietnamese coffee but also keen on travelling around Vietnam by motorbike.
He has ridden his motorbike all over Vietnam, including the Mekong Delta, the central highlands, the coastal central region, and even up to Hanoi and the north. When he feels like travelling, he just jumps on the motorbikes and heads out.
When I visited his mobile café at noon, there were dozens of customers. Though he has three assistants, customers have to wait for about 10 minutes before being served. I ordered a glass of maypop fruit juice, but he asked with regret why I hadn’t chosen an enjoyable cup of coffee.
Hard road to success
It took Demailly a long and challenging time and countless efforts to make his brand, Coffee Spin, become known. It was not easy for a middle-aged foreigner like him to sell Vietnamese coffee to Vietnamese people in Vietnam.
He couldn’t speak Vietnamese when he started, so took a crash course over three months so that he could converse with his customers. His next problem was a lack of funds. He had to do almost everything himself, from choosing the ingredients to designing the cart.
He went around town for a few weeks to taste coffee in different cafés and record the details, from which he formulated his own type of coffee. The decided to use coffee beans from Cau Dat in the tourist town of Dalat in the central highlands province of Lam Dong. The coffee plants there are grown in soil at an altitude of more than 1,000 metres above sea level.
‘I know that foreigners have different tastes in coffee than Vietnamese people,’ he said. ‘They think the coffee here is very strong and can keep them awake at night, so they try to find coffee made by foreigners. My coffee is a mixture of Robusta and Arabica, which satisfies the tastes of foreigners and Vietnamese people.’
The Frenchman has now made a second cart, which sells coffee under the Coffee Spin brand in Nguyen Trai Street in District 1. He plans to expand, with more carts in District 3, District 5 and Phu Nhuan district, as he hopes to bring clean, genuine coffee to more and more people at low prices.
Demailly enjoys his life here on the coffee-selling trail. ‘Vietnam has a lot of beautiful spots and delicious food,’ he said. ‘I don’t have the heart to leave. My girlfriend is Vietnamese, and that is a reason for me to stay here.’