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What you pay for

Released at: 13:54, 26/07/2015

What you pay for

Mobile coffee, cheap and delivered to your door, has won favor in recent times but customers can't really be sure about what it is they're actually drinking.

by Son Ho

Around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are small bikes with bottles or bags of coffee and an ice box, called “ca phe dao” (mobile coffee). Vendors usually set up a stand, using a bicycle or motorbike, with a sign reading “ca phe dao”, or “ca phe xe dap” (bicycle coffee), or even just “ca phe”. 

Customers are mostly students, office workers, or manual laborers. What makes this type of coffee attractive to many is the convenience and the price. A cup of coffee can be enjoyed on a street corner, a park, the office, or anywhere else, delivered directly to them for VND10,000 ($0.46) to VND13,000 ($0.6) a cup. Such prices are about one-quarter of the price for Highland’s take-away and about one-eighth of the price for Starbucks’ take-away. “Though the quality isn’t the same, the price is a big factor in why people buy it,” said one mobile coffee customer.
Mr. Hoang Anh Tuan, an architect working in Hanoi, said that it being delivered makes mobile coffee popular. In the heat of the day, few people care to venture out and buy a cup of coffee. “Since mobile coffee first appeared my colleagues and I have been customers, and we can have a cup together in our office.”

Overheads are virtually zero, so not much money is needed for someone to set up business. Ground coffee sells for as little as VND100,000 ($4.60) a kilogram, which makes about 50 cups. At VND10,000 a cup, mobile coffee sellers can earn a tidy profit. Mr. Nguyen Huu Quang, a vendor, said that he usually makes a profit of VND300,000 ($14) to VND500,000 ($23) a day. In a month he can take home VND10 million ($460) to VND15 million ($690). In a good month it can be three or four times what a security guard or a manual laborer might earn, and even substantially higher than the salary of a recent university graduate just entering the workforce. 

The beginning

This first mobile coffee shop hit the streets of Ho Chi Minh City about ten years ago then quickly spread to Hanoi. “I was down in Ho Chi Minh City and saw that mobile coffee vendors had quite a few customers, so I looked into starting out myself,” said Mr. Tran Huu Thoi, one of the first to bring mobile coffee to the capital. “I sold dozens of liters every day, so after about six months I decided to bring the idea to Hanoi.” 

This was in 2006, and to get the idea going Mr. Thoi went around the Old Quarter handing out free cups of coffee. Unfortunately for him, though, Hanoians can be pretty particular. Even though it was free, many complained about the poor quality. But he was determined not to give up. He kept at it, handing out free cups of coffee and giving customers his phone number for when they wanted to have a cup delivered. 

It worked. As his hometown is Dak Lak in the central highlands, which is famous for its coffee plantations, he invited villagers to come to Hanoi and get into the business. He now has a network of mobile coffee vendors.

Many people of different background have also joined the business. Mr. Tran Huu Hung graduated from the Hanoi University of Mining and Geology but couldn’t find a decent job, so become a mobile coffee vendor. “At first I was kind of embarrassed, but then I saw that many vendors were just like me so I became happier in the job,” he said. He’s now an experienced coffee vendor, with a long list of regular customers.

Mr. Hoang Minh Thang, meanwhile, was born into a wealthy family in Hanoi so getting by wasn’t much of a concern. During the day, though, he spends around six hours selling coffee, both retail and wholesale. He then spends time helping with the family business. At night, unlike Mr. Thoi and Mr. Hung, he dons expensive clothes and hangs out with his friends. “People are more open-minded than in the past,” he said. “No one says a coffee vendor can’t wear expensive clothes and drive expensive motorbikes.” 

Health concerns

In cities like Hanoi consumers can be demanding when it comes to quality, and this is also true of mobile coffee. Responsible vendors know this, so use good quality coffee. “If I sold poor quality coffee I wouldn’t have any customers,” said Mr. Quang. He said he was determined not to sell poor quality coffee just to make a quick profit.
Many other mobile coffee vendors, though, aren’t quite so ethical. Mr. Hung said that aren’t selling coffee at all, instead boiling rice and corn to create a bitter taste and then mixing them with coffee-flavored powder. 

According to a doctor at the E Hospital in Hanoi, rice and corn must be burned completely to create a bitter taste, but this may cause colorectal cancer or gastric cancer and can otherwise adversely affect the health. Most coffee-flavored powder in the market is of unknown origin and probably wouldn’t pass any stringent quality test, he added, so there can be no guarantees about the safety of this type of coffee. 

Many busy people often buy a cup from a mobile coffee vendor early in the morning to wake up, sharpen their mind, and fill their stomach, at the expense of breakfast. This, though, has a negative impact on the digestive system, even if they were drinking genuine coffee. And with fake coffee, different chemicals can cause a harmful chemical reaction inside the stomach, causing indigestion, discomfort and stomach ache, as well triggering allergies and rashes. In many cases people who drink a lot of poor quality or fake coffee have red and itchy skin. 
Though this method of making fake coffee won’t fool coffee lovers, many normal consumers believe it’s real. No government agency carries out tests to determine the ingredients used by mobile coffee vendors, so the public remains unaware.  

Though providing employment and tidy profits for vendors and convenience for consumers, there can be no guarantees when it comes to health issues. It’s always best that consumers know the origin and production process of what they’re imbibing, or only give their business to someone they know is a reputable mobile coffee vendor. 

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