Bao put his accounting degree on hold, and ever since has been following his love for coffee.
At 24, Bao now has three years of experience in the coffee industry. When he started working as a part-time barista at a small local coffee shop, he didn’t even dare to stand near the espresso machine. But gradually, he’s charmed by the arts of making a cuppa and with practice, he’s become confident about his skills. Knowing he could make a career in the industry, Bao quit the local cafe and moved on to work full-time at Shin Coffee, one of the most prominent establishments in Ho Chi Minh City, in order to get opportunities to learn more about the beans, upgrade his skills, and interact with a more internationally diverse clientele. He’s now also a barista instructor at School of Coffee, Shin Coffee’s sister organization.
Bao’s choice is unconventional, but also has gradually become less so in Ho Chi Minh City, which is always head-over-toes with cà phê sữa đá, a blend of iced coffee with condensed milk, so much that it almost considered the drink a staple. And while the people here still enjoy hanging out over a plastic cup of coffee along the sidewalk – the culture of ‘cà phê bệt’, many of them also have been more willing to spend for specialty coffee. Calvin Godfrey, a writer who’s worked in Vietnam for seven years before re-locating to Singapore, observes that the growing specialty coffee movement in Vietnam coincided with, if not slightly presided, Starbucks’ arrival in the country in 2013. This movement, albeit small, has been changing the “landscape” of coffee consumption in particularly Ho Chi Minh City – according to Godfrey, previously, condensed milk was put into coffee drinks to mask the taste of any “chemicals” used in processing the beans. Now, bean quality is brought forward.
In Vietnam Coffee Annual May 2017, the United States Department of Agriculture also predicts the coffee market in Vietnam will remain “fierce with strong competition” from not only international players but also new local comers. It then adds that “Vietnamese coffee market needs more value-added coffee products to expand.”
As the demand for quality coffee grows, so does the demand for skilled baristas.
“Not many people in Vietnam know about the word “barista” or the work we do yet,” Bao tells me and other students of his introductory baristas’ class in Vietnamese, “so being a barista in Vietnam at this time is also like paving a new road to introduce the job, in addition to quality coffee.”
Hands behind his back, Bao stepped a bit further away from the coffee bar where we were practicing frothing milk then pouring cappuccinos with a perfect heart. A laid-back, sometimes too cautious instructor, Bao doesn’t hesitate to share his experience and ambition with students, who are also in their twenties. While most of the students are preparing to work in the industry, two have already worked as baristas. And among these two, one is vacationing in Saigon, taking a break from her study and work in Hanoi.
“My family didn’t support me at the beginning; I was almost done with my university degree,” Bao shares about his decision to follow his passion for coffee, “However, the only regret that I’ve had is that I didn’t know earlier I could become a barista. I’m happy to see my customers happy drinking the coffee I make.”
One of the students then candidly voiced her concern about the low payment that baristas earn in comparison to what she makes as a translator, even though she’s considered changing her job for a while.
“There are actually numerous opportunities later on if you will,” Bao points out, “because there are different processes that lead to a tasteful cup of coffee. As baristas, we are expected to know these behind stories, and share them with our customers.”
In Vietnam many people, including baristas, still thinks that a barista’s job is only to make coffee behind the bar and neglect the communication skills that one must have in order to connect with customers. So for dedicated baristas like Bao, who wants to make a career out of the job and change people’s misconceptions about the job, learning and hard work are always a must.
“Eventually, we can open our own coffee bar. And for me, I also plan to found an institute for coffee teaching and research. Though there’s a long way to go,” he continues.
Around the World Wide Web, many Vietnamese vocational training centers are promoting ‘barista’ as a trending – thời thượng – job and calling young people to learn barista’s skills. Since Vietnam is one of the world’s largest coffee exporters but still needs to improve its competitiveness, the potentials of the job in particular and the market in general are still tremendous.