I love coffee.
So when planning to come to Vietnam, which ranks second in the world for total volume of coffee exported, I was dreaming of discovering new and amazing delicacies. Unfortunately, I discovered Ca Phe Hai Lua instead.
Ca Phe Hai Lua (countryside coffee) is what I decided to call coffee that is mixed with corn and/or soya and/or... I do not want to know! I discovered it first when having ca phe sua da in the countryside with my girlfriend. When I tasted it, it was somehow different... at the beginning I could not make out the extra taste, but my girlfriend was clear about it: in the countryside it is impossible to find a good cup of coffee as they always mix it with "something."
I am still wondering how people can be so mean as to mix coffee with other things to increase the yield, especially considering that coffee is one of the commodities widely available in Vietnam, and it is very cheap.
Two weeks ago, my girlfriend drew my attention to an article in Thanh Nien showing a "coffee" factory on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City where coffee is produced 100 percent out of soya beans and some chemicals. I was shocked, I still am!
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It is not only the fact that they do not use coffee to produce... coffee, but also about the hygienic conditions on the premises, the chemicals used and how they may affect our health. Most importantly, the Vietnamese government seems to be doing nothing about it.
Exports and tourism are large parts of the economy, but in both areas Vietnam are facing a huge problem: poor action on the part of the government to first educate, but also to control and impose quality standards. Best example? Ca Phe Hai Lua!
It was "only" 30 years ago when Tom Peters published "In Search of Excellence" showing the clear link between good quality products, great customer service and becoming top successful companies. Alternatively, you can look at two countries, who even after being devastated by war, have become economic leaders due to quality standards: Germany and Japan.
In Europe "Made in Germany" is a guarantee of top quality, while for Japan, you just need to look at Toyota. Even winemakers in Spain, the largest wine producer in the world, realized that there was much more money in producing fewer but better wines rather than tons of plunk.
By Alfred Housefield
The writer is a British expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City