Something in the water: The dark and deadly secret behind Saigon cheap coffee

By Nguyen Nga, Thanh Nien News

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A liquid for making highly profitable but probably toxic coffee is sold at Kim Bien Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Diep Duc Minh A liquid for making highly profitable but probably toxic coffee is sold at Kim Bien Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Diep Duc Minh

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A market of industrial chemicals in Ho Chi Minh City is having a new product on sale. And it has quickly become a bestseller. 
The black liquid, coming in big plastic cans, works magic. Just add a few drops into water and you can turn it into coffee -- or at least something that tastes very close to coffee. 
The label does not even try to hide what the chemical substance is for: “super profits” and “super convenience.” 
Vendors at the Kim Bien wholesale market in the city’s District 5 said they believe the chemical is made in China and that it is poisonous, but it is good for coffee shops.
The liquid has an intense smell of coffee. Buyers can even choose from three flavors: robusta, mocha and Brazilian coffee.
Xuan, one of those selling the liquid at Kim Bien, charges VND380,000 (US$17) a liter, which she said can make at least 400 cups of coffee. That compares to VND150,000 for a kilo of cheap ground coffee, which can not make more than 40 cups. 
“You actually only need a few drops for a perfect cup. Most coffee shops use this liquid, as it gives a very real fragrance, and a lot of profits,” she told an undercover Thanh Nien reporter.
The label on the liquid bottles said they came from a factory in District 6.
But Xuan said the place only does the packing, while the liquid actually came from China. “It’s all Chinese formula.”
Other vendors confirmed that it is “poisonous” even though they did not reveal what the liquid is exactly.
A source from the Ho Chi Minh City Chemistry Association said the liquid likely contains dangerous heavy metals such as lead and mercury which, if consumed regularly, can accumulate and cause liver and stomach cancer. Further tests are pending. 
Hai, who runs a coffee shop in Tan Binh District, claims that he use real coffee beans and they already allow him to earn a 100 percent profit margin.
“Only those who want to spend one and earn ten would use this kind of murderous chemical.”
Hai said that as an experienced coffee maker, he can recognize a cup of coffee made from the toxic liquid as it has a pungent smell, tastes more bitter and does not leave some sweetness at the end.
But casual coffee drinkers will not be able to tell the difference, he said.

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