The Vietnamese Bubble Tea Phenomenon

We’ll tell you where it came from, where to find it and everything else you need to know about the sugary drink. Then you can find out for yourself why it’s so popular. So go enjoy one today!

Ah, Vietnamese bubble tea. If you haven’t heard of this chewy milky beverage, you must have been living under a rock. 

Specialty tea houses, cafes and restaurants are popping up the world over. From Seoul to San Francisco, everyone is desperate to clamber on board the bubble tea train. 

Vietnam in particular, a country with a long-held love for tea and milky coffee, has over 1,500 bubble tea shops. And that number isn’t going to shrink any time soon. But, what’s with the Vietnam bubble tea obsession? Here’s everything you need to know.

History

Vietnamese bubble tea
 
Vietnamese bubble tea, also known as boba or pearl tea or tra sua tran chau, allegedly comes
 from Taichung, Taiwan. It is unclear exactly who first invented the drink  but it was sometime in the 1980s. The traditional recipe calls for small tapioca pearls, dyed black with dark sugar, added to black tea mixed with milk or non-dairy creamer.

Bubble tea took a while to get off the ground in Taiwan. Locally it had a cult following. Then later its international popularity boomed, apparently thanks to Japanese TV featuring an infomercial about bubble tea. The beverage has an enormous following across Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, China, America, Australia, much of Europe and, in particular, Vietnam. 

Popularity

Vietnamese bubble tea
 
The popularity of bubble tea 
isn’t just restricted to the countries young and socially mobile in the largest cities. In Vietnam, tra sua tran chau is popular in the mountainous northeast, among ethnic communities, office workers and, typically, hoards of college students.

Bubble tea, however, hasn’t always had a smooth ride in Vietnam. When it first entered the Vietnamese market in 2000, it quickly became popular among socially mobile urban youths who were interested in, and had the money to buy, strange new drinks from fashionable Asian cities. Branded tea shops from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea began to flood the market. That changed in 2009. Scientists in Germany began to trace potentially harmful chemicals, more commonly used to make plastic, in the strawberry syrup used in bubble tea.

Luckily, continued research proved the additive was not harmful to humans, and the Vietnamese bubble tea business started booming again. This was until May 2013, when news got out that Taiwanese health authorities confiscated more than 312 tons of a bubble tea ingredient allegedly contaminated with maleic acid. This cheap food additive causes kidney failure when consumed in large doses. 

But bad memories fade quickly. One national newspaper called 2017 “The Year of Milk Tea,” citing figures putting the worth of bubble tea in Vietnam at a staggering 282 million USD, a figure which they state has an annual growth rate of 20% year on year. In Hanoi alone, an average of eight bubble tea shops opened every month in 2017, adding to the already 1,500 bubble tea shops across Vietnam. That’s a lot of tea.

Cultural Significance

Vietnamese bubble tea
 
Vietnam, more so than other parts of Asia, was already primed for the bubble tea trend. Cafés and
tea shops have been a part of Vietnamese culture since the French occupation, beginning in the 19th century, with tea houses existing before that. Coffee with condensed milk, known locally as ca phe sua da, is somewhat of an institution in Vietnam, so adding milk to tea or coffee was nothing new here. 

Having been largely closed off culturally and politically until the changes wrought by sweeping economic reforms (Doi Moi) during the 1980s, Vietnam’s youth were craving for a taste of something new and exotic. Something in the form of a tasty global fad, with links to sociable café culture, would prove to be the perfect mix of familiar and fashionable. Enough so, that Vietnamese youth would rather spend 50,000 VND (2.15 USD) on a bubble tea than 20,000 VND (0.85 USD) on a ca phe sua da, or even less than 5,000 VND (0.21 USD) on a glass of iced tea (tra da). 

Where to Get Bubble Tea in Vietnam

Vietnamese bubble tea
 
Chatime
, one of Taiwan’s largest international chains, tends to rank as the most popular brand of Vietnamese bubble tea. While other brands such as Gong Cha, Ding Tea and Royal Tea go for a more sleek and modern design, Chatime’s distinctive purple outfit makes for a more friendly, sociable atmosphere. Chatime offers over 70 flavors and topping options, allowing for more customization. This is perfect for those, like us, who prefer their milk tea with a little less sugar. We love their Tokachi red bean tea with pearls. It’s a tasty snack and a drink all in one.  

Vietnamese local chain Toco Toco has an enormous presence near schools and in trendy districts in larger cities. Prices are largely identical to Korean and Taiwanese bubble tea franchises. However, their products are typically sweeter to suit local taste. It might sound intimidating, but their cream cheese matcha is their most popular drink. It really does taste like cream cheese. You won’t be disappointed.

Vietnam’s love of bubble tea has, in recent months, breached the boundaries of specialty tea shops. The drink can now be found in the eat-in section of Co-opmart, a supermarket chain with a strong presence in Ho Chi Minh City. Likewise, fruity versions of the drink are on the rise at Citimart, a mini-mart chain owned by Japanese retailer Aeon. You’ll find the tea in a range of flavors with various staple bubble options. We like Citimart’s chocolate milk with standard boba.

You can barely walk for five minutes in Vietnam without stumbling cross a bubble tea shop of some kind. And there’s one thing we’re sure of: they’re certainly here to stay.