By TINI TRAN, Associated Press Writer

HANOI, Vietnam - glittering Christmas lights, Crayola-colored chairs, a pop music soundtrack and undeniably trendy. For the stream of customers crowding into Trung Nguyen cafes across Vietnam, it's a potent combination of coffee chic and "ca-phe sua," Vietnamese for "coffee with milk" or, in this case, strong espresso served over a syrup of condensed milk.

Capitalizing on an emerging, affluent middle-class and the simple attractions of aromatic coffee, 31-year-old entrepreneur Dang Le Nguyen Vu has successfully launched Vietnam's first nationwide franchise.

Call it Starbucks, Vietnam-style.

Over the past four years, Vu's chain of Trung Nguyen cafes has grown to more than 400 outlets in all of Vietnam's provinces, from the busy Ho Chi Minh City to rural of Sapa on the northern border. In Vietnamese, Trung Nguyen means "Central Highlands", an area famous for its coffee, and Vu now wants to spread the reputation of his coffee label well beyond Vietnam's borders.

"I want to have the Vietnamese brand name of Trung Nguyen well known in the world. Our coffee is good. There's no reason we can't do it," Vu said.

Bold words, but Vu has already bucked the odds by successfully operating in a communist country that still favors state-owned enterprises over private business.

Trung Nguyen's wildfire growth in Vietnam, the world's second-largest coffee exporter, is testament to Vu's vision, not to mention the notable absence of a certain coffee giant.

Although Seattle-based Starbucks has made sizable headway in the region, in Japan, Thailand and China, among others, it still has no presence in Vietnam. High tariffs on imported roasted coffee ensured the dominance of the local coffee industry and an opportunity for an enterprising medical student.

In 1996, Vu "was in love with economics and business more than medicine so I started a small operation."

With three friends, he opened a small cafe in their Central Highland hometown of Buon Ma Thuot, known for its potent coffee. The story could have ended there but what made Trung Nguyen different was Vu's decision to introduce franchising in 1998.

For a one-time charge and a pledge to buy discounted coffee only from him, a franchisee gained the right to put up the distinctive brown and cream sign with the coffee cup.

In return, Vu got name brand advertising and the visible saturation necessary to start a buzz.

The name sells, said Pham Thi Truc Giang, who runs one of the largest Trung Nguyen franchises in Hanoi. Her two-story, 400-seat cafe is packed with 600 to 800 customers daily. Weekends bring in even more, with motorbikes parked three to four deep on the sidewalk.

"I think Trung Nguyen came along at the right time. If people didn't have money to spend, then we wouldn't do so well," she said.

Trung Nguyen's distinctive, upmarket style is a sharp contrast to the streetside tea stalls and murky cafes that abound in Vietnam, attracting a range of clientele from office workers to college students. Its success parallels a growing middle-class with more money to spend and more leisure time to linger.

But for Vu, domestic dominance is only the beginning. He is already casting his eye about the region. Last year, he signed franchise agreements in Singapore, Tokyo and Shanghai.

In December, he visited America for the first time as part of a delegation checking out business opportunities following passage last year of a U.S.-Vietnam trade pact.

"I visited some Starbucks outlets in the United States. I think Starbucks and Trung Nguyen share some similarities. But we are planning to make Trung Nguyen coffee shops with typical Vietnamese features, which reflect our culture, design and service style," he said.

His company is now negotiating with partners in 15 countries, including the United States, Germany, Taiwan, Russia, Hong Kong, Australia and Canada, to offer the franchise, he said.

For the time being, Vu plans to stop franchising within Vietnam and concentrate instead on setting up 15 larger, luxury cafes in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City which he believes would outshine Starbucks if, as seems inevitable, the coffee giant arrives in his country.

"We see Starbucks as a potential competitor in Vietnam and we are not afraid of competing with Starbucks," he said.

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-- Duong Trinh Tung (, June 24, 2003


recommend coffee tea vietnam's best for drinking and selling weasel coffee. and all good jeasmine, green tea black tea i live in Australia & have many vietnamese friend good people i had good time

thank you

vietnam ,

yours truly


-- wongoroar (, December 26, 2003.

i have been to trungngyen cafe in HCM city before, and i love it.

i see that Trung Nguyen cafe have great vision to be vietnam own vision of Starbucks. I belive, there is a changing waves of coffee drinking. i can see in my country in singapore. we are going for ice blend coffee which Trung Nguyen have not product yet.

I have a suggestion to share,... about how Trung Nguyen can see Ice blend coffee easily. pls e-mail me if anyone want to know.

-- francis yeo kok kiang (, July 10, 2004.

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