How we made The Coffee Trail

By producer/director Andy Wells (pictured below)

The first stop on our coffee trail was Hanoi, the capital city in the north of Vietnam. Thanks to the French, the city has its own unique coffee culture and its thriving cafes are a legacy of its colonial past.

We planned to start our filming trip from there and travel the length of the country down to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Our plan was to head south via Khe Sanh, one of the key battle sites during the Vietnam War and through the country’s main coffee growing region in the Central Highlands.

We were on a journey to find out how Vietnam went from growing hardly any coffee to becoming the UK’s main supplier. But before setting off we’d been warned by our fixers that our route would take us through some remote and challenging areas. They weren’t exaggerating.

Less than a week into our filming and both our presenter Simon Reeve and cameraman Jonathan Young were suffering from stomach bugs. We’d been stopped from filming by local officials, and then as we made our way towards the coastal city of Da Nang, we found we were driving into the eye of the worst tropical storm to hit Vietnam in a generation. What else could possibly go wrong?

After a few hours of driving and with the storm and darkness closing in we decided to hole up for the night en route.

We awoke to the sound of 100 miles per hour winds and flying debris smashing into buildings
Andy Wells

The following morning we awoke to the sound of 100 miles per hour winds and flying debris smashing into buildings. There was widespread flooding all around and everywhere you looked palm trees were bending over double.

Following in the wake of Cyclone Nari we travelled further south, past collapsed power lines and streets strewn with uprooted trees. The city of Da Nang was now a disaster zone and the army was out in force to carry out the clear up operation. We later found out that sixteen people had been killed or were missing and fifty thousand homes had been destroyed or flooded.

By the time we finally made it to the city of Buon Ma Thout, the country’s coffee capital, we held our collective breath and wondered if we would be allowed to continue with our shoot.

Our most interesting day of filming was spent in the company of Dang Le Nguyen Vu. Or Chairman Vu as he’s known to his huge personal entourage. Vietnam’s unofficial Coffee King is the founder and owner of the country’s largest coffee company, Trung Nguyen.

While we were there, we had another visit by the police and our fixer was shepherded away for questioning. Fortunately, this time we were allowed to carry on but it reinforced the point that we were working in a police state.

The history of coffee production is a surprisingly sensitive issue here
Andy Wells

Vietnam is run by an authoritarian, one party, Communist government. Political opposition is suppressed and there’s little freedom of speech, particularly where we were in the Central Highlands. The history of coffee production is a surprisingly sensitive issue here, and that’s because it involves land grabs, human rights abuses and the mass movement of millions of people.

We came to the end of our coffee trail in the vibrant and modern Ho Chi Minh City. Here the coffee culture is centred around familiar-looking coffee shop chains including Starbucks, and the south felt like a different country, which of course it was until 1975.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the country has managed to rebuild its economy partly by becoming one of the world’s major coffee producers. At the moment that situation’s good for us because we get to enjoy cheap coffee but I’d learnt it has come at a price to many Vietnamese.

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