Back in the States, Canada, Oz, NZ or UK, coffee is something often taken on the fly. Battling traffic on the way to work you pull into the 7-11, or other factory made convenience store. You rush in. You pour a hot brown liquid, that often smells like a dirty ashtray, into a paper cup, slap on a lid, throw ever increasing amounts of small money down on the counter and you’re back in your car slurping your caffeine fix with one hand and negotiating the commute with the other. You hardly have time to taste it. And maybe that’s a good thing.
But coffee is a much more leisurely custom here. You may see commuters yammering on their cell phones, while smoking a cigarette and carrying on a conversation with the person riding pillion. But you never see them with a cup of Highlands’ in hand. Coffee here is not for the caffeine jolt nor for hurried times. Coffee is for calm and contemplation.
My first memory of coffee in Saigon is the smell of it being roasted. It was 20 years ago. It was early morning and I was walking through what would come to be known as “The Pham,” the Pham Ngu Lao Street area. I was on Bui Vien when I smelled the most bewitching aroma. I knew it was coffee, but I thought it must be something else, too, it was so rich and complex.. I followed my nose down the little lane that today holds Bread and Butter, as well as Asian Kitchen restaurants. A little man was squatting beside a charcoal fire over which he turned a roasting spit. But his “spit” was a cylinder about 10 inches in diameter and three feet long. It was made of brass. And the wispy, aromatic smoke issuing from it was what had drawn me.
I watched, and smelled, and listened for a bout 10 minutes. The aroma changed from floral and spicy to rich and chocolaty. I heard the beans crack as they released their oil and essence. I heard them crack a second time, which told me that this would be a French roast, the darkest and deepest. The man lifted his roaster and poured the beans into a crockery pot. He then proceeded to deliver them to people in the neighborhood, including the tiny cafe across the lane that would one day become Le Pub. And there I went for my first cup of Vietnamese coffee. And there did I learn how to enjoy coffee here:
You take a seat. Perhaps a plush chair in the Majestic Hotel; or a folding chair in a coffee garden; or just a little stool the size of your hat on the sidewalk anywhere. You order coffee, expecting a cup of java to be delivered in a moment, the steamy liquid to be rolling over your tongue and the caffeine rush to follow soon after. But you wait, as much as a few minutes, for in this establishment the water is often boiled one cup at a time when trade is slow. One cup, boiled just for you.
So now you are served. What’s this? Not a hefty mug of steaming coffee ready to drink. Not a tall paper vessel with a Starbuck’s logo emblazoned on the side; but a 6-ounce glass tumbler with a curious little aluminum pot on top. At the bottom of your glass, half an inch of palest yellow, sweetened condensed milk, three or four little brunette stains spreading across its surface. Another appears, fallen from the little top pot. Inside the pot the water is ever so lazily seeping into and through the dark-roasted coffee. Minutes pass, and in this long, hot relationship between coffee and water the coffee gives up its entire soul to the water’s embrace. You watch. Watch as the liquid falls from the little crucible drop by placid drop, infusing the milk with the fullest measure of the spirits of Arabica and Robusta.
This is strong coffee, and your glass is only half full. Foreigners are often given a small thermos of hot water with which to dilute the brew and give it volume, to make it something closer to what they are used to. But you should try it the Vietnamese way. After all, did you come to Vietnam for things that you are used to? Take slow, tiny sips. Savor each one. Let the flavor resonate on your tongue until it subsides. Let the aroma rise from the back of your throat. Give it time. As much time as was consumed in the marriage of coffee and water in the little chapel atop your glass. Give it time, and it will refresh you, and restore you, and give you calm.