You open up one travel website after another, and no one will stop talking about Vietnamese coffee. It makes sense. It’s unique. Sharp, strong, tasty and unforgettable. It has a historical tradition that blends colonialism and innovation. There are many versions, including egg coffee and yogurt coffee.
When I realized there were different ways you could enjoy the drink, I felt the same way as I did when I was a chubby 9-year-old walking into Starbucks for the first time. I saw the unthinkable frappuchino combinations and wondered how I could have survived before this. How could I have possibly made through the day?
And for self-described cafe lover such as myself, I had plenty of opportunity to try them. Sitting in cafes on the side of the road in those baby chairs is part of the experience, and considering taking it to go is ridiculous notion, slap-worthy, even. Especially when you saw the way they heated up coffee and milk in a plastic cup, covered it with a plastic top, wrapped it in another plastic casing and then put that in a plastic bag with a plastic straw and a plastic spoon.
In Hanoi I wanted to take milk tea back to the hostel with me after a sweaty evening on the motorbike. I ordered it and saw them preparing it this way, as if the plastic was a necessary protection against any evil it would be confronted with from the journey from the cafe to my hostel. In the moment when the cafe’s employee smiled and handed me my plastic infused tea, a friend’s words ran though my mind: does it ever feel like the less developed a nation is, the more plastic it uses?
When friends in Hanoi told my sister and I about the cafe chain Cong Caphe, we knew there would be no “to go” cups happening there.
In a country where many tourist attractions revolve around the American War, it seemed natural to have a Viet Cong-themed cafe.
When we walked in to the location across from St. Joseph’s Cathedral, it was so crowded we had to squeeze in on the second floor.
Although we heard plenty of Vietnamese, it was obvious this was an expat favorite. Sitting in our green wooden chairs I flipped through the small book-like menu and heard English, French, and German. Cong Caphe’s website explains that the decor “recalls the socialist era with humour and parody with its bare brick walls, dark wood handmade tables, propaganda posters and slight militaristic hint.”
It’s this uncomfortable grey area between historical knowledge and a Saturday Night Live sketch that made me feel like I was suddenly in Apocalypse Now and would soon be nostalgic about the way napalm smelled in the morning.
In another puzzling twist, the historical photos that collage the windows aren’t that different than the heart-wrenching images on display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh or the Cu Chi Tunnels.
The traumatized faces of children in the photos on the walls coexisted peacefully among the boisterous group Asian tourists sitting next to us.
Jennifer and I sat in relative darkness and drank our black coffees mixed with sweet and condensed milk. The natural light from the windows filtered in to give the cafe an even more rustic feel.
It was our last day in Hanoi when we visited Cong Caphe. The intense punch gave us the intoxicating stupor to end our stay in the old quarter with gusto.
The truth is, I am sorry to say that shortly after visiting the Cong Caphe, I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt like such a fake. Such a traitor. I couldn’t handle the bitter Vietnamese coffee.
I remember sitting at breakfast at my hostel in Hoi An. I was sitting with two other Americans, cousins from Colorado. I was drinking what was to be my last cup of Vietnamese coffee with sweet and condensed milk.
I lifted up my hot glass to my mouth and sipped the grainy coffee. My life of Vietnamese coffee flashed before my eyes – silent, slow motion images. I saw the girl I au paired for in Ibiza running to the refrigerator and jumping to grab the plastic squeeze bottle of sweet and condensed milk. I saw her lifting it up above her mouth and flexing her mini muscles to pour it out. I saw my smiling mother visiting me my last year of university, introducing me to the ultra-sugary sweet and condensed milk and watching the coffee drip slowly into the glass. Those were times when the sugar was a luxury. A craving satisfied.
Now as a tourist in Vietnam, I was sipping Vietnamese coffee and wondering if I could escape the impending headache the intensity it would later produce. I cringed as I finished the glass. “No more,” I vowed to myself.
If I was going to cut back on Vietnamese coffee, I was glad I did so after experiencing the eerie yet luxurious Cong Caphe.