Perched on this old wooden stool, I have the best seat in the house. I'm surrounded by Vietnamese young and old, and together we watch the world go by. While children enjoy the last moments of light after class, hundreds of scooters move like a school of fish around ladies selling little round sugar donuts out of baskets. Sipping the same thing everyone else is sipping, I have the feeling that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be. This is how you drink coffee in Vietnam. It comes in small portions--no "Ventis" here. You don't take it to go. You sit and sip. For me, this is hard. Like every Backroads leader I know, I can barely stay still. I feel like something's wrong if I'm not racking bikes while simultaneously cleaning up a picnic. But here in Vietnam I have to willfully think, "Lauren, sit still. Enjoy your cup of coffee."
In Vietnam, coffee culture is as deep and rich as just about anything else. On old brick sidewalks and in old colonial shops adorned with art deco tiles, old men sit on small stools in the morning and afternoon. They sip little cups of iced-coffee rocket fuel, or as they would say, cafe sua da (or ca phe sua da), while playing checkers and cards. Along with French baguettes, cheese and imperialism, coffee sailed to the shores of Vietnam in the mid-19th century. The mountain range that runs down the country's spine provided the French with a highlands climate perfect for coffee growing. Despite the country's long history of foreign rule and exploitation, Vietnam's resilient people have eloquently taken the little pieces of culture brought from their conquerors and molded them into something entirely their own. Vietnamese coffee was created in this way.
On our trips to Vietnam, we often explain Vietnamese coffee with a picture diagram. The barista spoons a few ounces of the finely ground robusta beans into an aluminum phin, a small tin cup with tiny holes in the bottom. The phin is then placed over a glass lined with a centimeter of sweetened condensed milk. Hot water is poured into the phin and for the next few minutes you watch the thick coffee drip, ever so slowly melting the condensed milk. After it's finished, you use the little teaspoon on your saucer to stir the coffee and sweet milk together before pouring the mixture over an accompanying tumbler of ice. And voilà! You have the addictive, caramelly goodness of cafe sua da.
Every aspect of society here carries with it centuries of history, culture and pride, and yet it's constantly changing.
Like almost everything else in Vietnam, coffee culture is changing rapidly. In the last 30 years Vietnam has become the second largest producer of coffee in the world, accounting for one quarter of the UK's coffee consumption. This economic boom has fueled enormous population growth--60 percent of Vietnam's people are under 30 years old. With increased access to media in an ever-globalizing world, the youth of Vietnam are changing many things, coffee included.
As much I love the romance of classic Vietnamese coffee houses, with their plastic stools and old men playing checkers, I am equally enamored of the artistic and creative energy that permeates modern Vietnam and its coffee culture. On a street corner facing St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi is one of the hippest cafés I've ever been to, rivaling those of San Francisco and New York. Young Vietnamese baristas in denim aprons, skinny jeans and stylish haircuts run Cong Caphe. With its exposed brick walls, reclaimed wood tables and colorfully upholstered chairs, the place looks like it walked out of a Pinterest page, yet its coffee is distinctly Vietnamese. And this, I believe, is what makes Vietnam one of the most exciting countries to visit: every aspect of society here carries with it centuries of history, culture and pride, and yet it's constantly changing. It keeps us on our toes and makes every turn of the road an adventure. Whether you decide to pull out your deck of cards, open a good book or sit and watch the drama of the street unfold, tasting the coffee is a must on any trip to Vietnam. Each of our trip's hotels serves up a ritzy cafe sua da and every village we bike or walk through offers this quintessential Vietnamese beverage. If you need any advice on where to find it, ask one of your fearless leaders or local guides. And wherever you sip it, remind yourself--as I often do--that you're in Vietnam. Sip it slowly.