POSTCARD FROM VIETNAM
a coffee-lover's reflection on why coffee is the world's greatest beverage
'Everyone should believe in something.
I believe I'll have another coffee.'
- Unknown -
After enjoying a leisurely boat tour along the Thu Bon River, I wander through the back streets of Hoi An Old Town, admiring the beautifully-preserved wooden buildings. Quaint shop-houses display all sorts of wares, like scarves, t-shirts, hats, and dresses, whilst wisps of smoke rise from the pungent incense burning within the walls of Chinese temples. My nose detects a scent that overshadows anything my eyes can see. It is not an unpleasant smell; rather the opposite. The mish-mash of cooking fragrances; spices, meat and fish emit from various establishments along the street, but beneath the brash, sharp smells of lunchtime curries and soups, there is a whiff of something familiar and I turn a corner to follow it. Although the comforting aroma of baking bread makes my stomach rumble, it is the more welcoming smell of brewing coffee that draws me to the door of the Hoi An Roastery. I breathe in deeply, appreciating the aroma that appears to have permeated the ancient walls and quickly take a seat at a table near a large glassless window. I now have everything I need for now; the opportunity to partake in the local brew, whilst watching the world pass by on the street outside.
'Espresso, please!' I say to the waitress without looking at the menu. I am sitting near a shelf displaying bags and bags of Hoi An Roastery coffee and I'm tempted to take one home as a souvenir.
I soon realise that the perfect table with a view is not such a great spot, as street vendor after street vendor poke their wares through the open window. It's difficult to avoid eye-contact when someone is shoving a magnet or a fan in front of you, but they take the refusal in good humour, and I soon find myself smiling at their antics in their quest to make a sale.
'G'day mate,' says one. His face is crinkled from working in the relentless sun and he is missing a couple of front teeth, as he pushes a magnificently crafted greeting card into my line of vision. The intricately laser-cut paper design is exquisite. I politely refuse as my coffee is placed in front of me. All else is forgotten as I lift the tiny cup to my lips, savouring the slightly sharp but fragrant aroma before taking a sip of the strong, rich, black liquid. I'm in coffee heaven!
I sort of feel sorry for people who don't drink coffee, as they will never experience the satisfaction that only coffee can provide. Of course, they don't know what they are missing! I didn't grow up drinking espresso like many of my Italian friends. My childhood home only had a tin of International Roast in the cupboard.
'That Nescafe is too bitter,' my dad would say, referring to the advertising slogan of the latter. 'Forty-three beans in every cup? Impossible!'
As a 'poor' student, I had tried everything from Pablo to Blue Label, the generic brand from Coles, but the day I tasted espresso for the first time, was the day I was converted into a Coffee Snob. No, I'm not really!!
However, I don't apologise for my coffee addiction because I've spent the last thirty years developing and perfecting my taste in coffee.
But I'm not a 'closet' drinker.
As much as I enjoy drinking coffee at home with friends, I prefer to drink it in cafes. It clearly tastes better! There is something special about them as they generally provide an environment, which may add or detract from the coffee experience. However, when I drink coffee at home, wait for it,
... I only use specific cups.
By the way, home-brewed espresso tastes better when drunk from Wedgwood fine bone china. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it!
Despite the passing parade of street vendors at the Hoi An Roastery, its timber frames and old, heavy furniture provide a comfortable setting and I absorb the atmosphere and the aroma with the coffee in my cup.
'Where are you from?' A man at the next table appears amused by the last vendor's 'Aussie' greeting. My 'coffee-neighbour' is from Denmark and we have a lively conversation about our respective homes before I decide it is time to continue my wanderings around the town.
Coffee can bring out the best in strangers. Like alcohol, over espresso or cappuccino, tongues can easily be loosened and if I've got the time, I may even gain an insight into a stranger's innermost thoughts and beliefs. Once, in an Italian coffee house in Venice, I overheard a young man discussing the serious mental-health issues of his celebrity parents. I would be mortified if my private business was so openly discussed by our children; even in a different country where you don't think that those surrounding you speak the same language. I must admit that I now view our 'Australian Celebrity Royalty' in a completely new light...
In a local coffee establishment in Ho Chi Minh City, we notice a familiar face crouched behind a laptop computer. Tom instantly recognises him as the alleged 'ice-cream' millionaire from the 2018 reality TV show, Married at First Sight. I feel sorry for him as he looks desperately unhappy, fleeing almost as soon as we place our order. Perhaps he had been trying to hide! I would love to say that I once met George Clooney in a coffee shop, but that would be a lie, because I don't drink Nespresso, and I don't think he does either!
Coffee has been known to be a lively subject in TV series and Hollywood movies. One of my favourites is the comedic Bucket List. There is one scene, which never ceases to amuse me and which I will share with you. It is when Carter (Morgan Freeman), who is in the last stages of his life, hands Edward (Jack Nicholson) a piece of paper. Edward slowly unfolds it and, encouraged by Carter, begins to read the contents out loud;
'Kopi Luwak is the world's most expensive coffee.
Though for some, it falls under the category of 'too good to be true'.
In the Sumatran village, where the beans are grown, there lives a breed of wild tree cat.
These cats eat the beans, digest them, and then defecate.
The villagers then collect and process the stools.
It is the combination of the beans and the gastric juices of the tree cat
that give the Kopi Luwak its unique flavour and aroma.'
Both Carter and Edward howl with laughter, as I do every time I watch that wonderful movie. Soon after the movie came out in early 2008, there was much interest in a coffee that, for hundreds of years, has been processed through the digestive systems of palm civet cats in Indonesia. Taste-testing Kopi Luwak coffee on live US TV has resulted in amusing footage, some of which is available on YouTube.
I find myself sitting at a table inside a coffee merchant's store, with the other 15 visitors on a half-day city tour of Ho Chi Minh City. A small cup of coffee is placed in front of me and as I take a sip, I savour the aroma as well as the unusually sweet flavour. I wonder whether it has already been sweetened as it was brewed, as they do in Cuba. I enjoy the coffee, and say as much to Tom. He is not that enthused. Although he adds sugar to his, he claims that the flavour is too sweet and nothing like that we have already tasted in the cafes we have visited so far in Vietnam. After finishing the coffee, a short presentation is delivered by the merchant, along with a price list for the coffee we have just consumed. We've been treated to Vietnam's most expensive coffee, and, like the Indonesian Kopi Luwak, Weasel coffee has been harvested from weasel poo. This is a far cry from the coffee plantation and roasting facility we had visited in Costa Rica a couple of years ago, and where we had learnt about the differences between light, medium, and dark roasted coffee. I just hope these coffee beans have been roasted within an inch of their lives and to hell with the caffeine content!
Because of the unique flavour, I purchase a pack to test out on my friends in Melbourne. I'm not sure whether I'll tell them about the production techniques before I serve it to my unsuspecting victims.
Vietnam's history in coffee production is a fairly recent one. The French had introduced it in 1857, and it slowly became a major plantation crop providing an important source of income for the country. Despite coffee production being halted during the Vietnam War, it was resurrected again in 1989, after economic reforms were introduced. Today, Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee after Brazil, and the Robusta coffee variety accounts for 97 percent of its total output. Whether due to climate or soil conditions, the Vietnamese coffee tends to be sweeter than the varieties from South America. Weasel coffee, along with other small, boutique-style, and expensive varieties are usually only sold within Vietnam.
When we first travelled to Vietnam in 2008, we had visited many small French-style bakeries, where coffee was also served. After ordering, we had taken our seats outside on the footpath on little plastic stools, like ones you would find in a kindergarten. We would sit amongst the locals, including hordes of school children on their way home, if we timed our coffee break with the end of the school day. Here we could observe the local people and their customs, and we had really enjoyed the experience.
We are disappointed to find that most of the little local coffee shops have disappeared and have been replaced by large multi-national cafes like Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. I realise that this is considered 'progress' and the Vietnamese people, especially in Ho Chi Minh City, have embraced the frappaccino and the latte. There is also a distinct lack of school children within the walls of these vast, noisy, and incredibly expensive establishments. Perhaps they don't realise that they are quickly losing their own 'coffee-culture' in their enthusiasm to be part of the superficial global coffee set.
Given a choice between the two cities we visit during this trip, I prefer the coffee shops and cafes of Hoi An. The ancient town, situated on the Thu Bon River, with buildings painted in a distinct yellow colour and decorated with hundreds of lanterns, provides a warm, friendly atmosphere. It is laid-back and relaxed, and whilst some cafes provide just a few French pastries, others offer full menus and cooking classes. Despite being busy, we find the staff super-friendly and with a willingness and time to talk to us. They show much pride in their history, and their businesses, and are eager to share a small snippet of their lives with anyone interested enough to ask. Coffee served in Hoi An has a distinct flavour. Not like the sweet Weasel coffee, but one that is roasted, prepared, and served with love.
Whilst many enjoy their cold-pressed or crushed ice-blends, a simple cappuccino or espresso is my coffee of choice. It can be enjoyed anywhere, but it tastes better when the surroundings are warm and inviting and it is served in a real cup. I may be a coffee-snob from way back, but for me, some of my best memories are ones that include a cup of my favourite substance in a small locally-owned establishment somewhere in the world.