Here's an understatement: I love coffee. Hot, cold, milky, black — just no sugar, please. Whenever I travel to a new place and learn bits of a new language, I know my priorities: the first word I learn is "hello" and the second is "coffee." Dutch? Koffie. French? Café. Arabic? قهوة (pronounced qah-huah). And in Vietnamese, it's cà phê. I'm a little shaky on the pronunciation, but I'm getting by so far.
In my first week in Vietnam, I learned that the Vietnamese do coffee right. There are cafes everywhere in Hanoi, surrounded by tiny stools and short tables where you can always see a group of people drinking coffee or tea on the sidewalk. You can have egg coffee with a sweet, dreamy whipped egg foam on top, coffee with yogurt, or simple iced coffee made in a phin, or filter. Buildings here are narrow and tall, so some cafes go up three or four or five floors to a roof terrace, perfect for a cup of iced coffee on a hot day in the summer.
But drinking Vietnamese coffee within sight of the plant the beans grew on is a whole new level of "whoa, am I really here?" When I traveled to Da Lat, Vietnam, and toured a coffee farm, I tried a cup of weasel coffee on a terrace overlooking rows of moka and robusta coffee plants. It was surreal.
Vietnamese coffee is brewed in a filter that sits on top of a short mug. The good stuff slowly drips down into the cup, strong (my parents would call it "sludge") and just the right temperature by the time it's done. If you order it sữa, it comes with a thick stratum of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom and a small spoon to stir it in. The patience it takes to wait for the coffee to finish brewing is, to me, an art form. It seems to tell me to slow down and enjoy the wait, and I'm listening.
Living in Hanoi, a city so far from my home in North Carolina in so many ways, keeping my morning coffee ritual is a comfort. Surrounded by signs advertising different kinds of street food I've slowly learned to tell apart; navigating the constant, chaotic, always-honking flow of motorbikes and cars to cross the street on my bicycle; and trying to communicate in a language of short words differentiated by six tones, it's definitely good to know I can escape for a moment into a quiet cafe and order a cup of coffee. It's one thing, but I'll take it.