My god, the coffee in Vietnam! Iced, that is. Here’s how you have it:
Wake at 6:30 or so (because that is when you normally wake up. just kidding!).
Dress yourself in whatever, something airy, not too strappy (conservative dressers here).
Spring out into a back alley milky with sunlight. The alley is not yet bustling, per se, but it is flecked with life: children tormenting the cat instead of eating their breakfasts, mothers in nipped pastel blazers vrooming off on motorbikes, pastel-free fathers doing the same. One woman, laden with sacks of produce, waits for a bucket flung from a third-floor window; when it reaches eye level, she puts a sack in it and the bucket rises. Towards the end of the alley, a cluster of old men in thin, faded cotton nurse coffee and papers under an awning. The awning constitutes the parameters of the cafe; beyond it is a living room, bereft of sofas but replete with TV, in front of which a little boy sprawls.
Take a seat. When the smiley proprietor approaches you, ask for a “fe da,” unless you want it hot or with milk. In Ho Chi Minh, it’s never the former, and the latter is pure dessert, better saved for later.
Your fe da will come pooled viscous under a glassful of ice, chunked or shaved, with a silver spoon for mashing. Mash, or wait, or mash and wait, or down it at once, como gli italiani.
Unless you’re very unlucky, the coffee here will sucker punch your taste buds. The inky, almost viscous coffee base is made from a very tightly pressed chicory roast into which hot water is s l o w l y poured. It’s bracing and jivey, with a heavy chocolate note. You’ll want a second, and you can have it, along with a wagon of jitters.
I tried to drink mine slow, though it is hard not to wallop on the receiving end of something that good, and that suited to quickening morning moments, when the temperature is still below seventy, the sun a flirty beast.
In other cities, the coffee will be good, but not Ho Chi Minh good. The coffee itself may not be to blame though – elsewhere, it lacks that back alley ambience, a window on a world foreign and bewitching. (Guide books will tell you to check out the coffee shops in both HCM and Hanoi. In Hanoi, yes, but in HCM, there’s no need – you can find your back alley, or bit of sidewalk, in any neighborhood.)