Empty Cup

I escape from the clutches of maybe 150 girls in diaphanous ao dai, chattering to each other like nightingales on a rampage and clasping at me, rubbing my tummy, pinching at my crotch, each in desperate need of the $80USD for their tired and ritualistic massage services. I disdain, after not enough G&Ts. I exit the sleazy hotel KTV to sample some local brew in one of the many cafés just down the street.

Vietnam: the country that single-handedly destroyed the world coffee market - price drops in your more traditional growing areas of Indonesia, Africa and South America and the resultant economic disaster for the growers there had nothing to do with the rise of Starbucks and its price-fixing clones, but instead were due to the massive sudden overproduction of coffee in Vietnam. The government needed cash quick. Coffee prices were high. Let's grow shitloads of coffee. Talk about your Dutch Tulip fiasco. Now there is way too much coffee in the world and that means lower prices for everyone, everywhere, including the Vietnam farmers who are today as poor as they ever were.

Right next door to my hotel is one of the Hong Kong franchise "Al Frescos"; pasta and pizza, steak and ribs. An Aussie owns the original. By a concrete high-gated alleyway to nowhere important, with a portentous text in Vietnamese across the lintel, sits an entreprenurial woman with a cardboard-box counter set up with fresh liver, kidneys, tripe, sliced beef[sic] both raw and cooked, pickled mushrooms, hung que (basil), hung (mint) , ngo gai (straight-leafed coriander), chilis, limes and noodles next a large covered tureen of simmering soup (sitting inside in another large cardboard box - how is she keeping it hot?), ready to serve up a cheap if intestine challenging phô (pronounced "fuh") for cheapskate refugees from the expat-priced restaurant whose tables she abutts. A single customer scoops up some delicious morsel of something unmentionable with her chopsticks. I had my phô bo earlier this evening at a slightly more reputable restaurant.

I walk along a bit, under the many trees whose spring leaves rustle in the strengthening breeze. It is quite nice now the sun has set, the temperature is the definition of pleasant - I am totally unaware of whether it is warm or cool. I enter the first café I see - Café Dilmah (another franchise?) The waitress covers her face with the menu when I enter, I presume because she is embarrassed to have to serve a foreigner. Maybe her English is not good, she fears. She is pretty, I note. I note that a lot these last few days. All Vietnamese girls appear pretty, not just the hookers. Maybe it is because they are all so skinny slim? But that is no guarantee of beauty of course.

It is quite dark inside, the colour scheme is a rich red. Artificial apple cuttings with plastic apples in a jar, stucco walls and sticky glass-covered tabletops. Snakes and starfish in large jars of wine on my table. The ever-present TV plays some Middle Kingdom soap, dubbed into Vietnamese. Couples chat, voices raised with their own melodramas. Happy New Year bunting graces the wall though Easter is a week past. I sit on a small velvet plush long backed chair. The menu has some words in English. The waitress and I manage to point in the same direction... "White coffee," she says. Excellent English!

Another glass of wine, sir?

I watch the traffic chaos out through the doors. Motorcycles in dense streams of Brownian motion. One mum has her precious child strapped to her with a Velcro safety harness. A family of four, with baby standing up on the seat before mum, hands on big sister's head, sucking on a dummy as dad jumps the cycle over the gutter onto the footpath. The mystery of the chalk markings on all the motorcycle seats is solved as the cycle-parking attendant scribbles a number on the black vinyl and hands them a ticket.

My white coffee arrives, so black I fear she has got the order wrong though we pointed to the "white cafe" together. Whilst stirring I notice a pale residue clinging to my spoon from the bottom; condensed milk. I stir and stir it until the liquid in my small cup becomes a deep dark-chocolate colour. Two spoons of sugar are required to tether this beast.

I sip. Delicious: rich and thick like an expat.

A glass of Chinese tea accompanies the coffee as a respite. So old-world, so colonial, so leisured, so quaint on the edge of madness.

It is too dark to read any more of my Vollmann - I am 5% through it already. I sit and type this on my pda/phone. It is finished. I take some crappy photos with the phone's crappy camera. I take one of the empty cup...


I wonder how the Vietnamese feel, having not only survived the war and a thousand My-Lais but won it, and followed it up with years of nasty, lonely communism only to open up to this shambolic, ad-hoc, ersatz modernity of traffic mayhem and imported television? Happy enough, satisfied by a good rich brew, to gauge by the smiles all around, for although the cup is empty now it is cheap enough to fill it up again.

I call for the check. A grand total of 35 cents(US). I extravagantly tip the waitress 500 Dong (3 cents) and wander back my $128USD a night hotel.

My cup runneth over.



Posted by: expat@large on Apr 20, 06 | 11:02 pm | Profile


hey man hanoi sounds great! i did make it to ho chi minh city last week. took 3 gals there to do shopping so didn't get around much but to do massage and couple of small pubs.
we heard about a town outside of hanoi that specializes in tailoring so they want to back there next time.
sounds like u had a good scare with ur wallet....imagine all the bars and girls u met...thats where u expect to lose ur wallet....hahaha but leave it in car....luky not taxi or you die for sure!
bueno amigo


Posted by: david martinez on Apr 23, 06 | 10:17 am

I much prefer Hanoi to HCMC, don't ask me why - ok maybe more of the older ambience is preserved. Don't actually get to do much free socialization - they work us all day and take us out to dinner and reputable massage then drop us back at the hotel where the expensive exploitative KTV is. Would much rather go to more disreputable expat frequented hooker bars and pick up some freelancers.

O well next time. And back to sanity(!) with Bangkok all next week.

Posted by: expat@large on Apr 23, 06 | 10:38 am


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