Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ho Chi Bean

It's not that I'm a coffee addict. I could really take or leave the stuff. I've never jonesed for a coffee during the day, or celebrated the faux-addict coffee culture.

But as an early riser I do expect certain things, creature comforts that are the trade off for forcing yourself out of bed every morning. Morning persons share an unspoken contract: to be a little quieter, not to rush one another, nor judge another's awkwardness. It's the chance to do what you want, in the order you want it, before the rush of the day imposes its will.

And that's the role a morning coffee should have. A time-filler. A hot, steaming cup that you can give you a chance to take stock, plan, organize. Something simple, undemanding, that gives instead of takes.

I slip my shoes on in the hostel's porch and step out into the alley. A good portion of the residents of central Ho Chi Minh City live in such narrow corridors. About two to three metres wide, the alley serves as transportation route, living room, kitchen, garage, and playground.

Commercial signs hang from the walls for hotels and restaurants. A grocery store spills onto the pavement, all junk food, baskets of eggs and cartons of noodles. A man with a cleaver is hacking at a side of pork. A tangled woven rope of power and phone line runs overhead, just above reach, like a notochord for the street. Multicoloured doors open to the world, glimpses of hair salons and offices and bedrooms; the line between public and private spaces is is two steps in any direction.

A few westerners like me are trotting through the alley, dodging families eating breakfast between their knees on short tables, toddlers in tiny ski jackets and grandmothers in pajamas. Motorcycles charge through, taking a short cut to the next block.

Traffic has yet to build up as I emerge onto the high street, but it's already bustling at 7:30. Tour groups block the sidewalk at regular intervals, waiting for the bus to pick them up for the day's tour out to the military tunnels or Mekong Delta. Most tourists stare dully into the distance, tired couples ignoring each other. They're not the early morning kind.

I try to will myself to have a bowl of breakfast pho, Vietnamese noodle soup. When in Rome, after all. I watch other tourists eating the steaming noodles and pieces of beef.

But I can't. Western grease calls me. Bacon, eggs, toast, and coffee. I give in and sit at a sidewalk table.

“You want coffee, hot?”, asks the waiter, with a kind of you've-got-to-be-kidding tone to his voice. It's the first question you have to answer every time you walk into a coffee shop in HCMC. Yes, you insist, as crazy as it sounds, you'd like coffee, black, and hot. He jots down the order.

The coffee comes in a small glass cup. Well, it will. Right now it's dribbling out of crude tin filter system that's balanced on top. The grounds are inside, with hot water poured on top. The coffee trickles through small perforations at the bottom of the tin.

I sit there, waiting for gravity to deliver me my morning joe.

We have such a contraption at home... but we use it only when we go camping. And I've spent many a fine cool morning on the Yukon River, adding boiling water and nursing my single-cupper by the edge of a campfire. The tin gets hot enough to burn your fingertips, the coffee plugs up and has to be stirred regularly, but it's part of the joy of taking your time on the river. At the end of it you have a steaming large mug of coffee.

But I'm not on the river, and I'm not camping. I have about half an inch of black sludge at the bottom of my four-ounce water-glass-cum-coffee-mug when my food arrives. About halfway through the meal the need for a sip of something hot overwhelms my patience. I take off the tin filter.

A small white 'J' runs from the lip of the glass down about an inch. It's cracked from the heat.

I signal the problem to the restaurant's coffee lady. All chin and gristle and leathery skin, she mutters something in Vietnamese, takes the broken glass and walks away.

She never returns with a new tin of grounds. I finish my meal, negotiate a reduction in the bill with the waiter for not getting the coffee, and resign myself to heading to another cafe for a cup.

Now, Vietnam prides itself on its coffee. And I'm in backpacker central in Saigon, the heart of the young and hip and Western-tourist area. You'd think a coffee'd be easy. But the locals I see are drinking coffee on ice, and the regular cafes seem empty.

I finally see some other westerners at a sidewalk cafe, drinking coffee- from mugs! I ask if it's any good.

'Wouldn't write home about it,” they say. They point me to another cafe, a block over. “Good coffee there.”

I follow their directions and order a coffee. Yes, hot and black, please. A fine small china cup, acceptable. A tin filter system, inevitable.

After the coffee finishes dribbling through, however, and I'm left again with a half-inch of sludge at the bottom of the cup. I have to go to the counter and ask for more hot water. I get an identical china cup, not made for pouring. Boiling water spills on the table as I try to refill the filter.

Another 30,000 dong out the wallet and I'm still searching for a quiet cuppa.

So this is where you find me, dear reader. It's 10 a.m., the street outside is busy now, and I'm sitting in a cafe advertising the best coffee in Saigon. Granted it's good. And it's in a proper large china cup. And thankfully  it comes pre-brewed.

But the morning is done and the quiet time passed. The late risers are up, all noisy and demanding. I'll have to try again tomorrow.

Say what you want about the importance of roasting and brewing. Of this bean over that variety. Of drip vs. espresso. What really makes a good cup of coffee in the morning is lack of aggravation.

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