On a street corner in Hanoi is a café that people call Cong. The door into Cong is dark under the shade of a ripped awning. Both are the same shade of military green. On the door is a square plank spray-painted red with a yellow star. Cong means communism.
Inside, the ceiling is domed. It curves in the same way as the inside of a bunker. The walls are a white brick. On the wall opposite the front door is a large poster of three children, each in a soldier’s uniform. The three stand in a neat line and smile. They salute the Communist sickle, which, in the painting’s scale, is larger than all of them. The poster is lit by a single bulb on a thin wire. There is hardly enough light from the street to keep the rest of the room out of the dark.
Hanoi is a city with six and a half million people, two hundred and nineteen intersections, half a dozen cars, a hellacious infinity of motorbikes, a handful of sidewalks, a curb that is no more than a bump in the road, and hardly any traffic lights. When you first walk in, Cong is quiet compared to the rest of the city, but it seems to get louder, the longer you stay. Everyone tries to talk over the music and over all the other people who are trying to talk over the music. People smoke.
I was there to try a cup of coffee. You probably have never had a cup of coffee from Vietnam. This is odd, because Vietnam is second only to Brazil as the largest exporter of coffee beans in the world. If you have had a cup of coffee from Vietnam, you likely had it while sitting Indian-style on the crusty comforter of a motel whose rooms smelled just a little too strongly of ammonium. Otherwise put, that night you’d like to forget.
The reason for this is simple. Farmers in South America and the world over grow Arabica, the type of bean often called “high-quality,” while the Vietnamese grow Robusta, used in instant coffee and the like. Robusta is said to be more caffeinated and more bitter. When I first tried it, I had precisely the opposite impression. It looks darker, nearly velvet-black, and swallows more like an oily chocolate than a woody French Roast. Often, a clunk of condensed milk cuts the velvet to a starchy shade of brown. Spilled over ice, the drink is sugary, strange, and a distinct Asian splendor.
There is some anxiety to my calling it “coffee” at all. I imagine the label comes from indisputable biological fact rather than any similarity in taste. My barista at Cong Caphe, a woman named Chu Thanh Ha, sold its bitterness with a bitter smile. She called the coffee strong, not bitter, and not just strong, but stronger: perhaps even the strongest, she said, with a strength that cannot be found even from the Italians’ espresso.
She talked about the café the way some talk about a scrimmage. She said Cong takes care to sell the best quality beans, and that for this reason, the café appealed to serious coffee drinkers. She called these people the “very strict” ones, and said that often meant artists and only the foreigners who want a traditional cup of “real” Vietnamese coffee.
Cong was one infinitesimal slice of the city’s offerings, the breadth of which is a testament to the outer limits of whimsy. Variations spun like pinwheels: there were chains, some American, some home grown, several tour guide joints that slapped raw egg on iced coffee in a fit of regional specialty, expat cafés, cat cafés, dating cafés, Twitter cafés, cafés without names and only an awning or a street corner and a smoke-circle of old men and clinking cups. An infinite series of firsts.
My favorite café is on a fourth-floor rooftop, over and above dishwashers and mattresses, wrestling children, broken bottles, bathrooms without toilet paper and a smelly sink. It was the only one I went to more than once when I was in the city.
Saigon was different. There were proper lawns, pearled women, boulevards, potted palms, and a relative, if never absolute, sense of order. The air was softer.
On my first day there, I got lost. Walking to a Starbucks, the country’s first, not three blocks from the hotel, I pitched a hairpin turn and ended up a block off, then two. I was a mile out when I found a second Starbucks (Saigon has several) and ducked inside, the topaz afternoons from the week prior having given way to a punctual three o’clock thunder.
A woman greeted me with a corporate smile and introduced herself as Lucy, the manager. Lucy the manager started to talk about how much she loves the company and how she hopes to keep working there for years to come. I began to regret telling her that I was American: she would not stop smiling about the whole business.
I asked Lucy if she found it strange to look out at the country’s communist flag, which hung limp in the plaza’s center. If it ever felt odd to work for a paragon, if ever there was one, of Western capitalism in a communist country. She stared, unblinking.
“That is just our flag,” she said. I try to figure it out, this confusion. Lucy had worked at coffee shops all her life. She had started at a café like Cong, small and fiercely domestic, but applied to Starbucks when news spread that American companies gave reliable health coverage. Her old boss refused to offer Lucy anything, and this, along with the hazy labor violations to which she alluded in passing, was enough.
When I asked another barista at a different Starbucks, the one I had planned to find all along, he said nearly the same. Once again there was a flag just outside the window, and once again I pointed and asked him what he thought about it. I couldn’t think of a more foolish question, he seemed to say. In fact, he nodded and said, “Yes, that is our flag.”
It was just as well. When you travel, you ask the same question, again and again, when you confront the very-first of a thing: what is that? To me, the traveler, it is a flag of Vietnam hung outside is an emblem is a symbol is a tattered break for revolution is a paragon is a—well, is a flag, hanging limp.
My first Friday night in Hanoi, I found myself in a crowded bar with a bunch of expats. Four balding Vietnamese men stood on a stage and played American rock. They rarely spoke in English, slurring the words into hums. I couldn’t recognize a single song. No sooner had I settled to sip my drink than I realized that this—the cool menthol, fleshy limbs, bobbing out-of-tune guitars, the baby plopped on a motorbike outside—was absurd. None of it made any sense. No one seemed to notice when I folded my arms and lay my head on a cool patch of the table’s wood. My eyes shut to the red light as it warmed my cheeks.
Hayley Byrnes ‘16 is an English major in Silliman College. You can reach her at email@example.com.