The life of a pavement coffee seller
Written by: Carole Kendal
There’s something really special about Vietnamese coffee. I don’t just mean the flavour, I mean everything about it. The way it’s made, the way it’s served, the way it smells and tastes, and the way that it is such an important part of Vietnamese life, culture, and economy.
I can still remember the first time I drank coffee here. It had been a long tiring journey from England and I was desperate for a drink. Luckily, the waiter at the pavement cafe knew a little English. “Coffee with milk please,” I said. “Hot or iced?” came the reply. That was the first surprise. I’d never heard of iced coffee before and certainly had never come across anyone who drank it. I asked for hot coffee and a few minutes later a glass of warm, pale green liquid was brought to the table. I had no idea what it was. The waiter must have seen me pondering and told me that in Viet Nam, coffee is always served with tea. Another surprise. It looked nothing like the tea we drink in England. “This is tea???” I thought to myself. I had a lot to learn …
Eventually my coffee arrived. Not the steaming hot mug that I was expecting, but an eggcup-size glass containing an inch of thick black liquid, standing in a small glass bowl filled with warm water and a spoon. “Erm … milk?” I asked. The reply was “Stir, stir, stir, stir, stir!”, so I stir, stir, stir, stir, stirred and watched while the condensed milk, which was hidden at the bottom of the glass, mixed into the thick black liquid and turned it into a nice shade of nearly black. I took a sip. The smooth, thick, velvety texture, the bitter sweetness, and the chocolate-coffee taste was just incredible. I was instantly hooked! When the glass was empty I really wanted to wipe my finger around the inside of the glass to gather the rest of the thick liquid that was clinging to the sides, and then put my finger in my mouth. That would have been very rude so I had to resist the temptation … at least until no-one was looking!
I’ve learned a lot about coffee in Viet Nam since that time. It was first introduced by the French, who colonised the country from 1874 – 1954. In the 1890s they established coffee plantations in the central region (called Annam by the French) which, because of its varying climate and mountain slopes, is ideal for coffee growing. In 2012, according to the BBC, Viet Nam overtook Brazil to become the number one coffee exporter in the world. Vietnamese coffee is now available in more than 80 countries and regions. Brilliant!
Drinking coffee in Viet Nam brings people together and helps to build relationships. In the early morning, busy pavement cafes are often filled with old men who begin their day by chatting with their male friends while sipping a coffee. These discussions (and the coffee!) can easily last for a couple of hours, especially if the coffee is brewed in a drip filter (which I know now is called a ‘phin’). During the evening, the youths of Da Nang gather together in one of the beautiful and peaceful garden coffee bars to enjoy a coffee whilst chatting with their friends – or to date the opposite sex! Sunday morning is the time when entire families put on their best clothes and meet in a coffee bar to catch up on the week’s events.
57-year-old Le Van Dong and his wife, Dang Thi Truong, have been pavement coffee sellers for the last 15 years. Dong had many different jobs in his youth – he worked at Da Nang Port, sold wood for flooring, and delivered beer to restaurants, to name just a few of them. Then, aged 31, he went into a local coffee bar, fell in love with the girl who served him, and married her 6 months later. A very short courtship, but “Truong was so beautiful and gentle – I didn’t want to lose her to someone else,” said Dong. Proof that Vietnamese coffee really does bring people together!
|Truong and Dong|
Their coffee stall is located in the alley next to Indochina Riverside Towers on Bach Dang Street. It sells coffee (of course!), sandwiches, soft drinks, beer – and, unlike other coffee stalls, a range of top quality pre-loved golf balls! “Our busiest time is in the morning,” says Dong. “Most of our regular customers are young employees from companies in Indochina Towers, and they call here before work. This is when we sell lots of coffee, and also fried egg sandwiches which are very popular. We sell between 30 and 40 sandwiches every morning and it makes a big difference to our income.”
Travelling to work is no problem for Dong and Truong as their house is only yards from their stall. Dong gets up at 4.30am each day to boil water and prepare the coffee, and their stall is open from 6.00am to 6.00pm. “We take one week holiday during Tet, and sometimes we close on Sunday afternoons so that we can rest,” he says. I asked Dong if he enjoyed his job. After a thoughtful pause he replied “Enjoyment doesn’t really come into it, I have to work to earn money for my family. What I like about the job is meeting different people every day, and watching them enjoy the coffee that we make. What I don’t like is if we don’t have many customers – or when the weather is cold!”
“What makes your stall so popular?” I asked. “It’s because we only use quality coffee,” said Dong. “We buy it from Long and Trung Nguyen, and through our many years of experience we have learned how to blend it to get the perfect taste. We sell it at a reasonable price – and we are friendly!” That last sentence could not be more true. The coffee is beautiful, the price is low, and the smiles are never-ending.
Like many Vietnamese families, money is always tight. Dong’s hopes for the future are that he and Truong will stay healthy so that they can continue to work and ensure a good education for their children. He is very proud that their eldest son, 24-year-old Vu, has found a good job – and hopes that 21-year-old Khoa, who is in the final year of university, and 13-year-old Hau, will be equally successful. Me too.
I think about the last time I bought a coffee in England. I was in a coffee bar chain, sitting inside in a very comfortable padded chair in elegant surroundings. The coffee was 10 times more expensive than here but there was plenty of it. It was steaming hot and served in a china cup and saucer with a silver spoon. Then I think about Dong’s outside pavement stall, with the tiny plastic stools and tables and the inch of warm coffee in a tiny glass. Where would I rather be? No contest. “Ca phe sua nong please Dong!”Print