My first real ca phe sua da came on a street corner in Saigon. I had arrived in Vietnam 12 hours earlier, spent the first night huddled in the dark corner of a vaguely depressing club, and suddenly felt a hot mess of ambivalence closing in on me. I sat down on one of the tiny plastic stools used by every street vendor in the country and pointed at what the other stool-squatters had before them: a small French-style filter on top of a glass with an inch layer of sweetened condensed milk. The coffee, thick and black as crude oil, drips one drop at a time into the white puddle below, a striking juxtaposition that doesn’t disappear until you remove the filter and plunge the whole solution into a glass of ice and stir.
The French may have introduced the coffee bean to the Vietnamese back in the 19th century, but the Vietnamese soon made it their own, cultivating beans in the central highlands, extracting it into rocket fuel, and mixing it with canned milk, the only consistent source of dairy available to them. The result is the loudest cup of joe you’ve ever experienced; it is to Starbucks what pho is to chicken soup.
While urban planning constraints and moto proliferation creates a certain claustrophobia in places like Saigon and Hanoi, the ca phe corners serve as little oases for the hardened local and the weary traveler alike. You’ll find places like this all over Vietnam, impromptu cafes that keep the country caffeinated and allow denizens to cling to some semblance of peace amidst the concrete chaos. Here, coffee is more a sit-me-down than a pick-me-up proposition, a way to rest your feet and collect your thoughts amidst the stew of smog and honking horns that clings to every inch of urban life.
Its restorative qualities have little to do with the coffee itself, which any American urbanite with a fixie and facial hair would dismiss with a flick of the wrist. The beans are over-roasted, the coffee over-extracted, the whole flavor thrown wildly out of balance by the syrupy sweetness of the condensed milk. While on paper it’s a bit of a train wreck, in a frosty glass under the brutal Asian sun, only a chilly bastard would find ca phe sua da anything other than unspeakably satisfying.
On that first afternoon in Saigon, I drank three before the old woman with the gentle face put her hand on my shoulder and told me no more. I don’t remember if she spoke English or not, but the message was clear. My hands were trembling and my heart was beating in my throat; Vietnam was suddenly wide open.