The day I first set foot on a Saigon street by myself, without anyone demanding my attention, a cacophony of honking, scooters speeding by, and construction work greeted my morning. I took out from my pocket a newly bought reporter style notebook. In it is a list of cafés I curated myself from various blogs, writing down the ones that caught my interest – making sure I wrote each one’s idiosyncrasy. Most of them were within a two-kilometer radius from where I stayed so everything was a few minutes’ walk. Which café to visit all came down to an arbitrary decision. Never has the selection process of where to drink coffee been this interesting
Being a tourist, I did not care to equip myself a local phone plan. That meant that my connectivity to the rest of the world and Google was kept within the walls of my apartment. Nevertheless, I had managed to load the route to the day’s choice café. After a few minutes’ saunter in the Saigon heat, I found that I had lost my location’s accuracy – the only thing I could understand forsook me. But, my lust for the city’s caffeine (or should I say my desire to take photographs of sophisticated interiors) didn’t wane down. Locals were bemused as I tried to mouth the street name. We parted smiling, mutually agreeing that it was in vain. Despite the growing exhaustion, I trudged along. My head tilted and turned in every angle the neck is capable of. The signs all seemed copies of each other as the language was alien to me. I felt somehow that my destination was just somewhere around the corner.
All in all, the twenty-minute walk that the GPS had projected ended up becoming a half hour excursion. I mustered what was left of my energy to sit down with grace at what was, I would assume, the least wanted table. My shirt stuck to my torso as the menu was handed to me, but I found consolation in the light breeze that circulated inside the café thanks to the wide windows. It did not take long for me to adjust to the intimidating monetary numbers of the items. This menu in particular subscripted the thousandths. Having given my order, I scanned the room. Westerners occupied the most inviting of tables with glowing white apples before them, seemingly preoccupied with work. It was a bizarre sight. I knew I was in Asia, but not one guest was Asian. “Vietnamese Iced Milk Coffee for you, sir,” said the jovial local barista.
As I settled in the placid environment, a glass of ca phe sua da halfway to empty, I realized that despite mammoth international cafes (just a handful in Saigon) sprouting around ever so leisurely, Saigon’s best is kept secret in decrepit buildings and suspicious alleyways. Its discovery is only possible with adventurousness and a keen eye for inconspicuous guiding signs hidden in graffiti and dilapidated walls.
This post by Anton Miguel Llanes-Avendano, from Manila, who fell in love with coffee on his first trip to Vietnam. Follow his adventures on his Instagram account.