The best cup of coffee—or rather, glass of coffee, tinkling with ice cubes and a teeny spoon for stirring—I had in Hoi An wasn’t at one of the wicker-chair, wifi-ready terrace cafes with an English menu. Sure, those were nice too: to sit and look out on the lantern-lined pedestrian streets and tailor shops and footbridges and the grey strip of water on which paper-mache Tet floats and old wooden boats nodded “yes, yes.”
But those were more of the ambiance. The best actual coffee I had was at a plastic-chair, sooty-pavement stall near where locals loaded their motorbikes onto a dingy barge and set sail, to somewhere off into the reedy horizon.
I sat sighing and stirring and soaking in what felt like a private nook amidst the “charmingly touristy” bustle of the city (it really is quite lovely, in spite, or because of, all the tourism). I observed the goings-on, and then I noticed her: a little artist girl, studiously perched over her clipboard.
She was fully absorbed in her work, a study of the colonial building across the street. The bicycles and motorbikes and swarm of people didn’t seem to exist to her—she sat focused, consumed by the work at hand.
Passerbys stopped to observe her; she didn’t seem to notice. Old men who sat smoking, drinking coffee, waiting alongside the docked boats for an indeterminate something, slowly got up to watch her. They stood around nodding; she didn’t look up once. Nothing else seemed to exist; none of it—the people, the street, its bustle, the whole honking world—mattered except the building, her drawing.
She was an artist at work. In her poofy red vinyl skirt, her frilly white socks, her fuzzy beret; her unwavering black eyes and posture of pure commitment —a perfect little artist.
She worked for the duration of my leisurely linger. Eventually she looked up, over at a man that might have been her father. He nodded, tenderly clipped another board atop her drawing to protect it from the flurry of the street. He took her hand and they walked off together.