Expensive, Bad and Popular: The Mystery of Highlands Coffee

It was gonna be bad. And not just bad—cheesy, inauthentic and fuck-all expensive. And yet I felt that sneaky smile, that oh-God-I-hope-no-one-sees-me sensation.

I let myself get sucked into the air-conditioned arms of Highlands Coffee.

It’s the Starbucks of Saigon, and morbid curiousity led me to do it—the same cringing magnetism that inspired me to watch Eat, Pray, Love on the airplane (which I incidentally thought was more about codependency than travel). But it’s not just uniformed workers serving bland psuedo-Italian espresso drinks and pre-packaged sandwiches that makes it lame. It’s the utterly, unabashedly Western approach to coffee, and the inherent riddle of it: why does a country that already has its own distinct coffee culture need a Starbucks rip off?

Fancy coffee: it’s the international sign of gentrification. No, no—it’s not just an Oakland thing, or a Brooklyn thing. We in the States may have moved beyond Starbucks to point that we can, oh say, smell the different between Blue Bottle and Four Barrel (I’m not proud), but I think the basic phenomenon is inherently the same.

Case in point: I was in a one-day writing workshop with a girl who was working on a piece about the burgeoning coffee scene in Seoul—hip young kids hanging out for hours, sucking down the sweet stuff—and how it signified a shift towards all things Western.

Fair enough. But why would Vietnam need something like Highlands? Why would anyone forgo a 50 cent ice-cube-brimming glass of powerful black and sweetened condensed milk, drank sitting on a plastic stool under a sun umbrella on the sidewalk—for a sterilized, $2 cup-and-saucer of shitty espresso?

Well, for one, I wanted to use their Wifi and make use of their Western bathroom to wash my face and take out my contacts before an overnight bus. But the rest of the folks, I dunno.

As one might suspect, the majority of customers filling the two-story, corner-office location were Westerns. They didn’t appear to be tourists so much as expats—discussing business deals on their iPhones, explaining their credentials to suited men who sat nodding thoughtfully, glancing at papers and sipping their cups. They filled the cushy, comfy chairs, and their chatter filtered softly beneath the piped-in soundtrack of easy-listening versions of “Seven Nation Army” and Mariah Carey Christmas carols (yes, it’s almost March).

The longer I sat, though, the more the perhaps true draw of Highlands revealed itself to me. A well-dressed Vietnamese woman ate a piece of chocolate mousse cake while her son pretended to do homework. She looked over at him every now and then, and corrected him snappily—mispronouncing the English words he was studying.

A group of women sat on a wrap-around maroon sofa. Their voices were low, speaking in an accented English. I eavesdropped: they were a Bible study. Several members were from Manila, the rest from a scattering of Asian countries. English was, of course, the common denominator language to discuss their newly embraced religion.

And it struck me that both groups were, in their own ways, trying to be Western, adopting the language, religion, dress—and coffee. Was that the answer to Highlands success, or its mere existence? That it catered to people striving, striving? And that it didn’t even matter if the coffee was good (it wasn’t), or that I cost more than my breakfast and lunch combined?

Was that the great global metaphor hidden inside an expensive cup of coffee—the symbol of it? Was it just a different version of me waiting in line at the farmer’s market for 20 minutes to get my special blend of $10 beans?

Well, an hour of free Wifi and one cup of crappy espresso certainly couldn’t answer all that. But it did serve to quell the curiousity—and convince me to stick to the street stalls.

4 Responses to “Expensive, Bad and Popular: The Mystery of Highlands Coffee”

  1. 1 neha February 26, 2011 at 10:28 am

    In defense of the ‘fancy’ coffee places, when they first came to India, it meant there was finally a place where you could hang out, arrange meetings, or go sit by yourself without having to deal with the weather (in Mumbai that meant crazy sun or crazier rain), or other people. Yeah, in the beginning there was a touch of aspiration about going for coffee. But in the long run it’s just about going some place where you can be, and the coffee and cakes end up being secondary.

  2. 2 Maharani Dawn February 26, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Highlands Coffee doesn’t quite serve good coffee. For the locals, it represents a new lifestyle. For expats, it’s just a place that kind of reminds you of the comfort you are used to at home. The air con and free wifi (free pc in some stores) make Highlands a great place to hang out.

  3. 3 Dianne Sharma Winter February 26, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Ha ha lonely girl! I know the trepidation of sneaking into starbucks for shitty coffee and free wifi! Strangely though, in India as Neha says its the Only Civilised Thing to do in the city, even if i love the roadside chai

  4. 4 Kirstin February 26, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    It’s similar in Bishkek. Every rich-boy college grad wants to open up a hip coffee shop (with real coffee! such a thing barely exists in the country) and other than some truly awful music choices, they’re great for meetings, wifi, and escaping the weather (just like India, I guess?). It’s interesting because Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a coffee culture at all other than this over-priced Western-style shops. I just visited Osh and discovered that the trend hasn’t reached down there yet; cafes are still plain white rooms, plastic cups of nescafe.

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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