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.