Posts Tagged 'coffee'

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.

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Little Artist Girl, Hoi An

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.

I got up and paid for the best glass of coffee I had in Hoi An.

Hanoi’s Secret Cafe

I love rooftops, and I love rooftops in cities—sitting up on your bird’s perch and watching the strange dance of it all.

There’s no pigeons in Hanoi (except the ones you see plucked and pink at the food stalls), and there’s virtually no places to take respite.

Jacob told me about the secret cafe—not so much a secret, but a nameless, signless place you could never find without looking for it. On a road behind Turtle Lake, beside an especially terrifying roundabout, at the heart of the chaos—a nondescript storefront shop selling all the usual lanterns and bags and lacquered art. You walk past it, through it, down and back, what looks like the dim hallway to some squalid toilet.

It actually leads to a cafe, opening up into a courtyard that evokes the same “ah” sensation as stepping into a riad from the din of a Moroccan medina. A girl thrust a menu at me and told me I needed to order there, right there, before going any further. I pointed to the coffee with milk and egg white, as recommended, and the girl moved aside and let me pass.

I climbed up a flight of stairs, past a set of carved doors left ajar, revealing a glowing, smoldering altar within. Up another skinny staircase, and I was at a quiet little terrace that overlooked the lake, the skyline, the swarming street, the madness of the city.

It was my fourth day in Hanoi, and I was only then beginning to make sense of it. Its roads were a tangle of incomprehension, like lines in a palm whose fortune you couldn’t quite decipher—electrical wires and branches the gentle hatch marks that lay like a webbing, even less decipherable in what was certainly a story, certainly trying to say something.

But on the terrace it almost made sense, or at least begin to take shape. The other tables were sparsely inhabited by couples, leaning in and speaking low, by a few other foreigners smoking and reading. My egg white coffee came and it was goddamn delicious, thick and like a milkshake. I spooned it to myself like I were my own infant and sat there, just sat, thinking my nothing thoughts and watching.

It was refreshing, to be up there like a bird, in a city that doesn’t have any—to enjoy a moment of peace amid the frenzy. Which is a metaphor for life, in the way it’s all a metaphor for life—one great metaphor beneath the surface of everyday, at the center of everyday, everything just an arrow, pointing, leading, hinting us towards some soft secret (down a passageway, behind a trinket shop)—nudging us towards something we can’t possibly ever know or say, can only sense sometimes, in the still moments—can only approximate, speak about in abstractions, relationally. Which is why it’s a metaphor in the first place, and not The Real Thing—why we need metaphors and egg white foam in thick coffee and pretty little terraces to take a breather on.

Hanoi Secret Cafe: 11 Hang Gai


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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