Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Vietnamese coffee packs quite a punch

From our first breakfast in Vietnam we have been enjoying Vietnamese milk coffee. It arrives at your table in the form of a cup with a mini French press sitting on top of the cup. But it doesn’t look like a French press. Instead it looks like an aluminum (or in more refined shops, stainless steal) teacup and saucer with a cover on it sitting on your coffee cup. If you take the cover off, you can see the coffee grounds inside, covered with something that looks like a mini pot cover with a tiny handle. This little cover presses the grounds and allows the boiling water to flow through the perforated bottom of the cup.

At the bottom of the actual porcelain coffee cup (which is really the size of a tea cup) is ¼ of an inch of condensed milk. As the steaming hot coffee drips into the cup it melds with the creamy sweet milk. And within minutes you have a traditional Vietnamese milk (or white) coffee. No sugar needs to be added (the sweet condensed milk is enough). You simply then remove the whole contraption from the top of your cup, put the lid under the saucer (which fits perfectly) and any extra drops of coffee that did not make it into your cup are safely stored here. Ingenious system really!

The Vietnamese are very proud of their coffee. They have their own brand of weasel coffee where incredibly, weasels are fed the coffee beans, and after they make their way through the weasel’s intestines, the beans are retrieved (I’ll let the reader imagine the details), roasted and packaged. It is the premium Vietnamese coffee and sells at a very high price. Needless to say, the hotels and coffee shops normally stick to the normal regional grades of coffee, and we stayed far away from this particular brand. But coffee stands, selling the weasel brand as well as all other local beans are found in every city and town in the country. You can also buy the special French press-drip contraptions in all sizes to fit your coffee cup.

Mid afternoon on any day, you will see the locals in coffee shops of all descriptions, drinking coffee, ice coffee or tea, sitting on small plastic chairs on the sidewalk or in small shops, playing board games or simply shooting the breeze. We decided to stop in at a coffee shop in Dalat after visiting the city’s historic train station. And that is where we really found out what a punch Vietnamese coffee packs.

The coffee shop we chose was small with maybe six low tables inside and two or three on the sidewalk. Two young ladies seemed to own or run the place and they prepared a perfect cup of traditional coffee for us. As is custom in southern Vietnam, coffee is served with a herbal tea chaser. We have never gotten to the bottom of this custom, but we’re happy to have the two cups of steaming liquid in front of us to dilute the coffee’s punch. We easily sat back to watch the tranquility of Dalat’s lake as well as the passing action on the street. And action was indeed what was in store for us.

Just beside the coffee shop we had chosen was what we thought was another small coffee shop. It turns out it was an establishment that serves alcohol as well — or maybe Vietnamese coffee packs a bit more punch than we first thought.

While we were minding our business and enjoying an aromatic coffee on a quiet street in Dalat, we heard voices next door. The decibel of the interaction in the establishment beside us escalated quickly and before we knew what was happening, we could hear glass breaking, a woman screaming followed by several people running out into the street. There was a lot of shouting and a woman ran out into the street and shortly afterwards, a man followed who had his shirt unbuttoned and was clearly inebriated. He was eager to re-enter the shop, but the woman urged him to stay back. The tirade between the two men (one on the street and the other inside) was all in Vietnamese, so we had no idea what it was all about, but it escalated quite quickly and soon all of the men in our coffee shop were on the street looking in and a few motor bikes had stopped to see what was going on. I would have been very happy at this point to pay for our coffee and run in the opposite direction, but Marc seemed to think this was all very exciting and was watching it from his vantage point close to the action.

The man causing all of the trouble ran in and ran out of the shop several times. At one point he jumped on a motorbike and drove off. A shirtless man followed him and threw a shot glass in his direction that smashed on the street below. I can’t give you all of the details as I was purposely turned the other way, hoping not to draw attention to myself and not wanting to be “in the wrong place at the wrong time” so to speak. It was way too much excitement for me. Marc on the other hand, thought it was the most exciting thing we had done since our night of kick boxing. (Woman are from Venus and men are from Mars comes to mind .…)

Eventually things calmed down, we finished our coffee and tea chasers, paid our bill and walked the other way, back to our hotel. I guess we will never know if it was alcohol or just too much Vietnamese coffee that started the argument. The coffee is thick and potent and I did wonder if too much caffeine could frazzle the nerves enough to cause such a ruckus. I was just glad we managed to escape alive. Marc on the other hand chocked it up as being one of our great Vietnamese experiences. Go figure.

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