I remembered the bewilderment I felt, during the first few months of my stay in the Netherlands, when a Dutch friend revealed to me that going to a café was very different from going to a coffee shop. A café is that place we all know, where you can enjoy a good latte (sometimes not so good) and relax in a comfy sofa. A coffee shop for the Dutch is something else entirely – it’s where you buy weed.
For some reason, that reminds me of the coffee culture in Vietnam. “Wanna go grab a coffee?” (“Đi cà phê không?”) is almost like a catching phrase for us Vietnamese, but I can count on one hand the number of times I actually order a coffee when I go out with my friends. We say it so often, whenever we meet someone new, or want to catch up with our friends, or to woo that cute guy we have been staring across the classroom for some times now.
But “go grab a coffee” is not really about the coffee itself (never mind the fact that we have one of the best coffee in the world). No, it’s an excuse. It’s something used by Vietnamese when they want to have a chat that would last a few hours, jumping from one place to another. When I go to a café with my friends, I rarely order a coffee – I’m not a big fan of that bitter and dark liquid that so many people swear by.
Does it matter? The coffee is not the point
Vietnam as a nation is obsessed with coffee. We farm the beans, we ground them, we invent our own ways of drinking coffee. When I go out in the Netherlands, I’m always greeted with the same menu selections – Espresso, Latte, Cappuccino, Macchiato. Times like that, I miss my country’s wide array of coffee. Dark, brown, iced, or Egg Coffee, Yogurt Coffee, Coconut Coffee. Vietnamese people’s creativity with food is endless, and it is reflected in the way we drink coffee, and our numerous variations of it.
You can also say we are obsessed with coffee in the sense that we are perpetually out at a café every other day (or every day, for some people). The past few years have witnessed the bloom of milk tea establishments all over the country. The street near my house now has more than ten milk tea places. However, cafés still maintain their unique standing in the Vietnamese culture. More pop up every day, with unique designs and interesting drinks menu. People go to café for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and through the night.
What do we do there, you wonder? It’s not always about enjoying a good cup of coffee. We’re catching up with our friends, we’re sharing cute cat pictures, we’re working on the next big report.
“Wanna go grab a coffee?” is about quality time with friends and pouring our hearts out over some issues. Who knew that dark, bitter liquid has such power?
So the next time a Vietnamese friend of yours ask you “Wanna go grab a coffee?”, think about the implications behind those simple words. Think about the fact that us Vietnamese tend to be rather round-about and we revel in lacing our true intentions between innocent invitations. Don’t think about how you detest coffee, because you can get anything else in the world aside from coffee, and think about how much you will enjoy your time together with your friend.
Looking for recommendations? If you’re in Hanoi, head over to Hoan Kiem Lake. On Dinh Tien Hoang street, on the second floor of a bag shop, there’s this little nest called Dinh which has the most heavenly egg coffee and a fantastic view of the lake. It’s a perfect blend of old Hanoi charm, good drinks and a chill environment.