The first thing a stranger needs to learn in Ho Chi Minh City is how to cross the road. It’s a daunting challenge that requires a fine balance of nonchalance and acute awareness, of deliberate forward motion and hesitancy. Facing down a phalanx of buzzing mopeds with riders expressionless behind helmets and masks is dizzying. It takes a while to discover that it’s a dance of giving and take; that the moped riders will flow around you; that, in the end, the last thing to do is stop. Maybe that’s the essence of Ho Chi Minh City itself.
It’s a metropolis where it feels as though the future has burst its banks. Skyscrapers rise out of the ground, obliterating neighborhoods where family life once played out at street level. And yet, at the foot of one of these glass-and-steel monoliths sits an old lady, skin like fragile rice paper, serving steaming pho (noodle soup) from an old cart, as if nothing at all has changed.
The best way to enjoy this peculiar balancing act is to sit on the balcony of one of the innumerable coffee houses scattered throughout the city. This way you will be out of the fray but able to look down on the street hustle below. You will also be drinking the beverage that must be at least partly responsible for the kinetic energy that has transformed this city into one of the most sophisticated commercial hubs of south-east Asia in just 20 years.
On the terrace of L’Usine, a French-inspired café overlooking the opera house, I ordered the classic Vietnamese coffee known as ca phe sua da – literally “coffee, milk, ice”. It comprises strong coffee, dripped from a small metal filter into a cup containing a quarter as much sweetened condensed milk, then stirred and poured over ice in a glass.
At first, I couldn’t bear its cloying sweetness, but three days in I’d grown addicted to the sweet buzz that follows a refreshing coolness on the tongue. It suits the humidity of the place in a way that an ordinary latte wouldn’t. Coffee was introduced to Vietnam by the French in the late 19th century but the country quickly became a strong exporter, as vast swathes of the highlands were given over to this important new cash crop. And now the Vietnamese have taken coffee to new levels of almost gastronomical – even medicinal – heights.
At Trung Nguyen Coffee – the Vietnamese equivalent of Starbucks, with a chain of cafés across the city – the coffee menu stretched to five pages. The vibe was studiously chic, with low-slung sofas and Seventies retro branding in orange and brown. Fellow patrons were largely beatnik-inspired youths and businessmen.
Coffee is taken seriously here, with beans from Italy, Japan, Turkey, and Ethiopia, but it was the varieties of Vietnamese coffee that deserved more exploration. They came with different bean combinations and recipes, and lofty names such as “Success”, “Creation”, “Discover” and “Thought”. I went for the “Passiona”, which was exclusively promoted for women with the promise that to drink this nectar would be to maintain perfect skin and a life of “passion and success”.
I drank it a lot, not necessarily because of its promises but because it was delicious. A kind of coffee smoothie, it was developed over the course of nine years and included a concoction of collagen, vitamin PP (to combat skin dryness) and rare oriental herbs. It was probably a calorie overload but became for me a daily ritual while I contemplated the city’s exquisitely balanced fusion of old and new.
At Mr Huynh’s street restaurant with no name, eating his signature beef pho under neon lights, I realised that no matter how many skyscrapers rise and how many mopeds speed towards the future, Vietnam’s past lives on in its food – in the steaming pho on street corners, in the markets with fish thrashing about in gleaming steel bowls, in the mounds of rice of a dozen varieties and the heaps of freshly harvested herbs. As Mr Huynh explained, few Vietnamese people own refrigerators because they buy everything fresh from the market.
Whether rich or poor, they prefer to eat on the street on tiny stools, and every restaurant uses family recipes passed down through generations. So it is that the hunky-dory youths with mobile phones pinned to their ears park their mopeds on the pavement, pull up a stool and eat the same food as their great-great-grandmothers did, long before the Vietnam War interrupted the gathering of rice in the paddies of the Mekong.
I bought my last cup of ca phe sua da from a street vendor outside the War Remnants Museum and drank it in the shadow of an old American tank with Lou, a young Vietnamese woman who still struggled with the war. Her name, Lou, had been given to her by a much-loved aunt who was separated from her family as a girl and ended up being taken care of by a French army deserter hiding from US troops in the mountains.
She went with him to France and it took her 30 years to find her way back to her family; to achieve that, she had to leave her beloved dog behind. The visit to the museum brought up sore memories for Lou, who’d had to change her foreign-sounding name in school to protect her from hatred as she might have been thought of as mixed-race.
“Everyone here has a story,” she told me. “Everyone lost someone, and many had to live with the shame of fighting on the wrong side. We fought and killed one another. No one talks about the war any more, as if it is over, but it isn’t really. It lives on in the silence.”
So in the cacophony that is street life in Ho Chi Minh City, each person carries the past as a secret wound, offering it quietly at his or her ancestral altars but forgetting it during the daily rush and the forgiving clatter of commerce. Vietnam has been invaded by the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and, finally, the Americans. That last legacy fills the rooms of the museum, where a visit concludes with eloquent photographs and testimony from the many, many people bearing the scars and disfigurements of chemical warfare.
Lou didn’t talk about it. Neither did I. We both sipped through our straws, drawing on the sweetness of our ca phe sua da as if it might dilute the bitterness of memory and loss.”