The Tua Hom Nghia Loi funeral parlour is doing a roaring trade today. The skeletal man who loads the coffins into a battered brown Toyota Tarago van is sweating finely as he shoves yet another wooden box into the cargo bay, sagging the suspension.
His gap toothed wife laughs sweetly as a little boy across the road sings a broken version of ‘happy birthday’ while the girl from the Mien Tay restaurant passes between them, balancing a steaming bowl of pho soup on a tray – a home delivery to an old lay rocking on a sidewalk chair in the afternoon heat.
I’m sitting on the veranda at the Elegant Fancy café, sipping a café sua da and puffing away on a cigar, watching beads of water sweat on the side of the glass, letting the time ooze along.
That’s the secret with café sua da. Draw it out and enjoy every slow sip.
They make it by roasting Robusta beans with butter to give a deep, almost burnt flavour to the Vietnamese coffee, which is brewed through a drip filter and poured over ice laced with a lashing of sweet condensed milk. A spoon and a straw are inserted, piercing through the layers of black and white, which you can combine to a golden brown with a few stirs.
The first few times I had café sua da I sucked it down in seconds. It’s irresistibly delicious – like Kahlua and chocolate cake, and never big enough, especially when you need a coffee fix.
But now I take my time, like the Vietnamese do, and sit and watch the life pass me by, read a newspaper, and take slow sips, teasing it out.
Vietnam is a conundrum – bold flavours and fast pace, but there’s always the slow way.
The streets of Saigon are crowded and busy, the traffic drives you mad. But there is order in the chaos, and courtesy – you can cross the road quite safely even in the most choked conditions, and no one goes faster than thirty.
People work long hours, but they also relax with a professional edge. It’s not uncommon to go into an office and see people curled up beneath their desks around lunchtime, relaxing through the slow business hours. They work hard and play hard, sometimes at the same time.
Café sua da is a lens that brings Vietnam into focus. Strong Vietnamese coffee mixed with sweet sugary milk is the usual recipe for an energy kick – but the locals sip them slowly and relax with friends. They drink them in the early morning, late at night, whenever the time feels right. They live first, and enjoy first.
As I suck the dregs of my drink I think about ordering another one. The coffin man brings yet another casket into the afternoon sun for delivery. My neighbour lights a cigarette with a match and shuffles his newspaper. An old lady tries to sell me lottery tickets, and a wicked wind curls dust from the road.
I hold up a finger and signal the waitress, but she’s fast asleep.