If I asked you what country grows the best tasting coffee you might say Columbia. After all they produce 15% of the world’s coffee and their Arabica beans are highly sought after by Starbuck’s and others. If you’re more of a traditionalist you might prefer beans from the small highland farms of eastern Ethiopia. That’s where some say the first cup of coffee came from. Or if you have a refined palette and feel $60 a pound is a reasonable price Jamaica may be your brew. Of course there’s no right answer. What you think tastes best can only be decided by you and your taste buds. Despite living in the shadow of the snob hill of coffee, Seattle, I still have a fondness for the sludge I drank during the Brat Pack and Reagan years, Maxwell House.
However, if I asked you to list the two countries that produce the most coffee beans in the world the correct answer would not include Columbia, Jamaica, or Ethiopia, it would be Brazil followed by Vietnam. I didn’t know that when I entered the Yellow Chair Cafe in Saigon. From the outside the charming cottage-like cafe appeared too sophisticated for a wrinkled shirt with a frayed collar and a pair of dusty boots. I crept in sheepishly. The parlor was a mix of stuffed chairs with soft high backs and solid wooden ones with spindle backs. There were just a few tables and each was finished with the same ebony stain as the chairs. The midday sun surged through the wall of arched windows casting halos around the heads of baristas and elevating the upholstery’s silky finish to a shimmer. The long bar where the espresso drinks were refined was hand carved and bathed in the same dark oils as the tables and chairs. There was no plastic or formica, just cloth, wood, granite and craftsmanship. How could a wee business offering only coffee and tea afford such an upscale setting? I was the only customer.
I rested my pack on the floor against the leg of a soft chair. From the private upper level a woman with ample poise began to descend the curving staircase. She carried a well groomed floppy eared lap dog, they settled in two tables away. The dog was as curious as I was but less inhibited. He sniffed my backpack then my outstretched hand then his legs gave way and he gently planted himself on top of my pack and I continued to rub his head. We were both feeling good.
“He’s normally not friendly with strangers,” the woman said.
Looking down at the dogs’ shuttered eyes and flaccid stress free body I found that hard to believe. Perhaps I discovered the magic spot. It was just behind his right ear.
As the woman spoke it became clear that she was the owner and her business was not based on selling cups of coffee and tea.
“Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee beans in the world,” she said. “But the beans are not good. They blend them with high grade beans from other countries to make coffees for the big companies. But our business is different, we grow good beans. We want to break into the top level of coffee growers. We have been to trade events in all the big cities, like New York, to show them Vietnam can grow the best coffee beans.”
“Your coffee shop is the prettiest I’ve ever seen,” I said.
“Thank you. We opened it to have a place to show the coffee buyers how good our beans are, not to sell cups of coffee.”
With the mystery of The Yellow Chair Cafe solved I headed back to the hostel to arrange a tour of the Mekong Delta.
Piranhas are ugly fish that taste delicious and like coffee beans I associate them with South America, not southeast Asia. Yet, the following day piranha was the lunch offering on our tour of the Mekong Delta. Our five woman and one man (me) tour group was guided by a small-boned handsome lad who could have been mistaken for a member of an Asian boy band. He possessed a sarcastic wit and was bursting with enthusiasm which was essential considering the tour included biking, canoeing, a horse and buggy ride, visiting a coconut candy factory, draping a python around your neck and sticking your finger in the center of a swarm of bees. It started gently with a stop at a Buddhist temple. Although French rule brought Catholicism and an elegant Notre Dame Cathedral to Vietnam, folk religion and Buddhism are still far more popular. Folk religion is the worship of ancestors and natural elements like wind, forests and oceans. Around half the Vietnamese practice folk religion, 12% practice Buddhists and 7% are Catholic. And despite being a Communist country 70% of the Vietnamese claim a religion. In America that number is slightly higher at 77%
At the river we boarded an old wooden boat with a rag top and low sides which allowed the breeze to buffet the wrinkled red faces of some and tangle the long youthful locks of others. Our shoeless captain kept his right hand on the tiller and threaded tautly across his big toe and extending under the sole of his right foot was fishing line. The line was tethered to the throttle of the engine hidden below deck. By pressing his bare foot against the fishing line he controlled the boats speed, a clever low tech gas pedal. With its tugboats, barges, a parade of container ships, and muddy waters, crossing the Mekong River was similar to crossing the lower Mississippi. We chugged through the milk chocolate waves to a small island geared for tourists and the growing and processing of coconuts.
We followed our spirited leader through a bright green forest of breadfruit the size of softballs and jackfruit twice that size to a beehive at the edge of a small village. With dramatic flare he extracted a frame filled with honey and covered with bees.
“Who wants to put their finger in the middle of this swarm of bees and touch the honeycomb?” he asked.
I gallantly let one of the women step forward. Once as a child, while running through the Indiana sand dunes, I accidentally stomped on a nest of wasps. No matter how fast I ran they kept up and stung my face, ears, legs, everything. It was a long time before I could maintain my composure when a bee buzzed my head or attempted to crawl into my pop can. Placing my finger in the middle of a swarm of honey bees could be the final step in my recovery. How could I say no?
(Incidentally the worker bees in that hive did not have stingers. It was creepy to pass my finger through that cluster of bees but not dangerous.)
Near the center of the village we met a woman with a seven foot python. Like sticking your finger in a swarm of bees there’s no good reason to drape a python around your neck. It’s a cheesy tourist thing to do but considering my age it could be my last chance. I couldn’t go to my grave without holding a python.
It wasn’t a large one. They can grow to more than 20 feet long and weigh over 200 pounds, but even a seven footer gets heavy after a while. Pythons are a dense sleeve of muscle which never stops slithering and twisting. And they’re constantly turning and bobbing their head to get a lock on their prey. Their massive head contains powerful jaws and unlike venomous snakes which have a couple hollow fangs, pythons have teeth, about a hundred teeth and they’re sharp as needles. Having a python rise from your forearm, rotate his head 180 degrees and look you straight in the eye is unsettling. A few minutes into the experience I realized what a poor decision I made. As the leathery serpent inched his way up my chest, across my sweaty neck and down my right arm time moved slowly, like glaciers used to. The stout Filipino women in our group squealed something in Tagalog to her travel mate as the lofty blond Dutch girl reached for her phone. I smiled boldly as she digitized the moment but I didn’t achieve true happiness until the Vietnamese woman retrieved her snake from my neck.
A few minutes later the Dutch girls, the medical student from Seattle, and I were herded onto a scraped up traditional Mekong Delta row boat. It was piloted by a standing oarsman similar to a gondola but it lacked the Italian bling and stylish curlycues at the bow and stern. In fact there’s a good chance our boat spent some time at the bottom of the river buried in mud. For authenticity or simply to get back at us for the war our guide insisted we wear those large pointy hats with the bright ribbons that ties under your chin. If you’ve seen a movie with people in rice paddies you’ve seen the hat. Vietnamese call them a non la.
The canal-like river trickled through a tunnel of towering ferns, grasses and palm trees. The hats may have been protection from falling coconuts. The most interesting aspect of the trip was the men and women steering the boats. They had stoic stone faces, never said a word and unlike most the Vietnamese I met they were old enough to remember the fall of Saigon. Their scarred contorted feet made me wonder what they had experienced and what they could tell me if we shared a language.
The bike ride that followed took us on a circuitous route through the jungle and around small farms that appeared to be cultivated predominately by humans with hand tools. Like the bicycles we pedaled the farm machinery looked beaten down but functional – if you were a self-sufficient tinkerer. Other than the jackfruit, coconuts and breadfruit I didn’t notice anything exotic growing in the fields. The salad at lunch was deliciously fresh but contained the same greens and tomatoes you would find in the states.
Now the fish, that was different. The one piranha was large enough to feed all five of us and it was served whole with his lips puckered and his razor teeth glaring. Piranhas are not native to Vietnam but for a time they were imported and raised in fish farms. Like the illegal dumping of pythons in the Florida Everglades, the Vietnam government realized if idiots started throwing piranhas into the waters of the Mekong Delta it would destroy the fishing industry. So, in 1998 the government outlawed the import, breeding and selling of piranhas. How effective that law has been I can’t say but based on what they’re serving on the Mekong Delta Tour I have some doubts.