Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

Coffee and Coffee Shops in Asia

August 27, 2010

While writing my feature film, I turn to my coffee cup and am reminded how far I’ve actually travelled. The coffee I made today comes Vietnam, some of the best damn coffee I’ve tasted on my travels. I spent a lot of time in coffee shops, usually alone. After reading through my notes of my trip, I realized that I make a lot of comments about coffee or coffee shops so I thought I’d write them up. I’ve even included pictures for my fans out there who requested them.

As a warning, I am a professional coffee taster. Fully certified by several countries since my graduate years. Every word in this article can be taken to be The Word On Coffee and backed by my caffeine-stained, yellow-toothed smile. Further, I drink my coffee “pure,” i.e. black, no milk, no sugar.

Laos:

The bag of coffee I bought here wasn’t fresh as the beans had already dried. But I think the greatest thing about having coffee in Laos is the utter tranquillity of the place. No rush here to get your move on, only freshly ground, brewed coffee and WIFI for all of us hardcore interneters. Not only that, Laos is still pretty cheap. It was in this country that I and my Polish travelling companion debated about my Ukrainian-ness and what heritage means. The beans for sale on the main streets were priced pretty high (30,000 Kip (~$3.75) for 250 g) while the markets offered larger bags for cheaper prices (maybe the robusta variety instead of arabica?). I bought my kilo for 50,000 Kip (~$6.25). Overall, either sitting on a balcony and watching the Mekong flow by or simply out on the street corner watching people (or debating Ukrainian-ness), Laos is one of the most peaceful places to sip a good cup of coffee.

My coffee beans from Laos.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Hard to find a decent cup of coffee in PP but, if you must, go to the Foreign Correspondent Club (FCC) along the Mekong river. Found in a renovated villa from the French colonial era, the place is both a boutique hotel and a cafe. Get the double since a single is something like $2 whereas a double is $2.50 and is a generous serving of caffeine. Again, atmosphere is pretty cool and the service is great. The cafe is located on the second floor, overlooking the Mekong River, and out of reach of the hawkers working the street below. Lots of foreigners inside, lots of hawkers selling weed outside.

Busan, South Korea:

Okay, not much to write about here since most coffee here is made by companies similar to Starbucks and Second Cup in Canada. That is, they’re chain stores. Notable mentions include Angel-in-Us for having the Jamaican Blue Mountain blend priced at a “holy shit” figure of 7,000 Won for a mug. It’s okay, but, given it’s hype are being one of the best coffees in the world, I didn’t write to my mother about it. There used to be a Turkish restaurant in the Kyungsung University area that served great Turkish coffee, but it has since closed down.

The gold star, however, goes to Cherami, the cafe and bakery outside of Goejeong subway station (exit #6). They gave me a free piece of cake with every espresso or coffee order. The espresso itself was very good, and served in a very generous double portion. This is the coffee shop that I practiced “copy chuseyo” the most. And every time, the girl who worked the counter giggled. Worth the admission folks. I can tell you that the most expensive coffee I tried was here during the Pusan International Film Festival, topping out at $12 for a single espresso at one of the fancy hotels near Haeundae Beach. Maybe I said something wrong to the waitress (or didn’t say), but I don’t think the espresso should’ve cost that much. Ouch.

Taipei, Taiwan:

Monument Coffee. I’ve written about it before so I’ll leave this description brief. Using the Chinese Siphon coffee making method, the coffee took a full five minutes to make and was worth the wait. Highly recommended.

Vietnam:

Despite my differences with the hawkers of this coastal country, I will hands down give Vietnam the title of having the best coffee I tried. I am saddened by the fact that I did not bring more of it home with me. I did bring home a small coffee maker, but it’s been banged up since I left Vietnam (pictured below). The brewed coffee tastes and smells a whole lot sweeter than any other coffee I’ve tried. Served either in ice or hot (they look at you funny when you order hot coffee on a hot day), the coffee is pretty much the same all over the country. Saigon, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi all offer small Mom-and-Pop coffee shops that serve the same, if not better, coffee than the chain store, Highland Coffee. If you’re on the hunt for great coffee, go to Vietnam. Just watch out for those ladies around the lake who pretend to be English students.

My coffee maker from Vietnam. Best damn coffee I had.

Chiang Mai, Thailand:

Fresh Arabica beans for you here! The coffee shop I most frequented while my travelling companion was out with the Dengue Fever was Momo’s. It was in this city that I was able to pen most of the script for my feature film, The Musician, energized by the caffeine I sucked down in Momo’s. Not only that, I managed to find a kilo of freshly roasted arabica beans to take back with me, costing only 400 Baht (~$12). If there is one place I’d like to go back to just to drink the coffee it would be Chiang Mai. As a side note, you can also order coffee from Doi Chang Coffee including the renowned “Doi Chaang Wild Civet (Kopi Luwak) Coffee” which has passed through the “digestive track of a wild civet”. Fascinating. I have never actually tried this coffee, but I will probably order a bag just to see what it tastes like. Hmmm, two civets, one cup?

And that about does it for my coffee experience in Asia. I’m thinking I may just order my coffee beans right from Thailand from now on. Why bother with Starbucks any longer?

In my earlier post I mentioned that the coffee is brewed the Chinese way, complete with a propane torch, glass bulb, and two-foot filtration system, making the coffee to have 1/3 more caffeine than if brewed the more modern filter method. That is what the lady told me and showed me in her menu. I neglected to take a picture of the machine, but managed to snag the image below from Google. In any event, the coffee was expensive but worth every dollar. I tried the Blue Mountain blend (yes, the same as the one from Busan) and here it was much better.

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Vietnam Part 2: A girl, a dog, and some tea leaves

June 19, 2010

And the second part.

To finish up my eye-opening trip to Vietnam, once in Hanoi I met this “English student” around Ho Kiem Lake (maybe, but not likely a student). We’ll call her Doong. Doong was cute and knew all of the cute things us foreign guys like to see and hear (giggle at stupid jokes, ask what clothing items are in English, talk about family, and say that you have no boyfriend). I figured, “What the hell, let’s tag around this chick and see what happens. I don’t have much on me to steal.” So she takes me around the lake and it’s obvious she’s done this to others because she’s got her script in the little black book that she keeps showing me. Whatever, carry on. Doong mentions that he uncle’s house is nearby and that we could drop in to say “hi.” A few things run through my mind as this point: 1) this is where I should say “thank you” and move away because her uncle is member of the Vietnam Mafia. 2) I check my pockets for condoms. 3) Check the woman’s features in case I need to make a police report. So with those thoughts running through my mind, I decide to join her.

Finally, we come to Doong’s “uncle’s house”. For those of you thinking that this was a bad idea, well, yes, probably. Her uncle wasn’t around, but her cousin was. He was tending to the moto-renting business. We go into the garage and sit at the back behind the motos. He offers me something to drink (I’m waiting to get poisoned and robbed any minute here) and we get talking (well, he didn’t actually speak English, so this chick had to interpret). After a few minutes, he pulls up a bong from which he smokes Vietnamese tobacco. Me, having a Yes-Man moment, decide that it would be a GREAT idea to try this thing out. Holy fuck. Bong goes my head. And that was a small, improper toke. He’s so pleased by my ability to smoke, he invites me to dinner. We agree that I need to go shower and should return to his place around 6 pm. Doong doesn’t want to come back cause she doesn’t like to see me drinking and smoking (awww, what a wonderful girlfriend she would make! She’s concerned about me!!), but I convince her to join me because there’s no way I’m going to sit by myself in a moto-rental shop with her tokin’ cousin and a bunch of his friends.

6 pm, dinner time. He cooks up some pig, rice and some vegetables, pulls out some Bia Ha Noi, and invites a couple other friends over for the celebration. Doong doesn’t want to drink, but I’m all for it. Since I went back to the hotel, I emptied my pockets of everything worth stealing and only kept my insurance papers and some cash. After the beer’s finished, we drink the home made “Ro” (rice-whiskey, similar to lao-lao) and that fucks me up. In any event, after drinking so much, I gotta pee. Go to the toilet. Leave toilet, spook dog, dog bites my foot. FUCK! Now I’ve been bitten by a fucking dog in a developing country! If there’s one thing you HAVE to go to the doctor for, it’s getting bit by a dog. I sit down on the couch and let Doong spray some anti-septic on my foot and bandage me up while her cousin tells me that it’s not a “crazy dog.”

Bandaged and still eager to continue on, I take another hit of that bong. And BONG! again goes my head. This toke doesn’t sit right, and you know what happens when you feel that way. So up comes the good pig Doong’s cousin has cooked for us. Whoops.

But it doesn’t end there.

Not to be daunted by the dog bite or the up-chucking, I tell my man Ling or Lao or Lou or whatever his name was (Doong’s cousin’s friend who can speak English), that I’d like to see some live music, jazz specifically. So we get on his moto and find a jazz club. It’s swinging and a great time. No worries. I request Rollins, and the band yelled something back in Vietnamese. Unsure what they said. I applauded anyway. And now Ling wants to go to a night club.

We go and it’s not such a big deal. Hip hop mostly complete with choregraphed dancers on the bar tables. Kinda expensive, 500,000 VND but we have a good time (on my dollar, btw).

Drunk, bitten and in need of some sleep or a woman, I get Lao to drop me off somewhere close to my hotel. He dropped me off a block away from my hotel but SOMEHOW I got lost. So, what happens? Well, some dude pulls up on a moto bike and offers me some weed. I say “yea, that’d be a great idea” (it wasn’t). I ASK if he has change (Steve, you did what?) for a 500,000 bill (how much did you show him you had?). Which he grabbed from my hand and drove off (did you at least get the weed?). No weed, but some nicely packaged tea leaves.

Upset at being ripped off, I decide it’s a good idea to try to rob a moto driver (at this point, I thought of Vietnam as a collective organism committed to one thing, telling the world how horrible their history is and bilking all tourists of their money). Well, sheeit, the first guy who stops screams bloody murder and all of a sudden, the cops magically appear! WOW! Try to get that service anywhere else! The good Lord was above me then because I back off knowing that going at it with the cops would probably be a worse thing than the dog, the puking and losing $25… and much tougher to explain.

Maybe one day my opinion of Vietnam can change, but right now, I’m glad I’m out of there.

PS – Be careful of boom-boom, there may be more behind the abbreviation of the country’s currency than you think.

PPS – I did see one guy die on a bench by the lake. His friend was either trying resusitate him or kill him more by hitting and jumping on his chest. Kinda sickening, actually. Cops showed up and casually walked over to the bench and didn’t even touch the guy. Weird.

PPPS – It was on the way to Vietnam I created the following playlist. Not sure if it says something about my state of mind or if it’s just a series of good tunes to listen to.

So What – Metallica’s version

Fuel – Metallica

Breakin’ me Down – Soil

Halo – Soil

Garden of Eden – Guns N’ Roses

Die, Die my Darling – Metallica

Alconol – Ciaira’s tears

Vietnam Part 1: The Good and Bad

June 12, 2010

Well, I’ve waited to write this post for quite some time because I didn’t like the place. Then, I ended up writing so much that I have to cut it into two parts to make it more digestible. So, part 1 is about the positives and negatives of Vietnam. Part 2 is about an eventful day during my last week in the country.

Simply put, Vietnam would be better without the people. Let me clarify, it would be better without the people who work with tourists, especially the hawkers, the hotel managers with “Great suggestions”, persistent tuk-tuk and moto drivers (who, without a misstep in their English, go from offering rides on a motorcycle to rides from a woman to marijuana), and finally, the constant dread of getting ripped-off or robbed everywhere just because I am white and APPEAR to have the money to travel.

Didn’t like it.

To be fair, I’d heard about the annoyances in Vietnam before going, but nothing can prepare you for the real thing. Since I’d been in Thailand and Cambodia, I thought I could handle Vietnam. The big problem, however, is that Vietnam, unlike neighbouring Cambodia, Laos or even Thailand, the price hardly budges on most things. If the seller says something is 50,000 Dong, then that’s the price and good luck trying to get it down. When you do, they whine and complain about the low price. It would be okay if the price were fair to begin with, but it often isn’t. They see a foreigner and they think “ATM! Let’s make a withdrawal!” It seemed as if Vietnamese folks are not friendly unless you have a wad of cash in your hand, or the look of a foreigner (who are supposed to have a wad of cash in his pocket).

There are some positives to Vietnam. Great scenery, amazing coffee, cheap suits, and a chance to learn some history from the non-American view. Personally, the day trip I took to the former DMZ was probably the best one. The scenery was gorgeous and the guide we had was very good at informing us at the current situation of Vietnam (it’s shit). Basically, under all that wonderful scenery lay about 10,000 unexploded ordinances, meaning if you step off the bus and wander into the bush to piss or fuck, you run the risk of losing a limb.

The coffee is simply great. It was hard to find great coffee in Bangkok and southern Thailand, except for the American brand names and Italian copies. The only coffee worth mentioning in Cambodia is at the FCC. But Vietnamese coffee is astounding in most places. Costing just over $1 per cup (and a very small cup), you don’t need the Starbucks grande dark roast to feel alive. Nope, one cup of Vietnamese coffee is sufficiently strong to get you going. Any more and you’re wondering how to use all of your energy (a few suggestions come to mind, none clean).

We’ll see how the suits hold up, but I bought a couple of suits in Hoi An. They looked great and were apparently made from “Italian” wool (is it really Italian?). I needed some suits for the next couple of years (yes, I don’t buy them often) and something that looks good. So, two 3-piece suits, shoes, ties, cufflinks, and 6 shirts later, I realize I now have to cut my southeast Asia trip a little short. Pinstrip, one is double-breasted which is damn hard to find these days in regular suit shops. It was great though, they have CATALOGUES of stuff to choose from. Pick what you want, fabric and they’ll have it made within 24 hours. They’ll even help you ship it home (mine have yet to arrive, and so I’ve got to thinking about the BRILLIANT scam it would be to operate a clothing business that then swipes the clothing from the post office and pays out only the maximum insurance of $500… I’ve been in Vietnam for too long.) I’ll let you know how those suits hold up.

Most of all, Vietnam was a two and a half week history lesson. Go to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and you won’t hold the tears and disgust back. The pictures aren’t viewer-friendly, this is history as it happened. Complete with a box that holds two fetuses deformed by Agent Orange, a multitude of pictures showing body parts and other remains of dead people, the museum left an indelible mark on my mind. My experience at the War Remnants Museum was followed up about a week later in Hoi An when I took a day trip with a moto-driver who wouldn’t leave me alone during my morning breakfast. Finally agreeing to the price of $25 for him to take me around for the day, I talked to him about how many people are just barely scraping a living since property taxes are so high in Vietnam (which is why many of the buildings are tall and narrow, something to do with the frontage costs). To add to that sob story, I met an ex-American Ranger while on the moto ride. It was his 4th or 5th time that he’d back to the country, revisiting the places that he’d been as a soldier. He told me some stories and talked about the book he’s writing. The entire story was fascinating, and it was really interesting to be between two Vietnamese moto drivers whose fathers were probably maimed, wounded, or horribly scarred by the war, and this American military dude doing the rounds to come to terms with what he had done during the war. So, at the end of the day, I felt so bad about being a “well to-do tourist” that I gave the moto-driver an extra 100,000 VND (~$5).

And that sums up the good and bad of Vietnam. Next, I hope to share a laugh at my expense by sharing with you one of the events that happened to me during my last week in the country.

Southeast Asia and the Great Documentary Project

April 4, 2010

Hello everyone,

I just set this account up and haven’t had much, or any time, to actually get things rolling. I did a bunch of writing on my iPod but can’t find a Wi-Fi place to use at the moment, so I’ll upload those later.

Anyway, just arrived in Phenom Penh, Cambodia. I’ll be here for 2 weeks, and travelling around Cambodia for a third week before moving on to Vietnam.

More later.


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