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November 13 • 05:21 PM
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A coffee conundrum


November 07, 2018
Not long ago on a fine October morning—the kind where the air is nice and somewhat crisp—I sat outside a café as I gazed at the mottled shade of a tree dancing on the pavement.

On my table was one of the weaknesses of any sweet tooth in Vietnam: a coconut coffee, which is basically espresso that has been mixed with a kind of sweetened coconut sorbet to produce a smooth, slushy, voluptuously brown treat. However, the café I was at is known to serve one of the best versions in my city of Danang, where you yourself can pour the espresso onto the sorbet and watch its darkness sink down the side of the glass as it tantalizingly intermingles with the white of the coconut. Truly a marriage made in heaven.

The cost? About two dollars.

This is a more expensive luxury than at other places, where the same goes for about $1.30. Even at that price, a coconut coffee is still somewhat of an indulgence here; the average coffee goes between $0.35 and $0.50.

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Such differences are nothing in the U.S., but over here, they mean everything.

This creates something of a cultural window that I've come to notice around Danang. I'm often fascinated by how relatively small price variations between different establishments often dictate which members of the socioeconomic spectrum gather there.

For example, when I go across the street for a lunch of rice and meat for about $0.65, I sit at a small plastic table beside the raggedy-clothed laborers who work at the nearby construction projects. If I feel like a meal at a place where the cost is merely double that, however, I eat in the company of professionals attired in business casual.

This latter category more or less described the smartly-dressed husband and wife that sat nearby, looking on as their small daughter wandered around in her cute little dress. I took my spoon and savored a little more of that rich, muddy goodness.

And what was my place in all of this, I asked myself. I was just a humble teacher (or so I consider myself), and yet here I was, earning a wage that gave me easy access to the higher pleasures with which one can pamper themselves here. I admit that I was not totally comfortable sitting at that place, as if the fact that I all too often find myself in the fanciest cafes or at the nicest restaurants in this city somehow effaces my humility.

I often think about the people in blue uniforms whom I see sweeping the streets in the dead of night here; they toil visibly and yet will probably never enjoy the same lifestyle that I do. Or else I think about the teaching assistants and even Vietnamese English teachers I constantly rub shoulders

with, whom, despite working as hard or sometimes harder than I do, make only a fraction of what I earn.

Was that it? Was I becoming too immodest, slipping from my character? I never answered the question. I needed to attend to my coconut coffee, which was slowly melting.

Yes, it was a fine morning indeed. Fine as anyone could ask for.

Email Andrew at tct@pageone-inc.com.

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