We had wandered into a little restaurant near the Ben Thanh market, right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh. We found seats where we could sit adjacent one another. Just days earlier the lovely Amy, girlfriend and companion in our six-month Asian adventure, and I had finally abandoned our professional lives in Melbourne.
We had spent the morning exploring a labyrinth of ramshackle laneways. First impressions were of a city well and truly on the move. The city felt alive. The air is hot and humid, life fast and busy. The hum of a million Motos was punctuated by a thousand different horns. This was Ho Chi Minh’s mood music.
Life was different here, more communal. The open-plan living rooms of the ramshackle little houses were often left open to the street. The division between public and private (so strictly enforced in western culture) is blurred. The street becomes an extension of the home and vice visa. You cook on the street and house your Moto in the living room.
A stroll down any Saigon laneway provides a hundred different snapshots of a hundred different lives. Grandma snoozing on the couch, people preparing dinner or kids watching tacky Asian soaps.
Our morning’s sample of completely different lifestyle brought on a bout of reflection on our previous life in Melbourne. Family, friends and fun times. Then, unfortunately, work filtered though my mind, the abysmal pretence at professionalism that had typified my previous three years at the University of Melbourne. Basically, I had spent my time there tricking people, my colleagues, into thinking that I knew what I was talking about, and potential students into buying an education that should be free.
What had I gained during that time? There were the couple of gems whom I had enjoyed working with. There was the staggering advancement to my grumpiness (life’s pretty tough for an eighty year old bastard trapped in the body a thirty year old). But what was most immediately evident (and the most likely to endure) was a monster caffeine addiction.
It was the latter that was of the most concern. I had come to like coffee a lot and I had become used to the quality cafes of inner Melbourne. Some short-term pain was sure to ensue if the coffee was shit.
Our last night in Melbourne had been spent with Al and Em. Al is a registrar of in the infectious diseases unit at St Vincent Hospital and had vigorously indoctrinated us on gastronomic fortification in the developing world.
With the do’s and dont’s fresh in my mind. I set about ordering my first Vietnamese meal. The raw pork salad looked good and tap water was far cheaper than bottled water. Amy intervened so I plumped for beef noodle soup. Despite Al’s warnings that ice was a no-no, I was unable to resist a Vietnamese ice coffee.
My soup was delicious but with a sip of the ice coffee, I knew my caffeine obsession was in safe hands. The stuff is brilliant. You can have it with milk (ca phe sua da) or without (ca phe da). The coffee is strong enough to be bootlegged and the condensed milk sweet enough to self-combust. Combined it forms a brew so deliciously addictive it could be substituted for methadone in a treatment clinic.
What would the next six months in Asia hold in store? Who knows? But I am sure things would be ok, the coffee is good.