Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Counting down at Den & Trang

A violinist and guitarist duo play by themselves near the piano unacknowledged and not wanting to be. The lofty sentiments of the violin soar up to the old wooden rafters, but the earthier notes of the acoustic guitar flutter around the slatted wooden benches on the flagstones. The piano is available to anyone to play for 25 cents an hour, and someone will avail themselves of it at some point in the evening.

The coffee is good here, but the food takes forgettable to new heights, becoming almost inedible in parts. But then nobody comes here to eat. I don’t know how they make their money.

A boy sits at one table sketching. Elsewhere, a couple whispers to each other. A man lounges on the corner sofa reading (or checking Facebook) on his iPad. He’s stretched out in a space meant for a group of six, but nobody here will dream of doing anything so devastatingly practical as moving him to the armchair. The group of six is happily squashed around a small table, playing cards, with two members sitting on the floor. A girl takes endless photos of a bowl of flowers, checking, deleting, adjusting, clicking, over and over, unremarked and unremarkable here, among all the other square pegs whose edges are slowly being filed down to something approaching comfort. Smart groups are drinking dubious juice concoctions, having already made one dubious choice - to sit in the enclosed area rather than the rambling verandah. And at her favourite table under the wind chimes, a lapsed writer tries to remember how it’s done.

I return like a turtle to this, the first place I came to on my first day in Saigon, my café that I found first crack out of the box. It’s probably my answer to why I felt so instantly that I belonged here in this weird and wonderful city.

So here in my café – the latest in a long line of my Domes, French Connections, Koshys, Casa Piccolas, Costas and Coffee Clubs – one week from my 40th birthday, I try to work out what the 18-year-old me had wanted to have become by now. Two hours later, I am forced to admit that I don’t think the teenager ever conceived of such an advanced age.

I do remember an old Nescafe ad and a daydream of drinking coffee at a picture window in my own flat, looking out at boats on a storied river. I laugh as I think of my mornings now, standing at my kitchen window, spooning coffee into the cafetiere while the sun comes up over the water. The river in my mind then was almost certainly the Thames, the Danube, the Hudson or the Seine - and just a few years later, it must have become Humber River in Toronto or Sydney Harbour - but the Saigon River has stories enough.
Cafe Den & Trang, 47 Tu Xuong, District 3, Saigon

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