This may sound like a bold statement, but nonetheless it’s true: today, I had the greatest cup of coffee I’ve had in my entire life.
Now, I have to say: coming into Vietnam, one of the things I was most excited for was no doubt the food. As a frequent patron of Vietnamese restaurants back home, my mind was spinning from all the possibilities of delicious goods that I could pack into my visit. Luckily, my tour guide is a self-proclaimed food lover, which means that I have won the jackpot, with plenty of food visits at every stop of our cruise. It was today that we stopped for an authentic Vietnamese coffee in Sa Dec, a small town along the Mekong seemingly untouched by the influence of tourism. This is no doubt a town catered to locals, with a charm well grounded in its authenticity.
Coffee is central to the way of life in Vietnam, from small towns like Sa Dec, all the way to big cities like Saigon. Throughout the country, coffee stands are a place where, every morning, people gather to share information about everything, from national politics to local gossip. When my guide asked if I wanted to grab a real Vietnamese coffee during our visit today, how could I possibly refuse?
Vietnamese iced coffee (cap he da) is one of my favourite drinks in the entire world. Made of strong dark roast coffee and sweetened condensed milk, this mixture is first prepared with a small French drip filter and then poured over a tall glass of ice. My guide brought me to a small coffee shop near Sa Dec’s main market, where we took our seats at a low table squatting a mere two feet above ground. Upon my first sip, I knew this was the best tasting coffee in the whole world. The syrupy sweetness of the condensed milk mixed with the flavourful punch of the dark coffee is enough to jolt anybody wide awake, with not just caffeine but with its indescribably good taste. Even as I write this, I am partly dreaming about when I can get another. Trust me: this local treat is worth a visit to Vietnam on its own.
Of course, there was more to do in this sleepy town than just drink coffee. Sa Dec is best known among Western visitors as the small town where French writer Marguerite Duras spent many years of her youth. During our visit, we stopped by two main sights central to Duras’ life: firstly, the school where her mother was a teacher, and secondly, the house of Huynh Thuy Le, the protagonist of Duras’ famous novel, The Lover (based on her real life relationship with Le).
Despite the house’s French colonial exterior, stepping inside, you are greeted with an abundance of dazzling red and gold, a nod to the Chinese roots of the Le family. Directly after the entrance is a large altar dedicated to the family’s ancestors, and on the walls, photos of Duras throughout the years, in addition to photos of Le and the woman he would eventually marry. The house of course is interesting not only because of its story, but because of its eclectic blend of Western and Eastern architecture. Fine wooden details are carved onto the house’s walls, taking the shape of mystical animals from Chinese legends, while the floor tiles, imported straight from France, are distinctly European. As I previously said, Sa Dec is not a tourist-driven town, but many would say this house is its biggest draw, particularly for fans of ‘The Lover’. Interestingly, I learned that the rooms in the house can even be rented, meaning fans can spend the night here if they so wish.
For the rest of our time in Sa Dec, we took time to walk around and soak in the laidback ambiance of this non-touristic town. Along the way, we stopped at a street cart to sample some banh bo, a sweet and chewy sponge cake especially popular among Vietnamese youth. With its gooey texture and sweet subtle coconut flavour, I was won over. Vietnam is such a treat for the taste buds!
We finished off our visit with a walk through Sa Dec’s market, where I found myself in a chaotic cluster of local life, sharing traffic with everybody from impatient bikers and noisy motorcycles to yapping dogs and townspeople. Sa Dec makes no concessions for its visitors…You won’t find overly friendly taxi drivers or touristic Western restaurants here, but that’s exactly why it’s so worth visiting.
We spent the rest of the evening relaxing on-board, getting rest for what promises to be a very long day tomorrow. With a packed schedule including fruit orchards, factories and more, I’m sure there will be plenty to see and do!
Update you soon,