Nescafé in Hanoi
When I got out of a train in Hanoi, I had around 20 bucks in my pocket. It was enough for a taxi downtown and some modest meals until I could get money transferred to my bank account. Back in Ho Chi Minh, I was tipped off about an affordable hostel located in the middle of the Hanoi Old Quarter, near the Hoàn Kiếm Lake. I could reach lots of sights by foot and diversify my diet, which for the last two days consisted of plain baguettes.
The hostel was tucked between unremarkable buildings in a back alley. I walked a few times past it before I saw the sign. When I asked about room rates at the reception, a young guy with matted hair waved in a relaxed way: “You can pay now, can pay later, it’s okay.” But what lured me to stay there, in the end, was free breakfast with unlimited coffee.
When I dropped my bag in a dormitory and got on the rooftop to break my baguette fast of the last two days, I discovered that I wasn’t the only smart face on that ship. One by one, sleepy and disheveled, other travelers climbed up the stairs and sat around the table that occupied the whole terrace.
Emilio, an Italian with perfect English and a PhD in history, had worked in the hills of the North Vietnam, cooking at a small restaurant, and was now waiting for his visa extension. There was also a student from the Czech Republic, two Brits taking a break from their jobs, and an English-language teacher from the U.S. All of them waiting for visas, tickets or new job offers.
Emilio squinted at his breakfast—a freshly fried omelet stuck between two pieces of soft, white bread—and dug into it.
“Bread-omelet, too?” the reception guy asked me.
“Just bread is fine, I’m vegan,” I said and sighed. Bread again.
The bread was soft and crunchy. Despite its plain taste, I liked it. It reminded me of Europe and home. Josh, a huge American in his forties, was also reminiscing about home. But he was better off here, he said.
The Brits found Vietnam amazing and tirelessly explored. “We were in that underground eatery yesterday, trying the snake,” they said. “We also got some of that poop-coffee.” The Old Quarter was full of shops advertising weasel coffee, which alluded to the famous and extremely expensive Indonesian coffee—kopi luwak—processed by civets. The weasel coffee was a chemical imitation of kopi luwak sold at a much cheaper price. On the rooftop, we were served a more banal sort of coffee: Nescafé.
Every morning, we emptied one pot after another, chatting, gossiping, and discussing our plans until the hostel management started ignoring our demands for refills. But by the time we were denied the next pot it was already midday and we dispersed on our daily activities, to be united next morning again.
In a few days, I got my money transfer and was ready to move on. Emilio got his extension, Josh found a new job with housing. The Brits and the Czech student exhausted all the sightseeing potential of Hanoi, but we stayed and stayed. “One more day,” I said. “I don’t wanna leave you guys,” said one of the Brits. And so we stayed a bit more, gathering around our bread-omelet with coffee every day until it was time to leave or ask for more visa extensions.
When I think of Hanoi now, I don’t remember those places of interest that I visited every day. But I remember that tiny rooftop and free Nescafé with bread as if it were yesterday.
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