The evening we finally got round to booking our hotels, K was intently searching for the best accommodation we could get for our budget when I randomly chirped aloud: “I believe I will join you on your coffee adventure in Vietnam.” His response was one of brief surprise, followed by an approving: “You should. Coffee is good. And… it’s Vietnam.” K couldn’t be more right.
It was black, it was bold and it was beautiful. It was coffee and at first sip, I fell in love. It surprised me; I surprised me. The aroma of Vietnamese coffee is intoxicatingly strong with notes of a strangely pleasant pungency. You could have it in a straight black (cà phê dá); but be warned, it does not have the kind of thin, smooth consistency you may be used to at artisan coffee cafes. Thick and heavy, Vietnamese coffee is usually made using medium to coarse beans in a dark roast and dripped through a small metal filter. And (I’m not a barista nor do I have immense knowledge about coffee – but!) I think this is what makes it so wonderful with condensed milk, sugar and ice (cà phê sūra nóng); or even a good dollop of vanilla ice cream.
So cafes became our pit stops in between exploring Hanoi city on foot. Most memorable for K and I are Cafe Phô Cô and Xofa Cafe. Picturesque and idyllic in their own rights, both became our respite from the craziness that is Hanoi’s roads and streets.
We loved Cafe Phô Cô more for its hideaway atmosphere than its renowned coffee with beaten eggwhite (cà phê trúng da). Emerging from the back end of a silk shop, through an antique bedecked courtyard and up flights of narrow and hazardous-looking staircases typical to Vietnam, this cafe had us sipping our cuppa while taking in a peaceful view of Hoàn Kiém Lake. We ordered a banana cake, recommended by K’s trusty tourist guidebook, but was sorely disappointed. It was lacking the fragrance of banana, was much too sweet and was a tad too dry.
Xofa Cafe possessed a more modern vibe and had accents of artisan cafes. Situated just off the Main Street of Diên Biên Phù, what surprised me was how the cafe facade is able to block out the mad operatic honks of the traffic. Every step we took into its premise is one decibel down on the noise pollution assaulting our ears. The coffee, needless to say, was wonderful. K thoroughly enjoyed his long black, which – perhaps due to its more youthful appeal – possessed a thinner consistency than traditional Vietnamese coffee. I’m a cream and milk person, so naturally, a rich cup of ice latte was my joy.
Braving traffic with shots of coffee in between, we traversed 181.5km northeast from Hanoi to Halong Bay, The Land where Dragons Descend. Infrastructure in Vietnam, outside of its city centres, are not in the most pristine conditions and transport networks are sorely lacking. So while the shuttle bus itself was comfortable, the ride was long and bumpy.
That said, it did not beget a grumpy journey. On the contrary, I found myself mesmerised by the suburban and rural outskirts of North Vietnam. Built environments in small towns appear to mimick the urban landscape of Hanoi albeit on a significantly smaller scale. As in Hanoi, built communities sport almost uniform architectural structure with variations to the height of buildings and colour combinations straying no further than grey scales, highlighted by green and primary shades of blue, red and yellow.
The landscape of North Vietnam is flat and raw; almost untouched except for where agriculture has made its mark. Like a slow-mo film, I watched flat, undulating plains gradually form hilly frames along its edges before rising unassumingly into soft, mountainous terrain. All the while, I wondered: Just how breathtaking will The Land where Dragons Descend be?
Three hours in, the first snoozing dragon came into view. Like the scales on the back of a dragon, limestone formations rose gently but majestically from an emerald green sea. We fell into a silence marked by awe and wonder. Throughout, it was a picture perfect scene encapsulated in serenity. We could see neither its head nor its tail; and as we passed through jagged gates into the heart of Halong Bay, we could only guess at how many of these great and mystical creatures have descended here… and if we be able to meet with one…