The side-of-the-road plastic chair is a coveted piece of furniture in this city.
Along every block little street food stalls, mobile coffee, juice, and cold drink carts and pop-up restaurants set up little plastic tables and chairs meant for people with very short legs. And locals hunker down with their drinks, soup, rice, or other treat.
The most popular choice of beverage is coffee. Here it’s local, sweetened, and served on ice. A tall glass of sweetened tea usually comes with it, because tea comes with everything (also on ice in the hot season), and you watch the crazy traffic go by.
Now I like people watching as much as the next Vietnamese, but the honks of cars, scooters and crazy traffic do not make for calming afternoons spent road-side. The decibel level is eardrum-shattering, but Mr. Tan, whose home I’m staying at, spends an hour (at least) of every day at his favourite coffee shop/plastic chair set-up down the road. He doesn’t own a coffee maker. He prefers to go out, “for the social,” he says.
And because “the tea is free! You could stay from 6pm until 6am drinking free tea,” he says, which is why he spends long evenings hunkered down too.
I don’t drink coffee or tea, though, which is a problem here. Or, it would be except most coffee places also have ice and fruit smoothies. All have bottled drinks that they serve on ice, though. And roving street food vendors pull up offering their wares when you’re sitting by the side of the road, so a coffee can quickly turn into a lot of sugar and a meal. Mr. Tan and I sat with my free tea and a papaya smoothie (just a little sugar, I asked him to request for me), and he with his coffee and we watched and we chatted in our broken mix of English, French and Vietnamese.
Somehow he doesn’t know all the stall regulars, but he did know the young man next from him who motorbikes down from his work in the northeast of the city just for this stall’s coffee. The coffee here isn’t the best, though, says Mr. Tan, shrugging, so he doesn’t know why the young man comes so far.
And then there’s shaved ice, which is the best reason in the city to wedge your legs under the plastic tables late at night. Around 11pm the streets quiet down and Alley fruit, Sinh To G, Top B and the stall of my fruit guy whose son lives in San Francisco are the places to be for heaping bowls of ice (or separate cups of it to mix your own) with bowls or plates of mixed exotic fruit (jackfruit, avocado, musk melon, strawberries, lychees, custard apples, mangoes, pineapple, papayas, rose apples…) and sweetened yogurt and strawberry artificial syrup (with optional condensed or coconut milk, depending on the place). After the 40°C heat of the afternoon, ice is the only way to properly end a day here. I’ve started requesting specific fruit in mine. Custard apple is a must.
But the most important part is the plastic chair, the ambiance, and the company.