It’s a social occasion, to be enjoyed leisurely and regularly, and is offered in its own peculiar way. First choose your option: black, with condensed milk, with ice or any combination thereof. Your coffee will be served in a small glass, with a drip filter leaking your brew slowly over your condensed milk or ice.
The strength of the coffee and sweetness of the condensed milk varies from region to region, as do variations. In Hanoi for example, you could order an egg coffee: egg yolks beaten with condensed milk and coffee, and poured over your brew.
From my perch behind my driver I began to understand how integral motorcycles are to life in Vietnam. For a start, their small size is not a limit. Families of up to five travel on one bike. Babies are carried in the middle and breast-fed aboard if necessary. As a goods carrier motorcycles are used to transport anything from a couch to livestock going to market. Moving house? No problem! Call a few friends to lend a hand (and two wheels).
Motorcycles are just as good a delivery vehicle, loading anything from a TV to a precariously held crates of eggs. The loads I saw balanced on motorbikes were a feat of engineering genius. For heavier loads, add a trailer. A bike plus trailer is a standard garbage disposal unit. In the countryside motorcycles take the place of animals, pulling ploughs through fields and transporting harvests.
A wedding group is a joy to see, as bride and groom in full bridal wear share a bike followed by their entourage of bridesmaids, groomsmen and guests.
In fact, the only time a motorbike stays home is at a funeral. It is deemed disrespectful to one’s ancestors and so a bigger vehicle is hired, and decorated with golden dragons to speed the deceased safely to heaven.
Another characteristic of motorcycling in Vietnam is that most women drivers are completely covered. They wear long pants, long shirts or dresses, gloves, socks with their sandals and even ful I face coverings. This is for sun protection rather than for safety or modesty, as Vietnamese women consider pa le skin to be beautiful. Slightly built, they impressively weave through the traffic and push and park their bikes, often in very high heels.
The men are more laid back, and I often saw men having a nap on their parked bikes, stretched out full length.
The motorbike is a culture and industry of its own in Vietnam, a vital part of the organised chaos in a highly structured society. And an authentic – and fun – way to see this affordable and intriguing country. Vietnam is a road worth crossing.