The alarm clock I had placed on the wooden table, before falling into a melatonin-induced slumber, buzzed noisily the next morning.
6:00 o’clock, it read. Angry red numbers glared at me. I swung two legs, reluctantly, out of my rock-solid bed before gargling mouth wash and reaching for the door handle.
I was going to have a busy, busy morning.
The two university students waiting for me in the tile-covered lobby, made slightly cooler by the constant murmur of an oscillating fan, were no older than I was. We had contacted each other in the previous months—they wanted to practice their, as I found out later, impressive English and I wanted to take an accompanied walk around the swarming streets of the Old Quarter. It was free. And I needed something to do.
I quickly learned that absolutely nothing quite compares to the excitement and simultaneous exhaustion of a city waking. The barking blares of the horns. The crackling sounds of meats being fried and simmered—all commence in a pleasantly unharmonious symphony with the first slightest signs of human activity. As someone who thrives on constant movement and bustle, I felt right at home.
The three of us wandered throughout the labyrinth. At the darkest hours of the night, the Old Quarter was starkly claustrophobic, eerily similar to two lost children drifting within the wood. But at the first glimpses of day, it was completely different. Beautiful, even. There was a green lake— the Hoan Kiem Lake—surrounded by a surprising number of brides and grooms and their families to the side, posing for unapologetically banal photographs. There was a small temple, reached by a brilliant red bridge. A child, no older than five, was taking a long-winded relief onto the temple’s foundation. There were dozens of boisterous markets and store-front cooking pits. The smell of aquatic life and seared meats floated through the air. All this we had seen.
By ten o’clock, though, I could already feel my feet blistering over scorching pavement and generous lines of sweat dripping down my back under the strong August sun. My new friends might have noticed my red-faced state. Kindly, without a drip of perspiration on their skin, they suggested a stop in our schedule for coffee. They didn’t have to ask me twice.
As someone whose daily habit includes a piping hot mug of morning elixir—or coffee, whatever you call it—I can smell coffee from a mile away. I didn’t have to guess when the three of us walked into the little building to our right: the scent of slightly acidic, enormously sweet coffee, called cà phê đá, brewing right under above our noses.
We climbed upstairs into a congested and animated room: jam-packed bodies, young and old, sitting together around mazes of short wooden tables and chairs. As we trudged our way to a table in the middle of the dimmed room, the clamor of conversation wafted over our heads and the smell of roasting dark coffee was undeniably intoxicating. It didn’t take long before a tray emerged with three glasses of ice cold, caffeinated cà phê đá was perched on our table.
The moment couldn’t have come any sooner. The coffee, a hazel color and faintly chocolate-like in aroma, was silky cream to the taste and tremendously rich. Because of the limited availability of fresh milk, I learned, the Vietnamese substituted condensed milk to give it that creamy, full-bodied taste and texture. (For someone with an affinity for black coffee, this was quite different.)
As we were sitting, appreciating every sip of the ice-cold coffee, I had a moment to think this unplanned rest in our morning and what it meant to me as a traveler. In hindsight, perhaps, I later realized how sporadic those kind of moments are back home. I live, undeniably, in a culture where time is linear and worth is marked by accomplishment and the amount of one’s “doing.”
In that little two-story coffee shop, it was a relief—in the purest sense of the word—to see that not everyplace was spoiled by this philosophy. I was relieved to see faces, young and old and smiling and serious, that were more interested in enjoying each others’ company then checking their smartphones and glancing at their watches. I shared my relieve with my companions. They laughed, wide and toothy smiles reaching across their faces. “Time,” the young woman said, expressing herself with her hands. “It’s about living now, isn’t it? Not living for the future.”
I sighed, “Well, should we order more coffee?” Cue the laughter.
In the next few days, I would leave Hanoi and continue on my coastal journey down Vietnam and into Cambodia.
From Hue to Hoi An to Saigon and onwards, from the rickety tuk-tuks to the slow meander of the Vietnamese locomotives—taking a pause to appreciate the beautiful landscapes, peoples, and scenes surrounding me was just as important, if not more so, than finding something to do every second of the day.
As it turns out, sometimes the best experiences you can have while in a different country are the ones that appear without a roster or an itinerary.
An avid reader, curious global-trekker, and writer-in-training, Kaitlyn wants nothing more than to explore the world one country at a time, exposing the stories she finds along the way with a pen and paper. (Or computer, whatever’s easier.)