Whenever you read a travel guide, you’ll always come across the typical paragraph suggesting you to learn a few “useful words and sentences” in the local language of the country you are about to visit. They say so for a reason, as we recently experienced in Vietnam.
We were in the city of Can Tho in the South, walking around looking for a place to have coffee. Anyone who’s been in Vietnam will know that there are coffee shops all over the place, and Can Tho is no exception. Vietnamese people love coffee (they are the second largest producers of coffee in the world!), but the way they serve it is rich and ultra sweet, mixed with condensed milk. I like mine fairly bitter, with just a little milk and no sugar.
We took a seat in this cute coffee shop in a small street of Can Tho and, as we couldn’t understand the menu in Vietnamese, asked the waiter for “coffee with milk”. He pointed to the most expensive item on the menu with a question mark in his looks. We repeated “cà phê“ trusting that as the words were so similar, that there couldn’t be much room for mistake. Asking for fresh milk versus condensed milk would be the trick, though. “With hot milk, please?”, we asked. He pointed to the expensive item on the menu again, nodded with a little more reassurance as he repeated “hot, hot…” and walked away.
2 minutes later, he came back and explained us that there was only enough for one cup and suggested another item on the menu for our second serving. “That’s fine!”, I said, volunteering to whatever would come. How could there be milk for only 1 cup, we wondered. I thought then that my coffee would come with condensed milk but I had seen that word before in other menus and it wouldn’t coincide. Although Ashray was teasing me saying it would be goats milk, I suddenly realized “Oh, wait.. mine should be with soy milk!”, which is also very popular (and more affordable) in South East Asia. It was all making sense.
We were enjoying the complimentary cups of iced tea that are often served with coffee in Vietnam, when the waiter appeared with a pink smoothie for me! So, no coffee, no milk and definitely not hot. We couldn’t stop laughing until the waiter came by our table again, this time with an avocado milk-shake… the most expensive item on the menu that somehow got mistaken with cà phê!
A lot of giggles later, here is the conclusion we reached of how it could have all happened:
Two tired looking tourists enter a local coffee shop in Vietnam. They say “coffee… milk… HOT” and the waiter repeats “Hot, hot…”, as in “yes indeed, it is very hot outside”. And from then onwards he draws the conclusion that, due to the temperature, it’s better these foreigners cool down with some iced beverage… like avocado shake! We say “OK, OK”, not even knowing what we are agreeing to. And when the avocado runs out, we’re also agreeing to enjoying a strawberry drink, once again thinking we’re ordering coffee, just with a different type of milk.
Lesson learnt! Whenever you visit a new place, learn a few useful words to get around. And whenever you’re in the mood for coffee in Vietnam, cut the crap, and order it the local way:
Cà Phê Sua Da: coffee with sweetened condensed milk and ice (the most popular in Vietnam!)
Cà Phê Sua Nong: coffee with sweetened condensed milk , served hot
Cà Phê Den Nong: drip black coffee (very strong)