Bittersweet Vietnam

Bittersweet Vietnam

I expected to order a masterfully done Vietnamese coffee called cà phê sữa đá. Not that that takes a lot of effort or technique, of course -- a good Vietnamese coffee is all about ratios. With the perfect balance of black coffee, condensed milk, and ice, a sip gives you the punch of strong coffee, its bitterness cut by sweet milk, and a lingering on your tongue from the thickness of milk mixed with the coffee and ice.  It’s something best enjoyed on the street, sold for a dollar by the woman in summer loungewear manning her small metal cart.

But this time, I went for a fancier, Westernized shop in Saigon. The only truly Vietnamese drink was the pour-over option using coffee beans from Dà Lạt, a region in central Vietnam popular for its landscapes. It retains the body of coffee but somehow lacks bitterness. Tucked amidst the espressos and Americanos on offer, it was a reminder of what made Vietnamese coffee different.

There is no place like a cafe to make you ponder the unique display of traditional culture and Western convenience in Vietnam, one of the most rapidly-modernizing countries in the world. Coffee is just one lens among many by which we can understand “modernization,” but it makes you wonder: How much does Western modernization come at the expense of cultural integrity? Was the pourover, sourced from only a few hours away, actually Vietnamese?

It’s a trope by now to say that commercial fast food chains are edging out street businesses in countries like Vietnam. But a place that simultaneously fulfills my Western conception of “cool” despite the danger it poses to cheap streetside coffee vendors -- that is more difficult to process.  What is the cost of modernization at the expense of cultural integrity? What about Vietnam makes it so susceptible to Western influence? As first generation Vietnamese-American, I am part of a generation with a unique responsibility: the power to shape the cultural landscape in Vietnam, whether through business or otherwise.  My presence in Vietnam inevitably brings Western ideas, and Vietnam’s relationship with the West is long and painful; I have to wonder if the West is now an inherent fixture in Vietnamese culture and whether to accept that.