(No.7, Vol.6, Sep-Oct 2016 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Photo : Neil Featherstone

Well, I was wondering what he would do for his next trick. Actually Aussie photographer Neil Featherstone, who came to live in Vietnam because he finds Vietnam is the land of enchantment and ‘loves the way it smells’, does not do tricks. He just takes everyday life and shows it from wondrous angles. He now has a follow on from his book on Hoi An, revealing more magic from everyday scenes which most of us would miss. His latest photo album shows you the multifarious ways the Vietnamese, and in particular the Saigonese, enjoy what arguably is nowadays their national drink-coffee.
There is a perfect introduction featuring a double page spread of steely ‘phins’ (those metal filters with the ‘hat’ on top) at various stages of drip-feeding coffee glasses and of the coffee and condensed milk mix beloved of the Vietnamese there with spoon to stir in plastic cups and at the ready for expected customers. Then Neil takes us on a trip to the Highlands to see the cherry-like beans on the bushes. How many would know that these also produce quite attractive white flowers. We are also introduced to a grower of the Ede minority called Ynuel.
The next chapter is devoted to styles and tastes. For traditional folk Vietnamese life has yet to complicated by the likes of Starbucks. We are shown individuals and groups enjoying the four basic types: iced coffee with condensed milk, hot coffee with the same, hot black coffee with condensed milk and the only one I personally enjoy-plain old hot black coffee. Vietnamese friends are amazed that I take it without sugar. ‘Caffeine is enough for my heart and besides, I want to taste coffee, not sugar’ is always my answer. One style that induced nostalgia in my adult students and which is rare these day is the ‘Stocking Coffee’ where boiling water is poured over ground coffee in a long cotton ‘sock’. It apparently produces a very special taste!
The next section pictures the many ways Vietnamese enjoy coffee with friends and colleagues -the sociology of Saigon coffee if you like. Drinking coffee for the Saigonese, Neil reminds us, is never a solitary pursuit. We see them together drinking at rough-and-tumble pavement cafes, seated on the grass in parks, and upmarket in cafes in rambling villas or in landscaped gardens. Then there are the ambulatory vendors who serve from containers mounted on motorbikes or bicycles-coffee to go they call it here.
The penultimate section is entitled ‘Evolution’ and it takes at look at some of the latest trends in cafes. There are cafes that double as trendy clothes shops or bookshops. There are the pet cafes where you drink in the company of cats and dogs and even lizards and snakes! The one photograph you will never forget is that of a green spiny back lizard coffee aficionado sipping at his iced sweetened coffee in a tall glass. A section is given to the home grown chain cafes such as Highland Coffee and Phuc Long, which recently have been joined by international giants such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. There seems to be room for all as a picture of a makeshift outfit with plastic stools sitting cheek by jowl with one of these makes clear. There are also the business cafes which provide work space and Wifi for the bring your own laptop brigade. Another trend is the local entrepreneurs who set up cafes vintage style in beautifully restored old buildings.
Finally Neil conjectures on the future as Saigon's citizens get wealthier and more able to afford upmarket places. Currently, Starbucks is the place where the nouveau riche like to flaunt themselves. The last picture here is a double spread of a black coffee and croissant set on a table on a skyscraper rooftop overlooking the vast urban landscape. But the very last of them all, after the credits at the back, is of three beaming friends at a simple sidewalk cafe. Whatever happens, Neil seems to be saying, this kind of scene is not going away.
Neil Featherstone has achieved a comprehensive look at the cafe scene in Saigon showing just how important the drink is in people’s daily lives. I showed his book to my teenage daughter. She really liked it. Now I know what she does with her mates at the weekend. She claims to have been in eighteen of the establishments snapped by Neil. The young lady is a true Saigoner! That is something I will never be, what with my heretical belief that condensed milk is just for babies! That is it then. I have done my job-introduced you lot to a very stimulating tome. I am off now to put my feet up and enjoy a well-deserved cuppa TEA!


‘Saigon Ca Phe’ by Neil Featherstone is published by Dan Tri Publishers in collaboration with Artbook.
Price: VND450,000

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