The place is always dimly lit, an arrangement that works to foster an atmosphere of intimacy. During the day, the sunlight filters in from the alley through the wide open doorway. At night, the lightbulbs emit a low glow that mixes well with the blues or country or jazz being played upstairs.
The décor is what really sets this café—called Noi—apart from the rest. Antiques and knick-knacks salvaged from different eras of modern Vietnamese history are everywhere. Photographs of old Hanoi, bikers and legendary Vietnamese musicians dot the pallid yellow walls, while old cabinets and tables are stacked with odd curiosities. A massive collection of CDs, records, cassettes and audio reels sit arranged next to an equally large assortment of devices to play them on the upper floor, which is accessed by a steep wooden staircase and shaky banister. Also, there is no shortage of potted plants.
Somewhere amid the smoke and haze and lively chatter hanging in the air is me, sitting in the corner, drinking my milk coffee, watching.
The brawny owner is always wearing a sleeveless T, or an actual t-shirt with the sleeves pulled up to the shoulders, and sometimes a straw fedora. He sports a goatee and a kind smile. One can see him hanging up his birdcages outside in the morning or bringing them in for the evening, or else just hanging out with one of the patrons.
There is also the guy’s partner, a girl with big eyes and fair skin. She often works in the back room mixing drinks, but when she shows herself up front, she always spots me and flashes a coy smile as she asks how I am. Despite being a young mother, she’s studying to become a chef; I know because now and then the two of us meet at other cafes so that I can teach her English.
This is not very representative of a typical café in Danang, or Vietnam in general. The old-style charm is the fruit of affect rather than any real passage of time. The clientele is mainly young, middle-to-upper-class, whereas the more popular and less atmospheric ones draw a mixed, middle-aged crowd. Noi also seems to be the spot where the artists and intellectuals of the city congregate. Kind of a misfit crowd, it feels: I get the sense that I’m a tall, white outsider in this establishment, but that in turn makes it feel like I somehow fit in alongside the high school kid nearby who’s taking a hit of wild tobacco out of a local bamboo bong.
One can also espy a fair number of female smokers here, which is a rarity anywhere else within the strictures of Vietnamese society. In a culture where “proper” ladies don’t touch cigarettes or alcohol, there is, admittedly, something rebelliously sexy about seeing a gal taking a drag, despite the opposite being true when I’m in America. I get the sense that this place is something of a haven for them.
Indeed, this café is also someplace where people can seemingly change appearances from the ones they wear in the outside world. This happened once while I was glancing at a beautiful girl sitting in the alley with a boy, cigarette dangling in her fingers. She wore loose clothing and had a type of serenity spread across her brow. Only when she walked in to pay did a bolt of realization strike me to the quick: I knew her. We had worked together briefly in the past, and her image then did not register with how she looked now. I sat in shock as she floated out the door like a butterfly.
In any given place, it seems that one can always find some refuge where they can just be themselves. I heard it once said that the old coffeehouses of Europe contributed greatly to the advancement of society as a spot where intelligent, caffeinated minds met to share information and big ideas. Here I can also see that magic at work, much different than what one finds at places like Starbucks. Here, community is served alongside coffee. You can practically see the bonds forming within the hazy air.
And that’s where I’ve come to find myself of late. Sometimes I worry that my life is becoming too sedimentary, but then there are times when I know I needn’t rush anywhere. That which I seek is all around me.
Email Andrew at email@example.com.