From Conquer to Conquest – The Story of Vietnamese Coffee

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It was all a bit surreal – as every first time should be. Completely lost I tried to navigate between the market alleys desperately looking for the toilet. No one was very helpful to my quest and refusing to buy things gained me some nasty looks from several angry vendors. Fifteen minutes, a floor of chopped meat and thousand of sparkling dresses later I found myself ducking down with my butt touching the cold wall behind me, small partitions on both my sides, one of 30 women peeing in an open line of toilet bowls. I love Asia. It forces me to leave behind everything I was taught as a child, perhaps also many things I was taught as an adult.

Devoted to the unknown, I felt defenseless and excited and after peeing I could finally move on to the actual reason I came to the market district. My morning coffee. I exited the monstrous structure and scanned the surrounding streets for a place to sit. Saigon was chaotic; thousands of motorbikes filled the streets honking, black smoke coming out from the rear of the scooters, people walking the roads pushing food carts or just standing next to a small plank on the ground selling fresh fruit. The sidewalk and asphalt were as one and making my way through the crowd for the first couple of days was quite the challenge.

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It took me a moment to choose. Tons of small cafes none of which were much more than a hole in the wall, their outdoor pavement decorated with plastic stools or metal chairs like the kind my parents used to take to the beach when I was a child. Apparently my beloved morning habit of a good hot cup of coffee was no stranger to the Vietnamese. Those small things of familiarity are always comforting in the sea of new smells, sounds and colours. The dwellers puffed on their cigarettes while their coffee slowly dripped from a filter set above the glass. Even better, a glass glass. Not one mug in sight. I sat down and the lady in her pyjamas came to ask what I’d have. Well, not really ask, but just stand there for a moment next to me smiling. I pointed at someone’s coffee and it quickly arrived from somewhere in the back, a room in which she works as well as lives in like many local shop owners. The filtering cup was put on my table accompanied by a small side dish, the same they use for soya sauce, with condensed milk to be mixed inside giving a refreshing new accent to that coffee language we have in common. Later in the hot and humid afternoons of my monsoonic September time there, an iced coffee with two teaspoons of this white sticky stuff, that I had never before took pleasure in consuming, became my summer addiction.

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Calmly smoking, enjoying the new sights offered to me I slowly noticed a very different flow of people from what I saw until now. They were crossing towards the city centre dressed in white, others with a shirt of the country’s flag, holding poles with different kinds of national banners wearing a festive look upon their faces. Minutes later, a long march of soldiers walked perfectly in line, some beating drums and music accompanied everyone from a car in the back. Cluelessly having just arrived a few days before, I asked around to discover today was September 2nd – the bigger of two local independence days meant to celebrate the liberation from the French colonialism as announced by Ho Chi Minh in 1945 in the country’s capital of Hanoi. The second celebrated on April 30th marks a month to the last battle with the Americans and the reunification of the country.

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“Pour your overflow in this Africa, and thereby solve your social issues, change your proletarian owners! Make roads, make ports, make towns! Grow, grow, colonize and multiply…” were the words of Victore Hugo, a leftie like many who spoke in the favour of colonialism back in the day. And as history tells us, this was no preaching to the deaf. On August 31, 1858 Admiral Rigault de Genouilly along with a fleet of 14 ships, 2500 French soldiers and admirals, set foot on the shores of the city of Da Nang, beginning France’s first Indochina take over. It wasn’t until 38 years later that the colonial regime managed to firmly establish its authority over the hard hand resistance put up by the locals. Following a thousand years of Chinese occupation and prior to a 20 year long war with the Americans it seems that this moment marked the beginning of what has proven to be a century of ruthless patriotic struggle that only recently ended. With nothing but a profound knowledge of their land and a deeply rooted will they stood for years in front of the different western technologies.

It sometimes seemed to the French that they were beating at air as the guerrilla soldiers were everywhere, yet nowhere to be seen. They heroically stood “with powerless weapons against our (the French) rifles, (they) threw themselves upon our men with a blind energy which demonstrated extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice”. The French historian Pallu de la Barriere emphasizes the European surprise: “the resistance was everywhere…consider each peasant tying a rice stack as a centre of resistance”. But until today’s celebrated freedom the colonial regime eventually rose and economic traits meant to benefit the French were established. Silk, chocolate and indeed coffee were small, yet new to Vietnam. Carrying with them the Bourbon variety of the Arabica species from their African colonies they brought the seed of a future economy worth millions.

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I went about my business finishing up my drink, a mix of the local Catimor beans grown in the north, and some southern Robusta, which takes the lead in production and is plentiful throughout the whole centre highlands from the area of Đà Lạt all the way down south to the outskirts surrounding Saigon. It’s a very productive crop termed ‘farmer friendly’ and is less known for its quality, more for a ‘robust’ structure it adds to the coffee body. In the attempt to discover more my English was not at all useful but my very bad French managed to find me someone that was willing to take me on a ride out of town. The warm welcome to the sound of the language surprised me. We set out on a road from Saigon to Đà Lạt parting from the city margins as children ran beside the heavy motorbike shouting hello and waving in their white and red school uniforms. As someone told me while we were breathing the sweet air of his Robusta plantations ‘this is the first generation in many to be able to ask themselves what they want to do, perhaps own a business and make private capital’.

There are four elements that allowed the coffee industry to grow as defined in a FAO report on the subject. ‘People, policies, resources and technology’ are what they call ‘drivers for change’ – fundamentals to any successful development.

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Despite the difficulty in communicating, it is easy to note a great sense of pride when asking about the local commodity that has positioned Vietnam as the world’s second exporter of recent years. Until the 1980s the country was busy fixing foundations; roads, buildings and villages that were left destroyed after the war. Many reforms were being made in those years until finally in the 1990s Vietnam switched from a centrally planned economy to one that is market based – a huge change for the country. Coffee was liberated and deregulated so the private sector was able to flourish with the help of its government. It encouraged a migration outside the cities and offered financial support to those who did so. The outcome was an increase in the central highland population from 1.5 million in 1975 to 4.2 million in 2000 turning coffee into the economy of the people; two-thirds of the coffee farms are smaller than 1 hector and only 3 percent are larger than 3 hectors making them mostly family run. This attitude shows well the social ideologies by which they live. Many praise the government and the opportunities it offers while others remain silent about it, not offering the outsider too much inside information. Regardless the communist way of distributing resources has had good effect on the rural – economic – social development.

I drove up north to finish in Hoi An after what was said to be one of the best Bánh mì Vietnam has to offer. Many communal rice fields surrounded the way and the city centre is tightly packed with beautiful coloured buildings. The French architecture can be made out. Throughout the country traces of their ancient history can be found as well as their recent one. Buildings from the Middle Ages are decorated with Chinese calligraphy and the influences of the Han dynasty can be seen in the local arts. Their history has weaved well into the vivid modern day Vietnam.

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Text: NATALIE SHAFRIR Photos: JEREMIE SOK

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