I’m returning to Vietnam next month, and that got me thinking about the many hours I’ve spent in coffee shops in Hanoi, especially one on Ngu Xa in Truc Bach…

By Alison Bate

 The cafe owner smiles the smile of many mornings as she brings over my iced coffee and green tea chaser. I lean forward in my bamboo chair to stir the two-tone Nau Da, digging down with the long-handled spoon to mix in the condensed milk, navigating around the lumps of ice. The mixture curdles and looks like a work of art sometimes and other times, a sludgy mess.

I take a sip of Nau Da and the chocolatey taste spreads inside my mouth, and an involuntary smile outside. A sip of the green Tra Da clears my palette and my mind.

A guardian at Cafe Pho, Hanoi (Photo by Alisher Sharip)

At the back of the Cafe Pho, the family shrine is graced with orange gladioli, three cans of Sprite, a blue tin of cookies, sticks of burned incense and other offerings. In another corner, a Ho Phap guardian casts a benign eye over the customers. The cat is not around today.

It’s 9 a.m, and the Cafe Pho on Ngu Xa is filling up. Two young guys read Bong Da sports newspaper and, less predictably, Phu Nu women’s newspaper. Others watch soccer on VTV3.

I watch as a triangular pattern continues all morning, with three businesses working in unison. A thirty-something couple and their two young boys have ordered Pho Ga and the owner yells their order up the street. The family could sit on small plastic stools at the chicken noodle stall a few doors away but choose to relax here in comfortable chairs. We watch as steaming bowls of the broth are brought down the street. The parents squeeze on fresh lime and add dipping and chilli sauce onto the noodles. Everyone tucks in.

Afterward, a woman in navy-and-white striped shirt comes over from across the street and rounds up empty noodle bowls. Back in front of her open room, she sends the white bowls along a bucket assembly line. Slops into dark blue container, pre-wash in white bucket, soapy wash in silver galvanized bowl, and rinse in sky-blue bowl. Finally, the clean bowls are stacked to dry in a pink meshed basket. Half-hidden behind her, two men sort herbs and bits of meat.

Now the woman in the striped shirt and her colleague are carrying the clean bowls in a pink basket to the Pho Ga stall at the top of Ngu Xa and return with the empty basket.

Above the little stores, songbirds chirp away in their pretty prisons, trapped in cages hung from precarious phone cables. Their tweets a pleasant backdrop to the revving of motorbikes, the clang of cutlery and the smell of wet noodles.

This evening, I’ll be teaching, but the morning is mine, all mine. I pull out Chapter 12 of my novel and begin writing.

Note: An earlier version appeared in Word Vietnam magazine in November 2014