Poker face made of stone, among friends but all alone. Why do you hide? Say something, say something; anything. Your silence is deafening – give me a sign. James: Say Something
So we’re drinking and we’re dancing and the band is really happening and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high. Leonard Cohen: Closing Time
Park a solitary backside in any English pub, early to mid evening, and over a leisurely pint watch – this is no booze-up: we’re talking participant observation – a transformation as old as alcohol itself. Over the next hour or so as the drug kicks in, faces recently devoid of animation soften to reveal diverse personalities and common humanity more usually reined in. That couple who’ve shared a bed too many years? Sure, they can barely stand to be around each other but – an existential dance of intimacy craved and feared in equal measure – wouldn’t know what else to do, though she still has dreams it would be unwise to share. (Even if she is bored to wit’s end by a story she knows by heart; an accusatory if-only, laced with wedding day regret. What did old Fred Engels call it? That state of leaden misery known as domestic bliss.) But look what just happened! On the second drink this stony twosome discovers it can not only speak but, to a degree, listen too. Now zoom out. The same sea change is writ large across the pub which, though still half empty, steps up a gear or three in its nightly cultural revolution.
As for me, though fond of a good pint my drug of choice has for years been coffee. Twas ever thus. In my youth I may have dallied with downers: alcohol, sledgehammer variants of hash and on occasion pharmaceutical smack or morph liberated by chemist shop break-in executed not, I hasten to add, by me. And for brain food I may have turned to the cerebral bliss (and occasional nightmare) of powerful hallucinogens. But my heart – which for all my many follies I was wise enough to keep under control in these matters – belonged to speed and, when opportunity arose, the then stratospherically pricy Columbian marching powder. These days strong coffee will do nicely, a preference I share with millions of Viets, mostly men. Just as I enjoy the male ambience of a good local at Saturday lunch time, so do I savour the same at sunrise in any of the plethora of street corner cafes on pavements the length and breadth of Vietnam.
Like a true believer I favour east facing establishments and, having found one I like, make it – if sticking around a while – my early morning ritual. The ritual part is because by day three I’ll be known to staff who’ll greet me with a smile and, without asking, serve my coffee as torturously requested on day one. (No point asking for it strong; it’s always preposterously so and long may that hold true, my main concern being that it comes black – ca phe den – without half a can of evaporated milk tossed in to endow a two-tone look easy on the eye but cloying to the palate. As for asking for it not strong, well, you can try but low-caff’s an alien and bafflingly pointless concept here; a conundrum on a par with dehydrated water.) In the south it will be accompanied by warm green tea, at times with a cereal aftertaste deliciously akin to that of rice or oat milk.
And the east-facing part? That’s because as I sit in stillness – I really am half meditating – I love the play of sunlight still honey warm on the features of men at tables like my own, in groups or singly. Many are handsome; almost all to my eye attractive. But what I’m here for, other than my own fix, is to watch a transformation analogous to that of the English pub. Halfway through the second coffee a mood reflective if not downright morose – these are workmen who, like their counterparts the world over, would given their druthers still be in bed – snaps into something altogether else. Faces brighten with sudden animation. Voices rise in harsh cacophony; two parts guttural, one part ear-grating squawk. (Much as I love this country and its people, the speech patterns are a far cry from the mellifluously singsong timbre of Thai.) Its most telltale sign, though – a tipping point I seek out with practised ethnomethodological gaze – is the cafe-wide heel and toe: knees crossed and bouncing, feet bare or shod but either way jigging the old St Vitus of the powerfully caffeinated as Vietnam mans up for whatever trials the day may bring.
And as I look down – this being participant observation – I register the fact of my own wired up feet jerking up and down like marionettes on strings. Works every time.