Whenever I reach a new destination I seek out a favourite coffee shop as my headquarters or “HQ.” No idea how I picked up the habit – there is no logical reason for it. After all these years of roaming around I’ve just picked up a few odd habits I guess, and this is one of them.
I need an HQ or I won’t feel settled in. Somewhere where people can find me in the daytime (but since I know nobody, there’s nobody to find me - yet).
The criteria are rigid: First, the café must be frequented entirely by locals. Bluntly put, if I wanted to hang out with foreigners I’d have stayed in Western countries instead of coming to Southeast Asia. The gaggles of selfie-snapping tourists from the big cities aren’t my thing either.
Secondly, I want a traditional local place, not some corporate, mass-produced experience, where customers queue up at a counter to be served with someone sporting a name tag who wishes them a nice day who definitely doesn’t care what kind of day I have. That’s what I was used to in Western countries and what I came to Vietnam to get away from.
My favourite café in Da Lat is so laid back and homey I call it “The Living Room.” The place is tucked away on a little street in the old part of the city, just a single shop hole-in-the-wall. The Living Room has been in business for 30 years, and it definitely looks a bit worse for the wear, but it’s got character.
The customers are working class, right up my alley: Tradesmen, motorbike taxi drivers, tourist guides, the odd policeman, shop workers and owners from nearby businesses, bank employees from across the street who sneak over for a quick drink, and a large contingent of giggling lady lottery vendors.
I scoped it out a few times before going inside, just to confirm that neither foreigners nor tourists from the big cities are present. And indeed the coast was clear: They’re decidedly more up-market and frequent the trendy places, the safe mainstream choices.
The interior layout is simple with long benches on each side and another along the back wall with creaky old wooden tables in front of each of the benches. The café is only about 5 meters deep, so to say it’s intimate is an understatement. When the joint is busy as it often is, the customers are packed right in shoulder to shoulder, face to face.
Most coffee shops consist of tables which encourage individual discussions, but in The Living Room those benches against the wall in a U-shaped layout with most customers facing each other are more intimate, a group feeling.
There is a large stainless steel preparation counter by the entrance along the wall, and a work area that spills out onto the sidewalk. The work area consists of a portable sink and stand installed on the sidewalk upon opening each day using a few rubber hoses hooked up to the water supply. I’m never there that early but I’d surely love to see that set up!
There is also a rickety old machine that pulverizes pennywort leaves into concentrated “rau má,” the healthy green drink. The previous generation of the pulverizers is tucked away in the back corner of the café – for what I don’t know. It’s not going to suddenly resurrect itself and start grinding leaves, but nobody dares throw it away.
The centerpiece and focal point of the café is a stove cum water heater contraption placed inside the venue right next to the preparation counter, perfect for those chilly mornings.
The Living Room uses a bio-carbon solution for cooking that looks like a large round, thick piece of black Swiss cheese with lots of holes placed in a steel pail. There are a couple of levels of kettles precariously piled atop the cooker used for boiling water. It looks like the whole thing is going to fall over but it never does.
The service duo is headed up by a charming little woman, small in stature but a giant of a hostess, the queen of attention and anticipation. It’s now to the point where she knows better than I do what I want, depending on the time of day, weather, and what I’ve already had in the morning if I pop in during the afternoon.
There’s no price list or menu of any sort, just a sign at the back mentioning “rau má,” coffee, and “sữa đậu nành” (soy milk). There is an ancient transistor radio hanging on a nail and a TV hung on the back wall, but they only rarely get put to use. The smartphones are out but it’s the conversation that dominates by far.
The vibe in that tiny room is just like a home – the chatter is non-stop, most of the customers are regular and know each other so the neighbourhood news is passed around. Sometimes a big topic of discussion pops up and all minor conversations cease so that the entire room can discuss the big news from abroad or the latest scandal in the city.
It’s risky for a foreigner who speaks limited Vietnamese to just barge into such a clearly designated local working class café, but I couldn’t resist. I have to find out what’s going on in those places and, after I dare infiltrate, I’m always glad I did.
During my first visits the handful of English-speakers in the place chimed in to make me feel comfortable. The regular gang who don’t speak English and have limited exposure to foreigners grasped the opportunity and started peppering me with questions through the interpreters.
I loved it, never tiring of the same questions: Where do you come from? What are you doing here? How long will you stay? Do you like Vietnam? Do you like Vietnamese food? How old are you? Are you married? Why aren’t you married? Do you have a girlfriend? Why don’t you have a girlfriend? And on and on…..
They all nodded knowingly, seeing that I want to roll with them and learn how they live and how to speak with them. They can tell I’ve been roaming around the world and their country for a while – they know I’m here to learn, not teach.
When people realized I’m in it for the long term and not just drifting through town, I felt a note of approval in the room. Da Lat is a small city, so people are friendly by nature and this gang is proud to have a foreigner go to their humble little café.
I can’t imagine why they think that way – they have the slickest place in town with the best atmosphere but they aren’t aware of it. To them it’s just their little local coffee shop.
I’d like to keep it that way, so please don’t write me asking where it is – mum’s the word!