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Night and day

Monday, February 24, 2020, 09:56 GMT+7
Night and day
Inside a coffee shop in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis

If there were ever two nations diametrically opposed in this world, it would have to be Vietnam and Japan. They’re like night and day - all the way, from soup to nuts.

It’s no secret that Japan is my favorite all-time vacation destination, to which I’ve made dozens of trips over the years. I recently returned for the first time in three and a half years, during which time I have been living practically full-time in Vietnam, except for a couple of brief trips abroad each year. 

One of the reasons I wanted to return to Japan for a few weeks recently was to absorb it all again - the perfection, organization, comfort, and formality that goes into everything, and as soon as I walked into a café I got it right between the eyes.

That’s right - even going for a coffee in Japan is a complex experience, pretty much the opposite of Vietnam.

The Japanese queue up in front of the cashier’s counter - stoic, silent until their turn comes, then they announce their desire with the utmost formality. Out comes a tray, the cashier positions it squarely in front of the customer, adds a napkin and a wet towel encased in a plastic sheath, puts down a saucer, all symmetrically aligned, and slides the tray toward the next colleague, who serves up the coffee.

Inside Saint Marc Café in Nagasaki, Japan. Photo: Rick Ellis

Inside Saint Marc Café in Nagasaki, Japan. Photo: Rick Ellis

The customer places the money on a rubber coaster, the cashier takes it with a deliberate yet deferential move and a slight bow, then counts the change out loud while returning it, and places it on the rubber mat. 

All the while the cashier endlessly clucks and chirps one expression of gratitude after another until the cup of coffee is placed on the saucer.

The server dabs the bottom of the cup on a damp towel to ensure no errant drops of coffee escape onto the saucer, and perfection is complete.

In the typical local cafés I frequent in Vietnam there is no greeting, no queue, nor formalities of any kind. The customer walks in, usually ordering the desired drink, often before taking two steps beyond the threshold to choose a seat: 

“Em ơi!!! Ca phe sua da!” (Miss! Ice coffee with condensed milk!)

If the servers are chatting to another customer, they’re interrupted by the new arrival, which is no issue because things change in a flash and the staff roll with the punches.

Instead of tackling one customer at a time, each server must shift attention between multiple clients who all expect to be served promptly, a masterful example of real-time processing and prioritizing.

A request for that forgotten piece of lime or a couple of cigarettes derails the flow of events, but only for a fleeting moment, and adds efficiency to the experience because it all happens so quickly.

A cup of coffee served at Saint Marc Café in Nagasaki, Japan. Photo: Rick Ellis

A cup of coffee served at Saint Marc Café in Nagasaki, Japan. Photo: Rick Ellis

The response from the server is usually the same single word: “Roi,” literally meaning already, but idiomatically translates to “right away."

That’s it, that’s all - a few words back and forth and the deal is sealed, order placed and acknowledged, so simple and informal, no idle pleasantries exchanged.

When the Japanese customer is finished, the tray goes in the 'Tray Return' shelf, placed perfectly alongside all the others returned by departed customers, which is invariably followed by a shout of thanks from several staff members, including a request for the client to return soon.

I nearly want to pinch the employees to find out if there is a real person behind all that pomp and ritual, and I’m reminded why AI (artificial intelligence) is such a hit in Japan. After all, the staff are one step removed from robots - every motion and word is orchestrated precisely per the staff training program.

When the Vietnamese customer is finished, he calls out “Tinh tien!” requesting the bill, and the server hustles over to collect the money, then provide change.

In Vietnam I usually have to unravel some bills from the little clumps I’m handed, iron them out with my hand, then stow them in my pocket.

Used cups, utensils, ashtrays, and garbage are left for the server to collect. End of story, unless one or both say thanks or goodbye, neither of which is expected.

From start to finish, the Japanese experience is formal, assurance followed by reassurance, and confirmation by reconfirmation, while the Vietnamese transaction consists of the minimum dialogue, no time wasted, no beating around the bush.

Despite the seemingly terse exchange between customers and servers in Vietnam, there is usually certain warmth that seeps through - a bit of personality, that’s because people are pleasant and uninhibited, so a dash of warmth is often injected into the exchanges, such as a hint of recognition or a smile.

As a neutral Westerner in all this, I would say both the Vietnamese and Japanese service staff are equally thorough in their approaches, but it’s not easy to gauge because the experiences appear quite different to the casual observer.

Regular cafés in Vietnam don’t have napkins, trays, and wet towels, no cash register, receipt, nor counting of change, but the staff’s attention to detail is on a par with their Japanese equivalents.

I can say without hesitation that upon my second visit (or third at the most) in Vietnam, my drink preference and the way I like it served are indelibly etched on the server's mind.

I swear I get exactly the same small “ca phe nong” (hot black coffee) with half a glass of ice cubes on the side every damn time in my favorite cafés in Da Lat no matter who prepares it - not even the tiniest variation, irrespective of the frequency of my visits. 

In Japan, I bet if a customer walked into the same café hundreds of times, the rigmarole would be identical - the same greetings without a hint of amiability on the part of the server. The same formalities and farewells are repeated as if recorded, the only difference being the server will recognize a customer, remember a preference, fulfill it, but without remark. 

That said, I went into a café in Japan for the third day running and the server remembered me, offering one of those loyalty cards that they stamp each time, which after a certain number of visits is redeemed for a free drink. (Worthy of note is how deftly the server dabbed away the excess ink with a tissue after stamping my card, thus ensuring that other items in my wallet wouldn’t be stained. I don’t have a wallet, just a clump of bills in my pocket, but I was impressed nonetheless.) 

If that doesn’t cement my point, this will: I recently walked into my favorite “tachinomi” (standing bar) for the first time in three and a half years, and the mother/son team that runs it greeted me and started pouring my favorite beer as if I’d just been in the joint the day before.

Coffee is prepared using cloth sock on a stove at a coffee shop in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis

Coffee is prepared using cloth socks on a stove at a coffee shop in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis

Admittedly, a white guy in the boonies of Japan in the dead of winter sticks out like a sore thumb, but we could say the same about Da Lat, where I live in Vietnam, so it’s level ground between the countries when it comes to the high degree of customer focus.

While hygiene, process, and automated tools can’t possibly be compared between the two countries, both zero in equally on the quality of service and products, so the big difference is the steps to preparation and the dialogue - standardized to the lowest common denominator and replicated by the Japanese staff hundreds of times daily.

I’m sure if the staff said “You stink! We hope you never come back! Good riddance! You suck!” many customers wouldn’t even notice, so ingrained is the habit of exchanging banalities.

Although I love the efficiency of the Japanese and the predictability of the whole experience, I definitely prefer the role of a visitor as opposed to a resident. I think living there would drive me nuts because the emphasis on process and perfection leaves no room for a personal touch. 

It really is a great place to visit, but I’d rather live in Vietnam, where things are just a bit more real, natural, even though there are a few warts and imperfections around the edges from time to time.

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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