The Vietnamese feel pity for the lone diner.
I suspect that this sympathy extends to the solo coffee drinker.
The Vietnamese cafe is generally a lively environment where, upon entry, orders are shouted rather than quietly taken. It's an experience to be had in couples, pairs, rowdy groups. There's smoke, more Marlboro than Vinataba these days. There's the dextrous tongue and teeth husking and spitting of watermelon and sunflower seed cases, all over the floor. Banter is generally good-natured but loud. Sticky-beaking, even adding one's 500 đồng worth to a total stranger's conversation is acceptable behaviour. If it's the price of fruit that's being discussed, expect opinions to be shot across the cafe like volcanic projectiles.
A TV could be on, switched to the Korean soap with its concomitant melodramatic piano soundtrack and one voice dub of all characters adding to the din. Naughty children in coffee shops are both encouraged and admonished vociferously. Newspaper sellers, shoeshine boys and beggars are all regular characters in Hanoi coffee houses, their transactions adding another dimension to the atmosphere.
So, the sympathy I mentioned earlier is somewhat misplaced because how could one not feel part of such communal commotion. Noise equals ambience in Hanoi. My Mona Lisa smile in this environment is to assure the gathered caffeine crowd that, despite being on my own, I am indeed thankful for their efforts to include me, to envelop me in their racket.
But the half smile is in fact a ruse. In reality I'm zoned out. Oblivious.
My senses are elsewhere. The intricacy and colour of the building facade across from the cafe conveys me to another time. I wonder about the people who have dwelled behind the shutters, how they might have adjusted to changes in the political landscape, if they ran to dodge a bomb.
I may be focused on the pages of a book, where the story is of another place and time; 1941 China, 1962 Cameroon or the Caribbean before it became one big resort. Fiction or non-fiction but definitely not in the cafe in which my physical self sits.
Life's mundane little episodes grab my attention, too. A woman is peeling the tough outer layers of cải làn stems in readiness for dinner. Her two daughters draw up stools, brandish paring knives of their own and it becomes a case of "more hands making light work." They natter and laugh though I do not hear them. The white noise from the coffee shop makes them a silent movie. And there's the pomelo seller, too, wrenching the thick pith from her fruit, standing by her laden bicycle.
I savour the sips of coffee slowly drugging me. Sometimes abruptly, I emerge from this contemplation and am stunned not by the noise but by the silence. I am present in the ebb of the coffee shop's ebb and flow, back where the experience started, again the solitary coffee drinker. Literally.
And it's so quiet I don't know what to do with myself.
Cafe Yến Ngọc
93 Triệu Việt Vương