I'm not one of those blokes who has a thing about military stuff. I can appreciate the sacrifices made and the bravery demonstrated by soldiers past and present but I personally don't go in for visits to army museums or prisons or trenches or tunnels. I've never owned a pair of khaki trousers nor a camouflage-design T-shirt. I didn't play with toy soldiers as a boy nor have I shot a gun in any computer war-games. I've never seen 'Apocalypse Now', for crying out loud.
Call me names, as I'm no army buff. But fill up a shop with quirky war memorabilia, play music from the early 70s on a reel-to-reel tape player and start serving coffee and I'll soon develop an interest.
Cafe Linh proprietor, Le Tuan Nghia, is my polar opposite. Over a period of a dozen or so years, he has collected and now curated in his coffee shop a varied assortment of items from the Vietnam War period. The ceilings are billowing with silk parachutes and the walls are swathed in camouflage cotton, a series of lightboxes containing war period knick-knacks and soldier's belongings line the cafe's walls, doubling as tables to set down the drinks. There are bombs and hand grenades fashioned into vases, primitive jungle weapons that function like bows and arrows, uniforms and gas masks pinned to the walls; many of them artifacts one would expect to see in a military museum.
More intriguing for me were the contents of the lightboxes, more personal items reflecting the soldier's lives or simple memorabilia of the era; faded ID cards and letters written home, razors and empty cigarette tins, old 45 rpm records with sleeves depicting Saigon girl singers dressed in paisley, coiffed in teased up buoffants, like a Vietnamese version of The Supremes. Playing on the reel to reel during my most recent stop there were Roy Orbison and ZZTop's 'Blue Jean Blues', creating an atmosphere so laid-back I thought I was stoned.
I thought I was hallucinating, though, when Mr. Nghia suddenly jumped up to retrieve a grasshopper from the floor - to feed his pet scorpion, which lay playing dead in a glass fish tank. As a few other male customers gathered around, Mr. Nghia aimed a water-filled syringe, water pistol fashion, at the scorpion, waking it from its torpor, tormenting its appetite into action. His other hand held tightly to the doomed grasshopper.
Cheap entertainment for some, for the price of an iced black coffee, but it seems I am not one of these boys who will be boys.
My military history lesson was over and I was out.
65 Hàng Buồm
Old Quarter, Hanoi