Nirvana in a Cup

 Distractions while on the hunt…

Distractions while on the hunt…

“You have to try egg coffee in Hanoi. It’s delicious.”

I looked up the best place to go, and found Café Giang near my hotel. I wasn’t a bloodhound on the trail, I confess; but I walked down the street and checked for the café where the address indicated. However, when I asked for number 39, one person pointed left, another pointed right. I got distracted by a group of men smoking a pipe made from a three-foot piece of bamboo. And then by women steering bicycles full of fruits and vegetables and endless commodities.

I never saw the café.

The next morning I decided to order an egg coffee at my hotel. I was staying at the Metropole, Hanoi’s most famous hotel and one of its most sophisticated. Its guests have included Graham Greene, Charlie Chaplin, and my personal favorite, Joan Baez. Surely they could handle an egg coffee.

The beautifully dressed young waitress was replaced by a gracious gentleman. He bowed and told me that, if I would wait six to eight minutes, he could bring me an egg coffee. When I asked if it took that long to make, he explained that he would have to find the place that makes them somewhere “in the garden.”

Ten minutes later I was sipping my drink. The presentation was sublime. A delicately framed candle burned in a translucent porcelain base, which supported a larger square bowl half-full of hot water. The coffee cup rested in the water. Every effort was made to keep it at the perfect temperature.

“How is it?” The waiter attentively asked.

“It is very nice.” I graciously replied. Graciousness is my tactic when enthusiasm is lacking. The coffee tasted like the Three In One instant coffee I make in my room when traveling in Asia: cloyingly sweet hot liquid with the underlying taste of caffeine.

“You know,” the man said, reading me perfectly, “I can tell you where to get a real egg coffee.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, it is not far.”

He walked to the front of the restaurant, grabbed a small notepad and pen, and wrote down: Giang Cafe, 39 Nguyen Huu Huan. My friend, Catherine, had also recommended this spot, so it had to be.

This time I persevered. Fifteen minutes after I left the hotel, I scoured the side of the street where my map application sent me. Usually trustworthy, this time the app was way off. I crossed the road, walked up and down the other side of the block, and kept asking for number 39. Finally, someone spoke English and directed me almost next door, to a very narrow slot and then a stairway going up. I snapped a shot for future reference.

A group of Myanmar nuns I had been observing along the way followed me into the café. At tables that came to my knee, we sat down on chairs the height of a hiking boot.

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After placing my order, I talked and laughed with the nuns, who were very happy to meet someone who knew their country. Hugs were soon being exchanged, and the nuns’ joy expressed through requests for photographs. Of me.

The café was reminiscent of a beatnik coffee shop in a rundown section of a large city. Mold competed with the paint on the walls. The furniture was something McDonalds should copy to get you out as quickly as possible. It would contort the average American into intolerable pain.

The egg coffee came in a simple cup with the café’s logo. It rested in a small bowl of warm water. It looked like a small latte with a murky design. When stirred, the froth was dense. The liquid below was black.

And then, a moment later, I was transported into my very earliest childhood. I closed my eyes and took one more tiny sip of the coffee.

Senses that hadn’t been tantalized in decades burst to life. I reached out and sent a text to my brother. The tiny chair I now sat on matched the one my baby butt had cuddled as I waited impatiently for my mother to finish what she was doing. Holding a bowl in her hand, she beat its contents so hard, she threatened to destroy the bowl itself.

Gogglj-mogglj— the j making the ending baby-soft—was our name for these beaten egg yolks with sugar, gentled down to a creamy thickness by my mother’s perfect touch. A tiny spoonful of it would roll through your mouth and line your throat with nirvana. 

Egg coffee was apparently invented in Vietnam during hard times when milk was hard to come by. My Mama’s treat had been made in a refugee camp where a similar scarcity of ingredients prevailed.

I did a search on Google. It turned out that something called Kogel Mogel was created out of scarcity in Eastern Europe and is still eaten by children in Poland today. I’ve never asked my relatives in Serbia or Croatia about it, but I certainly will. 

Hanoi and I have both moved far beyond our era of scarcity, but I have rediscovered a love affair with the token of gold that shined its light into my soul. 

 His father is the little baby.

His father is the little baby.

As I was leaving, I met the young man whose grandfather started the café. He pointed to his father, the baby in a portrait of the family. I will always remember Hanoi egg coffee as something his grandfather created for his father to keep him happy in hard times.