Cà phê sữa đá smells like it tastes. It tastes like your first hesitant sip, just before hopping into your stepfather’s truck for school; like dawn in Saigon, bent over a balcony watching the elderly speed walkers loop around the park; like your favorite Viet restaurant in Uptown Chicago where they laughed at your accent; like the faraway darkness of colonialism; like your husband talking with your grandfather in your childhood kitchen. Cà phê sữa đá smells like the bittersweet curl of nostalgia. It tastes of memories that drip as slowly as coffee from a phin filter.
After I moved to Chicago for college, I flew to my grandparents’ house in Georgia for the holidays. They’d raised me, along with my mother, since I was a year old. Their home had hosted decades of family gatherings and it bore the seeped-in watermarks of tears, jokes, and miscommunications never totally forgiven. Sunkist soda cans stacked in a corner, paper napkins cut in half to make them stretch, mornings that thundered to life like a television turned to the loudest volume.
You didn’t sleep late in my grandmother’s house. Early to bed, earlier to rise. In the rooster hours, I woke to the sounds of Paris by Night, a Vietnamese variety show favored by those in my grandparents’ generation. 6 AM had no meaning in this timeless household. I covered my head with a pillow, trying to dive back into my dreams, but the insistent smell of chicory-laced coffee floated up through the rafters, its call as seductive as a crooked index finger.
Everyone wears hand-sewn pajamas at my grandparents’ house from morning to night; you know guests are coming when people start to put on street clothes. Such lax codes beget a kind of familiarity I have since been unable to replicate. I padded among the matching calico pajama sets to slump at the kitchen counter, taking in the sight of my mom wrapping dumplings in banana leaves, my aunt poking over her shoulder.
You do it then, my mom said, teeth gritted.
My grandfather patted my head. Awake so late, bé Thao.
Even in my twenties and thirties, I was bé Thao, baby Thao, still the helpless child my grandparents raised as an infant. My grandmother slid a mug in front of me: a teaspoon of condensed milk coating the bottom, dark-roast Café du Monde poured over it—a Creole-American product created from a French imagination, then adopted as a Viet staple for its strong, nutty taste.
Cà phê sữa đá was born of 19th-century French Imperialism and old-fashioned Viet resourcefulness. Longing for their genteel café au lait tradition back on the continent, French colonizers introduced coffee plantations to Vietnam, forever changing the topography of the country. Our people became addicted to the highly caffeinated Robusta beans, hardy cousin to the refined Arabica species, but made it their own. Around the same time, a Frenchman created canned condensed milk, which became widely used in Vietnam, a land with limited access to dairy and even more limited ways to store it. Soon, strong-and-silent coffee married sweet-as-sin condensed milk to become cà phê sữa đá. I picture linen-clad French families draped on their verandahs before rows of red-cherried coffee plants. They raise glasses of ice-cold cà phê sữa đá, a balm in the tropical heat, and congratulate themselves on the land they’ve so ably conquered.
My grandmother filled a glass with crushed ice and set it next to me.
Stir gently, she commanded, as she did every time.
She never forgot how, years ago, I once got lost in conversation and toppled my cà phê, puddling it all over her spotless counters. Once a bé, forever a bé. When my coffee lightened into the rich brown-beige of a flan top, I poured it over the ice. The first sip was a saccharine assault to my sleep-muddled senses. The last got me to my feet, ready to join the conversation. Such was the power of cà phê sữa đá: hauling prodigal children back to the family fold, one glass at a time.
I’d lived in America for fifteen years and felt myself pulled back to Vietnam by a longing as sharp as a body ache. When I returned to Vietnam in 2011 with my mother and grandparents, nearly four centuries after the first French Jesuits set foot there, I found a different place. Saigon—for, as stubborn Southern Vietnamese, it would never be known as Ho Chi Minh City to us—was a metropolis of bubble tea and internet cafes, fashion boutiques guarded by young soldiers smaller than the rifles they carried, KFCs, and open-air sushi restaurants. It was a city that felt too enormous for my eyes or imagination. While my grandparents got ready in the morning, my mother and I snuck down to one of the coffee carts on the corner and paid fifty cents for plastic sandwich bags filled with crushed ice and cà phê sữa đá.
Nothing tastes like this in America, my mother sighed.
After a short stay in Saigon as tourists, we drove four hours south to our village in the Mekong Delta. Now we were truly going home. The air smelled like gasoline and sweet grass. An angry afternoon sun glanced off pastel-tinted houses. Everyone in town knew my grandparents; they smiled at me like family, criticized my looks and applauded my accomplishments with equal fervor. During our two weeks in my village, my grandfather woke every morning at first light and biked ten minutes to his favorite coffee stand to convene with his friends.
Where’s ông ngoại? I asked, poking my head out of the mosquito netting surrounding my sleeping bag.
From her usual stool in the kitchen, my grandmother waved one of her tiny, sharp-nailed hands. Here and there. Slinking around town like a tomcat.
I couldn’t imagine a description farther from my stately, seventy-year-old grandfather, but then, I couldn’t have imagined him hopping so briskly on his bike either. He returned home around mid-morning with a sheen of sweat on his forehead, smiling wildly, a plastic bag of coffee balanced on his handlebars for me. When he invited me to come along on one of his coffee visits, I beamed to my toes. We walked the quiet streets to the coffee stand, where his friends were already gathered. They sat on low, child-sized stools, hovering over their phins, Vietnamese-made coffee strainers that allow hot water to drip slowly through the beans.
Old man! they called to him.
I sat at the table with them, quiet and unusually shy. As my grandfather ordered for us, I listened to their passion-raised voices debating politics, both current and ancient, for Southerners never forget. Knees jiggling to ward off mosquitoes, they moaned about stupid grandchildren who’d given up on the old ways and government encroachment on their hard-earned land. Poetry and folk songs cradled the conversation like gentle bookends. These men, all former soldiers in the Republic of Vietnam, lived through more than many could imagine. It was like sitting in an Enlightenment-era salon, had those philosophers half the wit and liveliness as my grandfather’s septuagenarian friends. They passed newspapers across the table, teasing when I admitted I couldn’t read Vietnamese.
Two Master’s degrees and she still can’t read, they chortled.
Two more than you have, my grandfather said.
Amidst their laughter, my grandfather poured my coffee for me. In the village, it had a deeper, stronger taste. Sweeter, too. I watched the coffee vendor chopping ice with her hand, hacking at a huge wedge with a machete, yet never once striking the meat of her palm. I’d had my share of cà phê sữa đá over the years, in restaurants and at home, and this was a new experience altogether, the tang of conversation essential to the flavor of my coffee. We stayed for an hour or more, until my grandfather sheepishly stood from the table. Grandma was waiting. The cà phê sữa đá had so filled us that we walked home in silence, appreciating a world in which such things were still possible.
History has a way of following you. For years, I thought of those coffee rituals. I chased the idea of a community of peers, of time and space to sit on a ridiculously low stool next to your friends. I often shared cà phê sữa đá with my husband at restaurants and Viet cafes, but we couldn’t replicate the clamor of conversation or the languorous ease we felt at my grandparents’ house. The beauty of cà phê sữa đá is that it happens at a glacial pace. Sometimes the coffee can take seven to eight minutes to finish brewing. And in that space, beautiful things happen. We look each other in the eye. We shoot the shit, as my grandfather and his friends did. We tease and confess and cajole. We awaken into ourselves and each other.
With the rise of COVID, I cancelled a long-awaited trip to see my grandparents. Among all the things I knew I’d miss, I was most wistful for my morning cà phê sữa đá, fixed by my grandmother at the kitchen counter. It was deeper than a thirst; it was the pain of longing. A cry for the love I could only get from those who, against my protests, would never stop thinking of me as their bé.
Just make it yourself, my mother urged, ever my practical voice of reason.
Of course, I knew I was capable of brewing a cup of cà phê sữa đá. I’d seen it done hundreds of times. But I didn’t believe cà phê sữa đá could taste the same without the hum of bickering in the background and the weight of my grandfather’s palm on my head. And there’s something about the emotion that filters into each cup from the maker, a love freely given and received. The immutable ingredient that seeps and nourishes.
Still, I ordered an orange tin of Café du Monde and a phin of my own. I found a dusty can of condensed milk in the pantry. The deliberate drip of the coffee marked the passage of seconds, then minutes. After it was done brewing, I stirred—gently. Poured carefully. I could almost make out the sounds of Paris by Night in the background, see my grandmother swatting my grandfather away as he tried to steal food from her cutting board. My mother and my aunt, rolling their eyes.
Those old-timers, my mother said.
Those echoes brought them closer to me, as if somehow the lived space of my reality could knit into the past I’d left behind, a snapshot blurred between frames.
After I took that first reviving sip, I coated my spoon in just a little condensed milk and handed it to my daughter to lick. Her pink kitten-tongue delighted in the taste, like melted frosting. Reality blurs again and I see a premonition, or a wish for the future. One day, not so impossibly far from today, she’ll sit in her pajamas at my kitchen counter, long legs draped over the kitchen stool. Eyes sleepy-sweet. I’ll serve her conversation and a glass of cà phê sữa đá. I’ll rejoice as she sips our history.
Author’s Postscript: Here's how to make your own cà phê sữa đá.