Today I’m sharing with you a long story and a short recipe. So maybe you are not ready for a looooong rant about how public health emergencies can bring out the worst and the best in people, how some embassies are not very useful while others are authentic gifts, and how to share a sleeping place with homeless people… But you will surely be for a luscious Vietnamese version of white coffee.
As some of you already know, above all if you follow me on Instagram, I was in Hanoi when the state of alarm was declared in my country, Spain. In all my years of traveling, I had never experienced anything even close to similar, so I must admit I wasn’t sure about the right thing to do. I was receiving mixed signals. On the one hand, the government was making statements saying that all travelers should return home, and also that unnecessary travel was being advised against.
When I first arrived in Vietnam, there were hardly any Covid-19 cases, sixteen if I recall correctly, and within my first weeks there they were all cured. Unfortunately, tourism and repatriation from Europe brought the virus back, and, at the moment, they have around 270 confirmed cases, more than 220 are already out of the hospitals, and zero deceased. While I was there, borders were immediately closed to tourism, so I decided it was more responsible on my end to stay there than to fly home… also because I don’t actually have a home, being a nomad, so I had to go back to my parent’s at age 33! And they are young, but the possibility of infecting them should I contract the virus at the multiple airports and planes was not appealing to me, as you may understand. So I continued with my trip as planned.
Anyway, when I left Hanoi, it was business as usual, except for big touristic attractions like the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum or the Ethnological Museum, which were closed to the public (a very scarce public anyway, incoming tourism being restricted). On March 12th, I traveled by train to the rural province of Ninh Bình, and as soon as I arrived there, I started to encounter some problems. First of all, it was not easy to find a hotel or B&B willing to host me because my passport is Spanish. Luckily, one humble but comfortable enough place accepted me once they checked that I was in the country since way before the first coronavirus case in Europe. But they told me it was not worth it to stay five days, as I had planned, because Tam Coc was closed, as well as Cuc Phuong National Park and most of the temples… Only three attractions were still open, and only for that day, shutting down on the 13th: Tràng An, Bái Đính and Hang Múa.
I had been dreaming about coming to Ninh Bình for ages and, instead of serenely sightseeing, cycling and hiking as I had originally planned, I had to hire a driver in a rush and pack all these activities in roughly seven hours. And I would have stayed seven hours in each one of those alone!
The driver diligently drove me around and, at the end of the day, I asked me to drop me off in a restaurant instead of the B&B, because I hadn’t eaten anything all day long and I wanted to try goat meat, one of the area’s specialties. He stopped in a couple of restaurants and talked to the owners, but none of them wanted a European customer. Finally, we found one, curiously enough one of the best known in town. They told him, allegedly, that I could eat something there. I paid the driver and after I waved goodbye, I tried to enter the restaurant and the owner didn’t allow me to. He was laughing and at first, I thought it was a weird joke and tried to get in, and then he pushed me out and crossed his forearms in front of his face, forming an x. It was a very hostile situation, but at least the views were nice…
However, I just thought I had encountered one rude man and that’s it, so I decided to stay another night and work a little bit instead of going straight back to Hanoi. The next day, I worked at the B&B café all morning long and, when lunchtime came, I went out. To my surprise, most restaurants were closed and, the few that were not, blatantly ignored me when I inquired about one of those typical little plastic stools. I was getting really hungry. I walked around looking for a supermarket, always with my facemask on, and a group of little girls that were playing several meters away, looked at me, covered their little mouths with their hands and run away. Honestly, it was surreal. Still, I laughed, after all, they were just kids. Besides, a minute later a little boy approached me and gave me a lollypop out of the blue. After over an hour meandering around, I finally found a bakery and I bought a banh mi cha bong (pork floss bun).
But I had had enough and, as soon as I could, I took a bus back to Hanoi. I found a room at Hanoi Family Homestay, a place run by three adorable siblings who treated me wonderfully well. Hanoi was also quieter than before, but I was allowed in places. Along with a lovely American couple, the youngest brother of the homestay family, and one of his good friends, we were able to visit the Vietnam Military History Museum and Long Biên Bridge.
However, news from Madrid was devastating, and I weighed the pros and cons of staying in a 9-million inhabitant city during a public health emergency… So on March 18th I caught a flight to Phú Quốc, an island in the south of the country, really close to Cambodia. A couple of days later, I talked with a couple of French tourists that I’ve met at the Family Homestay and they told me the little hotel had been forced to close because of the neighbors’ complaints about having a few foreigners around. So, please, if you go to Hanoi after this nightmare, stay at their place! They will need all the support they can get, and they deserve it, as well.
I chose Phú Quốc, which wasn’t even in my original itinerary, because there were no cases so far there and the then hypothesis (now refuted) that the virus didn’t spread in the hottest climates. I had the same issues finding a hotel, but I finally booked a mosquito-infested one. I enjoyed several nice beaches, delicious coconuts and mangoes, I devoured fresh fish and seafood, I did some kayaking, I walked in the woods, I visited amazing local markets… It was a weird and conflicting week. On the one hand, I couldn’t but enjoy that paradise on Earth but, on the other, I knew my friends and family back home were in lockdown and hundreds of people were losing their lives. I counted my blessings and made the most of it, because it was useless not to do so, but there was also a trace of… I don’t know, guilt, maybe? Anyway, a week after my arrival, we received a notice saying that all tourists should leave the island and, soon, some authorities would come and check the hotels.
The reason was that a tourist had tested positive of Covid-19 on the island. I then booked a flight and a bus to go to Mui Né, a beach town in the southern mainland, thinking that, should I spend some time in lockdown, I’d rather have a beach view. However, I contacted the Spanish embassy just in case. They strongly advised me to buy the first available flight back to Spain, so I started looking but all the 400 and 500 dollars results that Google Flights offered me, once on the airlines’ webpages either they weren’t available anymore or their price was raised up to 2,400 euros with Air France or Aeroflot. I called the embassy again and their response was “Well, you don’t seem very eager to leave if you are not willing to pay…” Oh, I’m sorry, mister consul, but I’m afraid I do not have your salary and that kind of money is more than two months’ worth of heavy traveling! But his response, way more elaborated and ceremonious, was basically “Fend for yourself.” If I hadn’t been dealing with him from a sunbed watching over a jaw-dropping sunset, I might have responded an obscenity.
All things considered, I was still pretty convinced about my decision of going to Mui Né… that is until the bus company told me they were canceling my trip. I was starting to get truly weirded out, so I talked to the family with whom I had been staying for over a month in Hanoi before all this madness, the delightful Rodd and Nga, they were very understanding and agreed to host me indefinitely. So I changed my flight and canceled my ocean-view cabana. By the way, kudos to Booking and Airbnb for reimbursing even the service fee for properties with a non-flexible cancelation policy.
When I arrived at Hanoi airport, I found a strikingly different scenario from the one that I had left one week before: most cafeterias were closed, as were the little shops and the airlines’ counters. It was like a ghost airport. Why? Well, when I saw Google Flights was giving outdated information I started digging a bit (aka, did a quick search that even a child could have done) and, apparently, not only the incoming tourist flights were canceled, but the vast majority of flights towards Europe were too; which makes sense for two reasons if you think about it: why organize flights out of a country if no tourists are coming in? And, of course, the situation in Spain and Italy, above all, was getting gloomier by the moment, and of course, they had to close their borders too. So following, I must admit, the unpleasant consul’s advice, I grabbed a cab and went to Aeroflot’s main office in Hanoi. I agreed on a price with the driver and once we got there he tried to charge me almost double because he had gotten lost, and as hard as I tried to explain to him that was not my responsibility, above all in the Google Maps day and era, he didn’t speak any English and he had to call a colleague to interpret for us. I was in such a hurry because it was 4:30 pm and the office was open just until 5, so as soon as we reached a middle ground I rushed into a labyrinth of a big complex. Me running with my heavy backpack, twisting and turning between dozens of identical buildings must have been a fun show to watch, honestly.
So, sweaty and exhausted, I arrived at the offices 15 minutes before closing time and I explained my situation to the nice lady there. They offered me a flight two days later for, again, 2,200. You guys, that was pretty much all that I had in my bank account. I had a number of juicy invoices to be paid, but as a freelancer, you never really know when that’s going to happen, above all given the uncertainty in Spain at the moment. So I couldn’t help it and I started crying. Technically I could have paid that amount, but on the one hand, where would it leave me if something happened and my invoices were not paid on time? It was too risky. And, more importantly, I didn’t want to. Why should I pay that obscene amount of money? The itinerary Hanoi-Moscow-Madrid usually costs 500 euros or less. It was insulting that they were cashing out, taking advantage of a pandemic. I do understand they were facing who knows how many months of not flying and they probably needed the cash flow, but capitalizing on people’s desperation is low, in my humble opinion. In tears, I told her that, as nicely as I could, and making sure she understood it was not a personal attack. After all, it was not her decision to make, she was just the messenger. The nice lady started typing on her computer and she announced: “There is a flight for 700 dollars on the 29th.” Ecstatic, I bought it.
Now, what you have to understand is that even if I was in a privileged situation (after all, Vietnam is a safe country, I had Nga and Rodd’s support, I didn’t have to go back home to work because I work remotely…) I wanted to go back to Spain because Vietnam’s government had just issued a statement saying that even those of us who already had visa acceptance letters, as was my case, were not going to be granted a tourist visa extension. My visa didn’t expire until May 10th, and Vietnam, soon after I left, decided they were going to accept the letters anyway, but I couldn’t know how long this situation was going to last and I felt I didn’t want to risk it. I didn’t want to become an illegal immigrant with a virulent disease going around!
The 26th went by as if nothing was happening. I went to Xofa Cafe, a 24-hour restaurant, to work while eating a wonderful Bún chả, my favorite Vietnamese dish. Of course, when it rains it pours and my main client decided that this atmosphere was ideal to change our workflow, and, for the same amount of money and within the same timeframe, I should do five times as much work (a couple of days later they rectified and asked me only for three times the amount of work… Needless to say, they are not my main client anymore).
It was magnificent. My levels of stress were through the roof. On the 27th I decided to go to Joma Cafe, it’s a chain but their matcha latte is delicious, they make a decent Reuben sandwich, and it was just in my block (I couldn’t waste time commuting with that amount of work). But, when I arrived there, a huge sign informed the cafe was closed to the public, only taking to-go orders. I walked down the streets and every restaurant had a variant of the same sign. Lockdown had arrived in Vietnam and, while people were still allowed out of their houses, non-essential businesses were shut.
The day before the flight, that is, my birthday, I received a call from the Embassy (they had been calling me every single day several times just to keep updated, still not providing any useful information but asking me about flights and alternatives…) to tell me that Putin had closed Russian airspace and my Aeroflot flight was probably baing canceled. And they offered me a spot in a Polish charter flight organized by Poland’s government to repatriate its citizens, but it was leaving in a few hours. I then called Aeroflot and they assured me the flight was not canceled because it wasn’t your regular commercial flight, and I rang back the Embassy to tell them I was sticking to the original plan (I didn’t want to waste the 700 bucks). But then… plot twist! One hour before the Polish flight was due to leave, Aeroflot sent me an email saying my flight was canceled. “Son of a…” I thought. If they’d only said that when I called them, or just two hours before… but no. They said they were reimbursing my flight in a week’s time (except service fees, so nice of them)… and I’m still waiting a month later. Oh well.
I called the consul and he told me that he would put me on the list for an Austrian flight that was leaving on the 30th and that he was going to look into a German flight that maybe was also leaving the week after that. I was so confused. Why Germany, Austria, Poland, and also Italy and France had repatriation flights for their citizens but Spain didn’t? I asked him, not in a defiant tone but seeking to understand. And the consul got really upset. “That comment is out of place.” “It’s not a comment, sir, it’s an honest question.” His response made my blood run cold: he blurted out pearls such as how I dared speaking ill of my own country and that if I thought they were so useless, they were going to stop trying to help me. It was unbelievable. And this is the person I had to trust in an emergency situation? Someone who cannot even handle a very licit and logical question? I decided not to say another word and, surprising no one, a few hours later I received a WhatsApp from him saying that I had not made it to the repatriation list of the Austrian flight, followed by a list of shockingly expensive hotels who were still accepting tourists. Yes, great help, Hanoi Spanish Embassy. Thanks a lot. Lucky for me, at least Rodd and Nga invited me to a home-cooked dinner and a couple of glasses of wine to celebrate my birthday!
On the 29th, I called the French embassy (I have double nationality) and at the end, it was the Consellería d’Affers Exteriors of Catalonia (I’m still officially a Barcelona resident) who mediated with the Austrian embassy, called the Spanish consul at 2 am Hanoi time to basically ask him not to leave me and other three Spanish young women stranded. Miraculously, on the 30th the consul called me the next morning and told me I had to run to the airport, that they had found me a place in that Austrian flight (never mentioning the Conselleria). Later I learned that the reason why some spots were freed in that flight was really devastating: the flight was leaving from Manila and, the day before, a medical evacuation plane had exploded during takeoff, killing its eight passengers. So some people, in fear, canceled their flight. Again, confusing and conflicting feelings: was I allowed to be glad to have the opportunity to go home in those circumstances?
I packed my bags quick as a flash, I said a swift but grateful goodbye to my hosts, and grabbed a taxi to the deserted airport. I arrived around 4:30 pm. I met there the other three girls, who were sleeping at the airport for two days already, and we waited. And waited. And waited. The flight was supposed to leave at 8, but we needed to be earlier to talk to the Austrian ambassador, who didn’t arrive until 6. He was an adorable human being. He treated us with respectful affection and in good spirits. What a difference!
Around 8:20 he confirmed we all had a seat in the flight to Vienna for 600 euros. We were the last ones to embark and, although we were getting nervous in case they changed their minds after the rollercoaster of the previous days, it ended up being a good thing because we got first class seats! It was the first time in my life that I’ve slept horizontally on a flight. Entertainment options were also amazing. The only con was that being a charter flight and not a commercial one, we did not have dining options. So, instead of dinner, they gave us a bunch of chocolate bars and some water. It could have been worse!
We arrived in Vienna at around 4 am local time, and were received by the Spanish ambassador and the cultural attaché. They were both incredibly gentle and kind men who did not leave our side until all of our situations were sorted out. My three new friends waited for a flight to Barcelona, but as I had to go to the south of Spain to my parents’ house, my only option was Madrid, because all trains and buses from Barcelona were canceled. So I booked a flight with Lufthansa who, monetizing the situation again, charged me almost 500 euros. That is, a Hanoi-Vienna direct connection was 600, and somehow Vienna-Frankfurt-Madrid was 480. Baffling. At least now I know which airlines I will be taking when this is over! What’s more, in the layover in Frankfurt, all the passengers were crowded into a hall until, one by one, we went through passport control. Once on the gate, however, Lufthansa stewardesses yelled at us because, in the boarding queue, we did not keep strictly two meters of safety distance, perhaps only a meter and a half. However, upon boarding, I realized that, despite the flight being at a third of its capacity, I had one passenger in front and another behind, just a few inches away, and in the tail of the plane all the seats were empty. Everything very coherent…
Anyway, I finally arrived in Madrid. From Barajas airport, at that moment, there was only one bus available to my folks’ town, at 4:45 pm, March 31st. My flight was supposed to land at 4 in another terminal, so while still in Vienna I booked the bus for April 1st. I thought it was the only option, between picking up my luggage and passing the medical checkup as the one we had in Vienna and, to a lesser extent, in Frankfurt. But we landed at 3:40, my suitcase was the third one, and no one took my temperature or asked me whether I had recently visited China. So at 4 pm, I was already at the bus stop, and I called the company, Alsa, and explained my situation. They told me changes could only be made two hours in advance. I replied I understood that was their usual policy, but this was an exceptional context, with an alarm state and only one bus a day available. I insisted that, if they didn’t change my bus ticket, I would have to sleep at the airport and spend there over 24 hours, with the contagion risk that entails, not only for me but for everyone around me, since I didn’t know if I was asymptomatic. Do you think they caved? Of course not.
It was not an enjoyable night. The terminal was crowded with homeless people, so there were no benches unoccupied. A security guard asked me to be careful because while most of the people there were just seeking shelter, a few others needed to pickpocket to survive. So I found myself a place next to the police station, sitting on the floor next to one of the few outlets available, and worked all night long. Oh, and I had to leave my bag on top of the plug because the floor socket was weirdly shaped and without the weight, it wouldn’t connect properly. So, so safe. During the night, I witnessed a couple of foreigners (one woman from Bulgaria and another from I don’t know where) going to the police to inform about this pickpocketing activities, to find that, in the international terminal of an international airport, none of the six police officers spoke English. So I had to work as a pro bono impromptu interpreter for them to be able to seek help. To top it off, the only food at hand for those wonderful 24 hours was refrigerated expending machine sandwiches. Don’t get me wrong, I ate them because that’s better than nothing, but I write an international cuisine blog, so I would be lying if I said I somehow enjoyed any of those bites.
Anyway, I survived the night, kept working through the day, and caught the bus. Two minutes into the drive, I fell inevitably asleep. I arrived to Cartagena almost at midnight, and there was only one cab waiting at the stop. We were two passengers and the other one was an elderly lady, but when I was getting ready for maybe another hour waiting in the cold, she called someone to pick her up (although this was advised against after a trip, for the asymptomatic cases of the virus I was talking about before). So I took the cab, and I informed the nice driver that I didn’t have cash on me, since I just landed from Vietnam. He didn’t have a payment terminal, so we stopped at an ATM, and, of course, my adventures couldn’t end there: it was out of order. I called my father and asked him if he had some cash on him and, luckily, he had. I’m 33 years old and still asking my dad for cash… who knew. He paid and gave me a tortilla my mother had prepared for me. At last! Real food after 39 hours!
Once I arrived everything was extremely weird: for 15 days, I stayed at my father’s office (which was formerly my childhood home) and only saw him at a two-meter distance, both with facemasks and gloves, in case I had been infected with the Covid-19 during my odyssey. My dog Miau was really confused, trying to figure out why our faces looked weird and, above all, why I couldn’t pet him like I used to. Regardless, after those first two weeks, I am at least at home, with both my parents who are healthy, and petting my Miau every day as if there were no tomorrow.
But, you know what is also shocking but, instead of bitter and distasteful, really sweet and pleasant? Egg Coffee! I know it sounds weird and, to be honest, at first I was reluctant to try it. But it is surprisingly tasty. I don’t know if I should categorize it as a beverage or a dessert, actually. It’s kind of a tiramisu milkshake. And it’s a very simple recipe, with ingredients readily available in this quarantine environment.
Actually, Mr. Nguyen Van Giang came up with this recipe out of sheer necessity.
Robusta coffee is so strong that most Vietnamese people added milk to the brew, but during the French War, there was a shortage of milk. So, when he was bartending at a hotel, he came up with this signature drink as a substitute, and then he opened his own little cafe in Hanoi’s old quartier: Café Giang. Later on, in the 90s, his daughter opened Café Dinh13, where I tried the concoction for the first time and I came for more. One of the things I love about this place (apart from the coffee, obviously), is the location. It’s in one of Hanoi’s well known little alleys inside narrow buildings. They are sketchy-looking places I would not dare to enter if I didn’t know what’s on the other side (like an awfully long, confusing, and tortuose repatriation experience, ha, ha), but which are part of the idiosyncrasy of the city. But, given that we cannot get to Hanoi any time soon, let’s reproduce this yummy blend at home, thanks to the cooking class I took with Apron Up:
Egg Coffee (Cà Phê Trứng) for two or three people:
- 1 1/2 cup of brewed black coffee (the Robusta blend is better, but I’m not sure if you’ll be able to get it)
- 3 egg yolks
- 1 tbsp of condensed milk
- 2 tbsp of sugar
- 2 drops of rice wine (or vodka, if you can’t find rice wine – they told me this is important to kill the germs, since it’s raw egg, but I just add it for the fun)
- A pinch of salt
Whisk the egg yolks, adding the sugar, the condensed milk, and the salt slowly, until the mix is smooth, like custard. Pour it into a coffee mug and, slowly, add the hot coffee. And that’s it! I told you, I was going to compensate my insufferably long rant with a very short recipe. Short and sexy, look…
The last image in the video it’s not coffee, actually. Egg coffee has transcended and now you can also have egg hot chocolate and even… egg beer!
While I cannot really recommend, in good faith, the egg beer, I truly hope you give the egg coffee a go and let me know your thoughts! And, from the bottom of my heart, sorry for this 4,500-word post! I needed to get it out of my chest! But, more importantly, I wanted to say a big THANK YOU to all of the people who were actually really helpful and nice to me during this whole process: the lovely people at Diep’s Homestay in Ninh Binh, who lodged and fed me when no one else would; to Perfume and her siblings at Hanoi Family Homestay, who went the extra mile so that their guests felt welcome despite it all; to Rodd and Nga who treated me like another member of the family; to the little boy who gave me that lollypop when all of his little friends were scared of me; to the Conselleria d’Affers Exteriors for its key role in my repatriation; to the Austrian ambassador in Hanoi for being so reassuring and amiable in such an uncertain situation; to the Spanish ambassador and the cultural attaché in Vienna, for welcoming us in person at 4 am when the ones in Hanoi wouldn’t even bother at daytime; to the funny and warm cab driver who took me even though he knew I had no Spanish currency. The world is full of sweet and lovely people, ready to help when it’s needed. Don’t let the others make you forget that.
Keep positive, keep safe, and wash your hands often!