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  • “Xin chào, bà!” I would say with a nod and a smile as I stepped off the sidewalk and walked up to Bạn & Tôi Café. Bà Lâm would smile back before waving me over to her quaint tea stand next door and pouring me a piping hot cup of green tea prepared from whole, fresh tea leaves. “Cháu ơi!” she would shout to the barista at the café as I sat down at a glass table outside, right next to her tea stand. The waiter would come and take my order—a glass of cà phê sữa đá, please.

    So began my daily writing routine in Vietnam. Everyday I would come to this café to sip coffee, observe the world, and write. Taking out my notebook, I would scribble down the date and go over what I’d written the day before. For the first time in my life, I was writing a novel.

    I had never written a novel before, despite good intentions and childhood aspirations. I had trouble sustaining momentum and ideas. I’d come up with a fantastic idea only to write an outline, a few paragraphs, maybe a chapter or two, before letting some other task take over my time. The year I spent abroad—I told myself—that would be the year I would add writing to my routine. Coffee, as the stereotype goes, would aid me in the process.

    The barista brought out the cà phê phin and a cup of ice. The Vietnamese coffee filter sat atop a small cup filled with a layer of sweetened condensed milk. Slowly, each drop would trickle through the aluminum filter and hit the milk below. The smell of the dark, bitter robusta bean mingling with the caramel milk hit me as I sipped my tea, waking me up just a bit.

    My hand took its time warming up to the pen and the page in the morning, just like that cà phê phin took its time with my coffee. I would take a sip of the green tea and take in the street scene in front of my eyes. I would read what I’d written the day before, and go back to observing the road bustling with motorbikes and noodle stalls and farmers on their way to market. Getting lost in the hustle of the streets helped my mind to develop the ideas in my head. I’d write a few words, a paragraph or two, as I warmed up to the day and the page. 

    Eventually the coffee would stop dripping and I would press down on the filter inside the cà phê phin to squeeze out the last few drops. I’d set the filter over the ice, stir the milk and the coffee together, pick the filter back up, and pour the cà phê sữa over the đá

    The quick shot of caffeine helped the writing to flow, swift and sure. The ideas that had brewed in my mind earlier came out on the page. For thirty minutes straight, the writing would gush out. Day after day my pen rolled on the page, with many adjustments made to the narrative but nary a day of writer's block. Day after day, I would close the notebook up, pay 50¢ for the cup, and wave goodbye to Bà. Eight months' worth of this, and I had a rough draft on my hands.
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