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June 2020

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Suddenly my train stops a little station named Eklakhi. All-day is raining here in North Dinajpur (West Bengal). Today is the fifth day of Durga puja. As every year, the next 4 days would be celebrated in a grand manner all over the Bengal. Around the platform, I can sense a lot of chaos. Tea sellers are roaming around with their big stainless steel tap jars, yelling to sale their teas, fruit sellers in cane baskets trying to sell bananas, apples, cucumbers. Few are selling red cotton towels, puffed rice prepared with oil, fried mixtures. Station manager announces the train would wait here for some time because of some technical problem.

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Nostalgia While Exploring The Small Station

Eklakhhi is a small village. I find the station surrounded by paddy fields and few huts. It is not at all crowded or polluted. It’s evening, I find near the station a little football ground surrounded by trees and a small arrangement of Durga puja. Inside the complete pandal there are some 40 wat or 60 wat bulbs wrapped in coloured translucent papers creating a dreamy atmosphere, but no Durga idol.

Some village kids are happily running towards the station. I can sense their happiness, the same adrenaline rush I used to feel at their age. Durga puja is much-waited celebration time. Kids are not asked questions or stopped from playing or monitored all the time. They taste freedom for the first time. That’s why Durga puja becomes famous among them. I look at my watch, it’s 6:25 pm and there is no sign of the train leaving the platform soon.

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The Happiness

Station area are wet and foggy for the rain. And that time I feel some good smell; hot tea. So I follow the smell and reach near the ticket counter. There I see them again; the same kid’s group with another set of new kids. Two men are seriously making the Durga idol there. They are doing the final job because tomorrow morning puja will start. And they have only the night to finish their work and the idol. Due to rain the process got delayed and tough for them.

Few villagers come there too to see the work progress. They start planning for tomorrow’s ritual. But I can sense the tension in them, and the gloom affects the kids as well. All are worried as the idol is not complete due to rain. And the weather not letting the idol dry. Few elders and decision-makers are sitting on a bench and smoking a beedi. I place myself on the same bench with them. 55 years old ask me about my destination. I just need a reason to start the conversation. Why Eklakkhi? What does it mean? I pour my bucket of questions on him. I do not know a strong history lesson is waiting for me.

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History Of Eklakhhi

And the history starts with the first native Muslim king of Bengal and the last Sultan of Bengal to rule from Pandua.  Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah was a 15th-century Sultan of Bengal and an important figure in medieval Bengali history. Born a Hindu to his aristocratic father Raja Ganesha, the father of the Ganesha dynasty, he assumed the throne of Bengal after a coup which overthrew the Ilyas Shahi dynasty. He converted to Islam and ruled the Bengal Sultanate for 16 years. As a Muslim king, he brought Arakan under Bengali suzerainty and consolidated the kingdom’s domestic administrative centres. He also combined Bengali and Islamic architecture.

The Old man suddenly shouts to the kids because of the continuously creating toy gun sound. I remember my childhood days.

Eklakhhi Mausoleum (Google Image)

The old man says during Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah Pandua was the first capital city of the Bengal Sultanate. So Jalaudin ruled from Pandua. Post his death as a memorial the village has mausoleum on his name. The mausoleum was built in the early 15th century. It houses three tombs. One tomb is believed to be that of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah, the other two of his wife and son Shamsuddin Ahmad Shah.  According to history, the construction of the mausoleum cost one lakh rupees (₹100,000). The mausoleum received its name “Eklakhi” (One Lakh) from this amount. 

Time To Go

I look at the idol maker, he is using the fire spray to dry the idol. The old man concludes that they gather every year some amount as a donation from every household to celebrate the festival. And the cost comes around 12 thousand not 1 lakh. I see in a cycle van few dhakis (Bengal dhak player) are approaching. The children start dancing in random rhythm. Meantime, my train whistles. I depart with a story and heartwarming goodbyes.

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I was on my way to Kohima from Dimapur. It was already 5:30 pm, the sunset time. My shuttle car was moving slowly through the mountain valleys and my phone ringing continuously. The network was pretty bad there. Still, I picked up the call and a hasty voice asked me about my whereabouts. “Call me when you reach Kohima. Me and my family waiting for you”, the voice yelled.

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Finally, at 7:15 P.M I reached Kohima. I called him, and the network was a little better. He said that he had arranged for the car for me. His friend was the driver and owner of that car. He was waiting for me near the Kohima main bazaar. From Kohima to his house was another 40 minutes. He asked me not to worry as his driver friend would drop me safely and no payment required. On another side of the phone was Stany, my host in Nagaland.

When I decided to visit the Hornbill festival, It was mid-November. And the festival would be starting on 1st December. The hotels, homestays, and tents were prior booked for the festival. Desperate me was randomly searching Naga people on Facebook, asking for a homestay near hornbill festival ground. Then someone contacted me and told me about Stany, his friend, who had started for the 1st time a new homestay business. Post my conversation with Stany had sent me a few pictures of his house. And I was a little worried, whether to book a 1st timer in a new strange place. It could turn into my nightmare. But I didn’t have any other option but to book his house. So I did.

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FAMILY HILL HOME STAY :

I found out the place was in a dense forest and surrounded by mountains. Post reaching there I saw the house was in the deep dark. It was freezing outside. The dimmest light was coming from a bulb which had no intention to spread the ray. Suddenly, a flood of light came on me. I was shocked by that sudden presence as a man was holding a torch. He was merely visible in the dark. Stany was waiting for my arrival. He gave me the warmest hug on our first meet. That was enough to defrost all the ice in my mind. An 8 years-old girl came to me with a smile and glass of hot water. It was so pleasing and overwhelming. I chose a mixed dormitory with 5 more beds in the room. My bed was beside a window. And I already loved my stay.

HILL HOME STAY Nagaland
HILL HOME STAY

MEETING MARLINE:

Next morning when I woke up, I heard children’s playing. That sound was enough to lift my mood. As I came out of my room, I saw the beautiful red and yellow house was lonely in between the valleys. In front of me, there was a huge ground. Wherein the children were playing football. The place was surrounded by greenery. And the same beautiful 8 years old, Angela, who gave me hot water last night, was playing with her beautiful small sister Marline. I could not stop myself from joining them. But 8 months old Marline did not welcome her unwanted guest. 

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As I sat near her, she made a crying face. Instantly I made a safe distance. And she became normal. But she kept an eye on me. I utilised that to please her. Marline looked at her left, I did the same. She raised her hand and touched her cheek, I replicated her actions. Now she found it fun and started noticing me. I made funny faces, she smiled, and at a point, she laughed. Post her green signal, I sat near her and stretched a finger. She stretched her finger too and touched mine. Rest of the day she was on my lap. 

Marline

MY EXTENDED NAGA FAMILY:

Stany made my stay beautiful in Nagaland. His village name is Kigwema village. And his sweet home was situated over a hilltop. As per my calculation, it was the tiniest hill, as his house was surrounded by the biggies. I never imagined to wake up to that breathtaking scenario. The festival ground was a 10-minute walk away. While I was playing with the kids, Stany’s wife came and greeted me with a hot cup of teas. Every day with the children I used to play a football match. Life seemed like a Bollywood film. Good morning Nagaland.

Aka, Stany’s wife, served me typical Naga breakfast, with some fried beans, pork bacon, 2 toasts, and a banana. During the breakfast Stany made me understand the way to the festival ground and the way back home. He mentioned specifically to come early from the festival and to have dinner with them. The menu for the dinner was pork curry, sticky rice along with some other things.

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Roland & Angela
Look at the Cute smile

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THAT NIGHT:

The last Party

One night I was very late and lost my way to Stany’s homestay. It was 11 pm. Due to the entire day’s activity, my phone was charged out too. It was pitch dark and lonely. After a point, I felt so helpless that sat on the road not knowing what to do. Suddenly a man was coming from a distance with a torch. I asked him eagerly about the way to Stany’s homestay. The man called my name, “Shuvo, I am Stany. I came out to look for you”. And I followed him home silently as sometimes gratitude can’t be expressed in words

THE END:

My Naga Window

The end of stories is always special to me. I met some Naga friends in hornbill festival and we bonded quickly. They forced me to join them at their place for the rest of my days in Nagaland. I did not want to leave Stany but their warmth was also unavoidable. Stany and Aka made me share their contact numbers, their addresses with them. I am not a kid, but I felt that was more of a family member’s concern.

Stany arranged a small party for my last night. He asked to join his few friends and my new friends as well. With rice beer, besides the warm bonfire, we celebrated the togetherness. While interacting with my new friends Stany found out a common thread between them. I just laughed as he was so relaxed post that. Next morning when I say goodbye to them, Angila and Roland asked me, “are we not playing today?”

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The Pattern!!! The Similar Kind!

“Baba, I find Jacky Chan“. ” See how smart, only 8 years old. He recognizes the pattern”– said the proud mother.

“Pattern!!!” this word made me turned to them. It was important to see their faces. That 8 years old’s father proudly said, “An engineer’s son after all. But he is no Jacky but a similar kind son. What will you have, I am ordering mixed momo bucket, we will share.”. The child nodded happily.

“Similar Kind!!!” … I looked at the waiter; handsome, must be in his 17’s or 18’s, in black tee and jeans, slim build, 5.5 feet height, and with a cute smile. I felt concerned for him. He should not listen to all these crap, he must not feel bad. But they listen to these things every day. Being judged for their look are normal to them. They have learned to not give a damn. But that shield is also bearing ruthless and brutal attacks.

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Who Are They?

The son asked again, “who is he?” “They all are Nepalis. These people have increased everywhere.” The engineer father continued. “I think he is from china, like your Jacky Chan. China is near from here. They come to these places to earn.” My eyes follow the waiter, he went near them, took all their orders politely and moved to the kitchen.

His Mrs. show off says, “our driver is also Nepali, he was listening to those songs entire road. This waiter has the same dialect.” Here the patriarchy said again with disgust, “Arre; you know nothing. The china border is not much far from Sikkim; just walking distance. I mean for them. China has so much population, these poor people have to come to India for the job”. I scoffed, being an Indian, do we have the right to point at any other country that’s too about population and lack of jobs.

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Find Me A God

The 8 years old smart asked, “baba do they celebrate Durga Puja”. I wonder, how the intellectual breed feeds their child toxin. The mother’s dangerous reply came, “Their’s GOD is different. They worship Lord Buddha, not Durga Ma”.

By the time the smiley hunk came with the Bengali family’s food and to surprise them all, he asked “sir aar kichu lagbe? (Sir do you need anything else). The family looked at him in awe. As he left, the father said, “see he has learnt our language so well. India is great. We accept everyone and make them one of us. Eat now.”

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I ate my food. The waiter came to me. “Sir, do you need anything else?” he asked. “Some good knowledge, common sense, with love and respect with no pretension and unnecessary superiority. I would like to give you a treat with the dish for your kindness, patience and affection towards dumbs.” I replied. Everyone looked at me. The father was shocked then a rage overpowered his gaze. But he was diction less, so he was burning me down with his eyes. looked at the smiley face. His eyes were on me too, but with respect and awe. The family in 10 minutes paid their bill and left from there abusing me indirectly.

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World Truth

Later I asked him, “Bhai, why do not you say anything to them?”. He said something which made me write today for him. He said, “sir many talk like this. How does it matter? All matter is my thought process, which tells me God is everywhere, in Durga, in Buddha, in them, in you and in me too.”

We all talk about unity in diversity. But we don’t respect the change. We all know the truth but always live in denial. Such hypocrisy. We all raise a voice about black lives matter, but we name the northeastern people momo, chowmein, chinki, Chakmas, Nepalis, Chinese and now coronavirus. We raise our voice against racism but on the other side recognise people by their looks and clothes. The real darkness is in our heart. That is world truth. We forget that we all belong to the same nation. But A simple waiter has more sense than an engineer. He has found his God. And I pray we too find HIM soon.

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Bengali does not need any occasion to visit Digha, Puri, Darjeeling or Sikkim. It is their right to visit these places, whenever they feel bored or have free time or have little savings to spend on pleasures. On one such moment, I booked my bus ticket for Sikkim in November. I planned to see Changu Lake or Tsomgo Lake, Nathula Pass and Baba Mandir in a day. In November the lake gets covered with white ice. I felt excited thinking about the beautiful sight.

It was very disappointing to see the usual Changu Lake with no ice cover. Global warming took the pleasure away from me. Some yak owners were roaming around, offering 10 minutes ride for rupees 100 bucks on the animals. Two ladies were selling woollen clothes. Few magi, momo, tea sellers were there too. These all were as usual sights. I had no reason to be there. I bought a hot tea before the bye, and that’s when the doll walked towards the lake.

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The Doll and the Giant in Sikkim

A 4 feet tall, fair, but covered with winter clothes; doll was dragging a giant yak. He brought it down the lane and bound it with a pole and went up again. I thought the cute looking child must be helping his father in business. But in no time he was back with two more giant yaks, dragging those all alone. My eyes got stuck at him. The kid had something very attractive, called attitude. He did not go near or not even looked at the first yak. The 8/9 years old, a lollipop in his mouth, brought the yaks at the business. With his tiny hands, he bound them tight and went towards the first one and unbound it. Now he started tolling on the road with his giant companion.

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The boy got all my attention. He did not exchange any notes with his co-vendors. Those two ladies tried to initiate a conversation with him but went silent when he did not reply. I wondered how that kid would attract customers. But I was so wrong. A Punjabi couple, who were bargaining with other yak owners, noticed him too.

“I will give you 25 bucks per person for a 10 minutes ride?” The man with an overpowering tone said to the boy and did not wait for his reply. They started planning who would ride which yak. The boy stared them. As those so-called educated rich people were trying to fool a kid. How disgusting? I felt the heat.

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The art of not giving a damn…

“200 bucks for a 10 minutes ride”. While saying that, the boy did not get hyper, neither blinked nor shifted his position. There was no sign of anxiety in his tone. “WHAT? WHY?” said the hyper man, “do you have gem-studded yak?” The boy looked at them calmly while rolling the lollipop in his mouth. His stare was enough to irritate anyone. “That person was asking for 100 bucks. Why are you asking double?” that man shouted in anger.

The kiddo said, “Who had told you that you can pay me 25 rupees?” I felt like appreciating his sense of logic. Bravo! What a reply! The man had no words left. But the boy continued, “if you still want a ride then pay 100 bucks. I am small not the rate.” The wife could not bear the husband’s insult. Now she dragged him to another direction.

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The Yak Master

The memorable interaction

I went to him and asked for his name. But he did not reply but did not walk away either, rather kept on looking at me. I asked again more politely, “where do you leave?” Now he pointed above a cliff. “Don’t you feel afraid of these yaks? Are not they big and hard to tackle for your age?” “They listen to me.” His words were so pure and showed his great faith in those animals. I was flattered by him. “Can I click a picture?” I waited for his consent, but again he did not say no neither said yes but kept looking at me. I slowly took out my camera and clicked two pictures. He looked at the camera without shifting his gaze or position. Post clicking a few pictures I went near the yak to adore.

“Do you want a ride? 100 bucks for 10 minutes”. he said. I said, “I don’t ride animals. I don’t like to ride them. But I respect your occupation.” But before I could complete my sentences, he uttered, “50 rupees then for clicking pictures”. I smiled and gave him 50 bucks. That Punjabi couple came back to click a picture from far. The boy said, “give 50, then take a picture”. The man looked at me and said, “why are you spoiling the kid? a picture for 50 rupees? “Really!” I looked at them and smiled. I did not feel like taking or giving any lesson to them. “Take it or leave it”. The boy said and made a hasty sound in his mouth. The yak shrugs his horns aggressively. The couple moved away.

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She was also in water, but bathing:

One morning in Hampi, I saw a small crowd on the Tungabhadra river bank. Everyone was watching a big elephant. She was lying down in the water. She was bathing and her caretaker was busy scrubbing her skin. The sight reminded me of Queen’s bath. They used to lie down and relax, and her caretakers used to take care of her cleanliness.

Yes, she is Laksmi, an elephant of Sri Virupaksha temple. 7th-century Virupaksha temple made under the ruler Deva Raya II of the Vijayanagara Empire. And since then a custom kept ongoing. Sri Virupaksha temple will have its elephant which will be worshipped and taken care of by the temple authorities. Hindus worship elephants as God. They worship the elephant-headed god Ganesha. Many temples have their elephants whom they take care of like a family. Many temples in the south, follow this custom as a ritual. Lakshmi’s parent belonged to some other temple. Post her birth she was sent to Sri Visrupaksha temple authorities to take care. And this tradition is being followed for years now. And Lakshmi is one of the biggest assets of the temple and Hampi.

On the other side, on 27th May 2020 (I want to note down this date) an elephant that was pregnant died in Kerala. She was also standing in the Velliyar river for a long. Not for bathing, but to get rid of that unbearable pain, as she faced the most brutal heinous animal abuse. She ate a pineapple filled with firecrackers, offered to her allegedly by some local. The fruit exploded in her mouth. I am still looking for a simple answer. Why? How could they? Whenever I close my eyes and try to think about her, I remember of Lakshmi.

Playful Lakshmi

The elephant should have got the right treatment, as Lakshmi gets:

I got to spend a half-day with great Lakshmi. One morning around 6:30 A.M I went to the Virupaksha temple. It was less crowded. The morning vibes, the sound of mantras, and the incentives smell along with the 7th-century architecture, took me on a time machine ride. Suddenly I heard the sound. The queen was entering the temple with her caretaker. He was feeding her. I didn’t waste time and offered him my help. He gave me a brush and asked me to rub her back. Post that she would be headed towards the river for the bath. When I touched her it was an instant welcome from her without any judgment.

The animals trust naturally. As Lakshmi did, like that Silent Valley’s elephant did. The only difference is, her trust was brutally broken. But did not they face such treachery many times in the past, in present? Still, how can they trust the human race? Today I can’t imagine how Lakshmi trusted me that day. Why any other Lakshmi would trust my race? They should not.

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My Experience with that elephant… That elephant’s experience with human…

I left my bag, phone aside and touched the gentle elephant. She just saw deep in my eyes. I felt overwhelmed. It was so polite, so innocent, words can’t describe that feeling. She wrapped me with her trunk, then touched my head, and then concentrated on her food again while I rubbed her. Meanwhile, people started coming with their offerings for God and her. She ate all; bananas, grass, laddoos, attention, affection.

Inside the temple, there was a big gate that leads to the river. Through that, the elephants went for their bathing. Lakshmi was so happy when the time of her bath came. She moved swiftly and gently towards the gate. I followed her. Outside the temple, there was a market. The vendors were selling offerings and fruits. Suddenly Lakshmi stopped there. One shop owner came with bananas and gave them to Lakshmi. She blessed him and moved ahead. But she stopped again in front of another shop. That time a lady owner gave her bananas and apples. So basically she had chosen a few specific shops and people, who came to offer her love in the form of foods. She took all and blessed them with her trunk and moved ahead. The moment she saw the river, she went fast towards it. and I saw the repetition of the first day’s incident. Just that day I helped her in her bathing for two hours.

Lakshmi In Hampi

The end of the story:

Post that the same way she came back to temple. The Pandit Ji came and placed a sandal’s tika on her forehead. He worshipped her with incentives, coconut, and feed her again. And the moment of bye came. I offered her some bananas and saved a few bananas for the monkeys outside. Generally, she placed her trunk post having the food. But she wrapped me around in her trunk. I thought she was trying to stop me. But she took the rest bananas and then blessed me.

Isn’t the ending beautiful, emotional? No one deserves a brutal ending like the Kerala elephant had. Why and what made us chose such behavior? Why we lose humanity? Both Lakshmi and the elephant were hungry. They should get food. That’s it. Nothing else, believe me, nothing else. No one should be killed in the name of food.

My Hanoi tour had ended. And I was coming back to Kolkata with good memories. I asked for a coffee from the Indigo air hostage when my flight took off. While serving the coffee she initiated a nice chat, about Vietnam. Her planes had been landing at Hanoi airport many times. But she never got the chance to visit the city. I told her about the beautiful places I had visited, the names, the experiences. She suddenly asked me about that one thing I liked most in Vietnam. And a name popped into my mind. Egg Coffee. She too heard about the famous egg coffee. She wanted to know how it tasted like, how it looked like. Whether I had the egg coffee from a genuine place or not. I smiled at her. Curiosity can not be answered briefly. I needed the beginning with a sip of the latte.

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EGG COFFEE:

Hanoi known to have the original recipe in Vietnam, and it is very famous for egg coffee. I know it sounds gross, but it’s really tasty! You can get it hot or cold (hot is better, at least I prefer most), and make sure to mix it with your spoon before drinking. 

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THE HISTORY OF EGG COFFEE: 

I didn’t know a major fact before I visited Vietnam. It is the second-top country in the world for coffee production. Their total output is not below than 4 billion pounds of coffee beans a year – second to Brazil – and they also produce 40% of the world’s robusta coffee, the alternate to arabica beans (for those who know coffee). It’s no wonder that some new twists would be added to one of the nation’s top drinks, with so much stock on hand.

Back in the 1940’s Mr Nguyen Giang, a resident of Hanoi, Vietnam, was working as a barman at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel. The story goes that, one night, Mr Giang ran out of milk to serve with the coffee. He used a concoction of egg yolks and condensed milk instead to make, what is known today in Vietnam as, Egg Coffee or Cà Phê Trứng. Such a success was Cà Phê Trứng that Mr Giang opened a cafe and egg coffee has been a part of Hanoi ever since.

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Eggs were just one of the ingredients he used to create a frothy, latte-style top to an espresso. Other ingredients included cheese, sugar, condensed milk… And a secret ingredient that he had no intention of ever sharing. What’s surprising about his recipe is that it doesn’t taste like egg. But neither does custard or even really mayonnaise for that matter. Just think of his concoction as a Vietnamese tiramisu…without the biscuit and chocolate. You can even add a touch of rum to egg coffee if you like, just like the marsala wine that’s sometimes added to the Italian dessert. Sometimes these amazing things just happen to sound pretty weird. Like Egg Coffee. 

DISCOVERING THE REAL EGG COFFEE IN HANOI

Thousands of cafes have tried to copy Nguyen Giang’s creation. I too tried a couple myself and they were okay, but not mind-blowing like the two cups I had at each of the cafes run by Nguyen Giang’s son and daughter. The first cafe, called Café Giang and run by his son, is located on the east side of the Hanoi Old Quarter. The second cafe, called Café Đinh and run by his daughter, is located just a few feet from the main square of the Old Quarter! Yet despite the wildly touristy locations of both cafes, I was surprised to see hardly any tourists in either cafe. It seems the locals have kept the best places for themselves, leaving the tourists to experience second-rate egg coffee at other cafes in town. But I needed to complete my experience any how. So I did.

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