Last week in Vietnam, the local Twitter hype machine kicked into high gear once again, after a Japanese CEO posted an innocuous photo of a Grab driver waiting in a Hanoi Starbucks.
The accompanying text was a mini-rant about the degradation of public spaces by such delivery drivers: the green-clad road warriors are sullying the overpriced coffee shops with their presence. After a flurry of criticism from both Japanese and Vietnamese users, the offending tweet was deleted.
In just the last two or three years, ride-hailing and food delivery services have taken off around the world. In Vietnam, at last count, five domestic and foreign firms offer trips; almost as many offer to bring food and drinks to your door.
The proliferation of uniformed riders delivering food across the city is not limited to Southeast Asia, with similar scenes in Europe and North America. In London, Paris, New York and Rome, it is common to see groups of drivers waiting outside coffee shops in the morning and pizza parlours at night. In an industry disrupted by the digital era, restaurants no longer need their own delivery team when they can sign up to one of many apps and have their goods reach a wider audience.
Where convenience is king, customers can now have every meal, drink and snack ferried in minutes after tapping a few buttons on their phone. This means that you’ll probably see one or two delivery drivers in your cafe while you sip your latte.
The Japanese CEO’s Twitter complaint invokes philosophical concerns about the community as a whole. The tweet implied that the “dirty” delivery drivers were infringing on the “third place” — an intermediate location that is neither work nor home — that sacred locale which is so important to the fabric of civil society. In sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, the third place is “where you relax in public”; it is convivial and accepting of all comers. For us Brits, the pub is the quintessential third place. The French have cafes. Traditionally, Asia has had teahouses, but in modern Vietnamese cities it may well be the bia hoi (meaning “fresh beer”, but also the roadside bars that serve it) where most communal relaxation takes place.
The concept forms a central part of the media landscape. Central Perk, Cheers, Cafe Nervosa, Vesuvio’s — almost all TV shows are anchored in a third place, neutral ground on which characters interact and story arcs launch.
In Merry White’s book Coffee Life in Japan, the cafe is both a product and driver of modernity. Like Sartre’s Cafe de Flore, the coffee shop as third place fosters and facilitates creative interactions. These public spaces are particularly central to Japanese life, both as refuges from work and family life and, more recently, as hipster hangouts.
The third place may have some history in life in Tokyo, for example, but it is difficult to transpose the notion onto the present-day Vietnamese city. Shophouses are widespread across the country, immediately mixing the “first place” (home) and the “second place” (work). It is also common for employees to nap at the office, an activity usually reserved for one’s living room. The cafes in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City often spill out onto the street, altering the sense of a community space so it becomes one with the city rather than being sequestered behind a shopfront. This doesn’t mean Vietnam lacks a third place, just that the lines between the first, second and third places are perhaps more blurred than elsewhere.
This symbiosis between the city and community highlights the absurdity of expecting a Starbucks to be a sanctuary. (Besides, the price of a Frappuccino disqualifies it as an accessible community space.) Singling out a delivery driver for sullying the atmosphere of a coffee shop not only transgresses against the accepting concept of a third place; it upends the levelling influence such a space should provide. Imposing restrictions on a community space means it can no longer act as such a place — it becomes a private club, with all the trappings of elitism and none of the mingling necessary for creativity.
The photo posted by the Japanese CEO showed nothing more than a man at work, a man quietly and patiently waiting to pick up an order. Photographing him as if he were a shabby piece of furniture is at odds with the social equality meant to be engendered by the third place. Perhaps, instead, the CEO should have struck up a conversation.
Ollie Arci is a freelance journalist, editor and copywriter based in Hanoi.