Pounding back beers is a popular activity in Vietnam. Beer consumption in the country is going up every year. In 2013, Vietnam was #1 in Southeast Asia for beer consumption per capita. Considering it is only #8 for per capita income, that’s pretty good (or maybe bad). Heineken predicts that in 2015, Vietnam will be their largest market. There are many restaurants that will plop a case of beer down next to your table, along with a bucket full of ice, and let you drink until you pass out or have to go pick up the kids from school.
My landlord loves to “take beers” with me. Whenever I see him he invites me out. Last week, Sara and I had to pay our rent. Remembering the drunken sloppy night that was last rent-due-day, and the proceeding day’s hangover, I sent him a text message early in the day: Can you please come get the rent early, I have to go out for dinner with friends tonight. It was a lie that I told on behalf of my liver. He asked if I could drop it off on the way to my friend’s house. I agreed to meet him at a restaurant where he was drinking with his work friends. Of course, when we arrived he insisted we have a beer with him. I told him we only had one hour before we had to be at our friend’s house. He managed to drive four beers into me in that time.
When drinking with a Vietnamese person, there are a few things to remember:
- Beer is served with ice… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing
It’s hot in Vietnam. Ice is a man’s best friend, specially in a country where they eat dog. If the beer isn’t refrigerated, you’ll definitely want ice. If the beer does come cold, you still might want to drink it with ice. The slow watering down of the beer will help you get through the night. Also, the ice doesn’t affect the taste of the beer as much as you’d think. Only one large chunk is used and it’s replaced before it melts too much. A girl will swoop in with a pair of tongs, dip them into your drink, take the ice hunk out, and drop in a new one. You’ll have to get used to the fact that those tongs have been dipped in other people’s drinks. More beer will help with that.
- If one person wants to drink everyone has to.
Every drink must be preceded with the clinking of glasses. When you grab your glass, watch as your Vietnamese drinking companions grab theirs. Sometimes I pretend that I’m a gunslinger in the wild west. I hover my hand around the handle, wiggle my fingers a little bit, watch everyone else to see if their hands reach for their glasses, then grab it and lift it up for everyone to toast.
- Một, hai, ba, vô! (pronounced mot, hi, bah, yo)
In English we say cheers, in Vietnam they say 1, 2, 3, cheers, usually while standing. I’ve also been told that vo means in, as in put the beer in your mouth. I heard that from a drunken Vietnamese person whose English is fairly bad, so take it for what it’s worth.
- It gets a little competitive
If you notice your
opponentcompanion watching you as you both chug beer down, it’s because they are watching to see when you will stop. They don’t want to be the first person to put down their glass. Things can get sloppy fast if you play this game. Sometimes challenges are delivered, “một trăm phần trăm” which means 100%. This is a challenge for you to chug the rest of your beer. Being a good drinker in Vietnam is seen as being a strong man. As a westerner, it is often assumed that you’ll be a good drinker, and that will be put to the test. Do not underestimate a Vietnamese person’s drinking abilities. Even though they are small, they can drink a lot.
- Food will most likely be ordered
If you’re asked to go drink beers, there will probably also be food involved. Vietnam has lots of bar snacks that satisfy your hunger and make you want to drink more. Some examples: frog legs, chicken wings, snails, cockles, bo luc lac, and hột vịt lộn (duck eggs with a partially developed fetus in them). This is a great way to try new food — you’re slightly braver because of the alcohol, you have people there that will eat it if you don’t like it, and your Vietnamese friends will be happy to show you how to eat it.
- Going too far
Inevitably, the night will hit a point when everyone is too drunk to make good decisions. More beers will be ordered. More challenges made. Sometimes, the beer girls are treated poorly. Once, a man I was drinking with handed his glass to the waitress and demanded that she chug beer with me. She obliged, even though it was obvious that she didn’t like beer, and she didn’t want to drink out of the old man’s glass. I said, “no, no, it’s ok” but my drinking companions demanded it. I tried to spare the poor girl by only drinking for a second. Worse than that though, is the amount of drinking and driving that happens in this country. If you’re going out to drink with friends, take a taxi. Even if you think you are only going out for a couple. Taxis are cheap, lives are precious. On a Saturday night, there are a lot of drunk people on the road. You shouldn’t be one of them. I’ve sat with a Vietnamese man and drank 8-10 beers in one sitting. He kept up with me the whole way, and he’s almost half my size. At the end of the night, I walked home and he hopped on his scooter and zig-zaged his way home. The World Health Organization says that “60% of hospitalized road trauma patients are estimated to have a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit”. I’ve been told, “it’s part of the culture” and “everyone is doing it”. That’s even more reason to not do it. It’s crazy to hear expats who wouldn’t drink and drive in their home country, talk about how it’s okay in Vietnam, where traffic accidents happen more often and are more deadly.
- Happy drunks
Despite the competitiveness at the drinking table, Vietnamese people just want to have a good time. By the end of the night, you’ll find that their big red faces will be plastered with a smile and they’ll be throwing compliments at you. Don’t be too surprised if they throw an arm around you or even hold your hand as you walk out of the bar, specially if you were able to keep up with them. Usually, they call it a night by 10 or 11 PM, but you’ll be happy to go. Drinking in Vietnam is fast and furious. After chugging down all that beer you’ll sleep like a baby, and wake up feeling like a 90-year-old on their death bed. It’s the circle of life.