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Know Your Booze: The Vietnam Edition

When compared to Japan or Thailand, Vietnam might be less known for its drinking culture but that has changed over the last few decades. With lax regulations on mom n pop distilleries, along with the relatively recent rise in beer hall binge drinking among the young generation, for better or worse they sure love to tip a few in Vietnam.

For those curious about what this country has to offer in terms of alcohol, whether it be snake wine or iced beer, we here at knowmadic news take a closer look.

Rice Wine (Rượu đế / rượu gao)
The staple alcoholic beverage in Vietnamese drinking culture, this potent distilled “wine” goes by many similar names depending on the region and variety. It will definitely be familiar to those who have tried rice wines in China and down throughout Southeast Asia. In northern Vietnam it is called Ruou gao; in the south, ruou de. The prefix ‘ruou’ (literally “alcohol”) has a number of other add-on terms depending on origins, ingredients used, and occasions when particular rice wines are intended to be consumed. The basic recipe calls for fermented plain or sticky rice which is then distilled, producing alcohol that tends to be around 40% ABV.

Sticky Rice Wine (Rượu Nếp Cẩm) is a popular variation, available anywhere but famous for being a northern drink (Hanoi). It is not quite as potent as the standard variety, coming in at about 20-29% ABV, making it a little easier to go down. It is also notably sweeter in taste.

Party Wine (Rượu cần), as the name suggests, is consumed during more festive occasions such as big holidays and weddings. The notable difference here is that party wine is fermented, not distilled, and is usually much lower in alcohol content (10-15% ABV). Taste and complexity varies greatly depending on ingredients added—anything from coconut water to honey and numerous exotic spices, just to name a few.

Medicine Wine (Rượu thuốc) is the other notable and might be worth a try to those with more adventurous appetites and curiosity. As with so-called medicine wines in Thailand, these are made available with any number of infusions targeted towards medical conditions and hopes of more virility of course. Influenced from traditional Chinese medicine-herbs, spices and almost any critter under the sun can be found in Vietnamese medicine wines.

Word to the wise on consuming souvenir shop “wines” or other homemade distilled alcohol— rubbing alcohol, methanol or formaldehyde are sometimes used in production. Not to mention the rare instance of someone accidentally infusing poisonous herbs in the mix. How often? Who knows…but it certainly happens.

Lots of souvenir shop snakes wines etc. are believed to be more for display, not so much for consumption, so often times those chemicals are used to improve appearance and to better preserve those cobras and geckos floating in the bottle. Probably best not to go overboard with hours-long drinking sessions or dares to see who can get through that nasty bottle of deer penis wine the fastest.

Beer (bia)
Beer consumption has been steadily rising in Vietnam over the past few years, mainly in the form of mass produced varieties both domestic and imported. According to the Vietnam Beverage Association, consumption is up 10 % from 2014 and 41% since 2010. The vast majority of brews are lagers based on German and Czech recipes.

Lagers are widely popular and north, central and south Vietnam all have their own well established domestic breweries.  Around Ho Chi Minh City, commercial brews include Saigon Red, Saigon Special and 333. Huda is popular in central regions and Hanoi Beer in, you guessed it, the north.

Considering the fact that Vietnam is almost always hot and humid, it’s common to have beer with some ice cubes thrown in. Something that most beer lovers elsewhere would be appalled at but it is how they do it here so if you don’t want an already light lager to taste more watered down, politely decline that addition of ice.

Bia hơi (fresh beer)
In the northern region of Vietnam, bia hoi is especially popular. Many small bars/restaurants produce bia hoi on site or have it delivered from nearby and this is what the majority of locals drink, especially considering how much cheaper it is than microbrews. You’re looking at a mere USD20-30 cents per glass. Bia hoi is brewed without preservatives so whatever amount the bar has on tap is meant to be drunk that very day. With this in mind, stick with a more popular bia hoi spots to reduce the likelihood of getting stuck with stale beer sometimes pushed off on unsuspecting tourists.

Bia hoi definitely falls into that category of very light beers that need to be gulped in large quantities to get you drunk (if that’s your goal). So, you get what you pay for I suppose. But the other attraction to a bia hoi joint is that it’s more of a casual, streetside drinking experience—makes for some good people watching and a nice option to take a load off if wandering around on a sweltering hot afternoon. Most are open early too so it’s not uncommon to see locals enjoying a raucous drinking session at lunch time. As many bia hoi tables are set up on sidewalks and even spilling over into the road, it makes it convenient for those on their motorbikes to pull over, chug a few beers and be on their way back to work or home. Quick tip—Grabbing a table set further back away from the curb edge might be preferable.

If spending any time sampling beers and drinking with locals, one should note that it is standard practice to eat an interesting mix of snacks along with brews. So don’t be surprised (especially at a bia hoi bar) if you are plied with dishes which can range from sliced cucumbers and battered corn to fried offal and even kielbasa in certain places. For more in depth reading on “local” drinking culture in Vietnam, head here.

Imports and Microbrews
As with much of Southeast Asia, imports such as Heineken, Tiger Beer, and even Sapporo are also popular more with the “middle class”. These are bottled for local distribution and are easily found at the many beer halls frequented by the younger crowd, especially in Ho Chi Minh City in the south.

Microbrews are also gaining a lot of popularity, despite the heftier price tag of approximately USD$3-4 per glass. Beervn.com gives a really nice breakdown of the top players:

“The three main microbrew chains in Vietnam are Goldmalt and Hoa Vien Brauhaus with Czech beer and Legend beer with German. Some of their brew pubs are more like franchised and not part of the chain. Goldmalt have small breweries are building their own brewery systems and has recently installed a microbrewery in Japan. Legend beer have a handfull of places and have a central distribution. Hoa Vien is the only importer of pilsner urquell on keg and has put much effort on design and decoartion of their beer halls.”

Saigon beer river view Vietnam

There are even some signs of a budding, expat-led craft scene in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).  Pasteur Street Brewing Company and Bia Craft are Vietnams first bona fide craft breweries, both opening in 2015 in HCMC. Soon after, several others popped in the area, creating more buzz and potential for brewers to test out the market with beer loving Vietnamese. Something to definitely keep an eye on if you are a lover of good beer and considering a move to Vietnam.

Wine
While not as popular as rice liquor and beer, there is a real wine industry in Vietnam—born out of the French colonial days beginning in the late 1800s. Da Lat is probably the most well-known as a wine producer, as this high altitude plateau region makes it much more suitable for growing grapes in what is otherwise a full-on tropical climate.

Vang Dalat Winery is the largest producer in the country, with bottles sold at most restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores. A handful of Vietnam’s wineries now distribute their vino throughout the region—China, Japan and other Southeast Asian countries. Imported wines are also available at nicer hotels and restaurants, mainly in the big cities.

So there you have it—a little something for everyone. Got any suggestions for tasty or otherwise must-try drinks in Vietnam? Have at it in the comments below.

Một, hai, ba, vô! (1,2,3 cheers!)