The Drinking Culture of Vietnam – Part 1
During one of our first trips to Vietnam, we decided to open a western restaurant in little Dong Ha, Vietnam. A dream of our good friends, Tam and Hai, who both wanted a Western owned restaurant in the town. We considered their request, sort of seriously. While at a restaurant in Hanoi with white paper that served as a table cloth, we drew the floor plans of our new bar in crayon. We called the place “Mawt, Hai, Ba, Yo!!!!!” I’ll explain why in Part 2.
Vietnam has a drinking culture, which often times borders on a problem. I like to focus, though, on the fun times we have had in Vietnam, drinking beers and learning all the drinking customs, including the inspiration for our Western owned Dong Ha restaurant.
Bia Hoi in Vietnam
Cheap, cold, draft beer, sitting on a plastic stool on the side of the road. That pretty much sums up the bia hoi experience. Bia Hoi is a draft beer, made with no preservatives. It is delivered in kegs to bars (generally referred to as Bia Hoi) around Hanoi. The bars are simple, with plastic chairs, and no frills.
Customers start arriving early. I have seen men outside drinking bia hoi at 10 am. Lunch is also a popular time for bia hoi – grabbing some beers and a little bit of food before returning to work. The bar only orders as much beer as they think they will serve in a single day – it won’t be good the following day. Once the beer runs out, the bia hoi will close, or sometimes they will switch to some bottled beer for the last remaining customers.
It is as if the threat that they could run out encourages customers to drink early and hard, to make sure they get their fill. We have seen people order bia hoi in jugs to bring home. We have seen men pull up on a motorbike, knock back a few beers while still sitting on the bike, and then drive off. We have seen someone pound a mess of beers, fall off of his chair, get up, jump on his moto, and drive off. As I said, the drinking culture does sometimes become a problem.
What I generally love about the bia hoi experience, in addition to the price tag of less than $.25 a beer, is the atmosphere. Some of our favorite places in Hanoi are bia hoi – lots of people sitting around, drinking, talking, eating, and people watching. One good thing is rarely do you drink without eating, at least a little something – my favorites being sliced cucumbers served with salt, chilis, and lime, or a fried, battered corn.
At one of our local places the boys pour the beer and serve the beer, but the girls are the bosses – they are always barking orders at the young boys. At some places you don’t even need to order your next beer – they just keep putting them in front of you unless you say no. They keep track of the bill by marking each beer on your check table side. There is rarely music or TV in the background. The only entertainment is the constant din of conversation, and the occasional cigarette girl, dressed in a short skirt. Welcome to bia hoi.
Serving in Vietnam
During our first trip to Dong Ha, I learned quickly that tradition dictated that the youngest woman at a table will serve as the hostess. It is her responsibility to keep bowls full, supply ice, and pour beer. As a Westerner, though, I was never expected to fulfill this role, although sometimes I tried to, in order to comply with customs. The first time we went out with just our friend Hai, I started to fill the cups with ice and he stopped me quickly, saying, we are all friends so we will all serve each other. As an independent, career driven woman, it sort of irked me, but I also liked the formality of it.
While having a celebratory lunch after finishing our teaching gig in Dong Ha in 2009, one of the young teachers kept placing food in my little bowl, well after I was full. When I protested, she replied “There’s always room for vegetables.” So, I ate the veggies. A minute later I turned my head, and a piece of pork was placed in my bowl – and that is how it begins. Every time I turned away, I had more food in bowl, generally placed there by one of the young Vietnamese female teachers.
This trip to Dong Ha I did not see this tradition followed through. In fact, a few young Western women who were living in Dong Ha had not even heard of the practice. Perhaps as the city continues to modernize, this will be a tradition that goes the way of the Dodo.