“Let’s get some rice wine!”
Anyone who has lived in Vietnam has heard those five fateful words at some point during a long night of drinking in a bia hoi.
It’s the verbal equivalent of pouring petrol onto a raging bonfire, sure to turn what had been a pleasant, if slightly sloppy, night into a whirlwind of bad decisions, lost dinners and awful singing.
While some swear there’s a civilised way to consume rice wine, I personally get far too excited by chants of “mot, hai, ba” to do anything other than lose my shit and drink with the abandon of a night bus driver who only has a 30 minute break to get his boozing in.
What goes up though, must come down. Read on if you dare step through the looking glass and witness the unspeakable horrors of the rice wine hangover.
As an expat, having someone visit you means forgetting whatever your day job is for a few days and becoming a tour guide. Introducing friends and family to the intricacies of a local culture can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
At least that’s what I tell my parents. In reality, these occasions inevitably descend into a couple of boozy nights and difficult days being punished by loud tour groups at museums. One way to combine drinking (what you actually want to do) with experiencing some local culture (what you feel you should do) is sampling local delicacies and drinks.
A few months ago I was lucky enough to host a pair of friends from university in Hanoi. They had quit their jobs for a year long trip round the world, and what better way to kick off their trip in style than a few bottles of Vietnam’s finest?
Unfortunately, the establishment I brought the intrepid travellers to served us wine that, to put it mildly, was a bit off. If you’ve ever accidentally covered your dinner in too much vinegar imagine that horrible taste, but instead of it being sprayed all over your food, imagine you swallowed the vinegar one shot at a time.
Like the champs (tits) we are, we duly quaffed the bottle and continued our night, sticking to beers from then on. The damage, however, was done.
A Little Respect
I awoke the next morning to darkness deeper than Charles Manson’s soul. Were the rumours true? Had some dodgy rice wine turned me temporarily blind?
Upon moving my pounding head from left to right I realised I wouldn’t need to start sporting sunglasses and could in fact see.
I had mistaken my inability to open my two blackened eyes for temporary blindness, much to my friends’ joy.
They informed me that the final stop on our rice wine-filled night had been a karaoke joint, where I preceded to headbutt what I thought was a padded door in excitement upon realising the song selection included Erasure’s ‘A Little Respect’, a 1980s synthpop hit adopted by supporters of my football team back home.
The thick wall that looked soft showed me little respect and made war (not love) to my face, leaving me with a broken nose, two black eyes and leaving me (forever) blue.
The rest of the morning consisted of retching, stomach ache and all round misery before an early hospital appointment for a rabies jab (not rice wine related, but don’t ask).
The quintessential environment for consuming rice wine is a Vietnamese wedding.
Attending these joyous occasions as an outsider is a humbling experience, as you truly are treated like a king. On top of older relatives trying to marry you off to a single family member, you’re treated to mountains of food and, of course, copious amounts of rice wine.
This autumn past some friends and I attended a wedding in the outskirts of Hanoi. Weddings are notoriously boozy affairs, and Vietnam certainly doesn’t let the side down. After arriving and hanging about for a bit waiting for the courtyard full of tables to be piled with food we cracked open some beers and tucked in, slightly perplexed none of the other guests were drinking beer.
It soon became apparent the locals were biding their time for something a bit more potent to be doled out; the rice wine. As the only table of Westerners at the wedding we soon became every male guest’s favourite drinking buddies, with seemingly every man in sight coming over for one shot with us and handshakes all round.
This unforgiving pace didn’t let up until late into the evening, after I had the distinct honour of drinking with the man responsible for brewing our poison of choice, though I didn’t have the chance/guts to ask him what vintage we had been sampling.
With the festivities winding down and only the seasoned wedding veterans still hammering away at their jaundiced livers, we retired to a friend’s grandparent’s house a short walk away. I settled into a drunken stupor, blissfully unaware of the horrors that awaited the next day.
Suddenly, unforgiving light flooded the room. Someone had turned on the light at 5am to wake us in time for the next day of celebrations, set to take place near the groom’s hometown of Hai Phong. “No problem, just a two hour bus trip there and back,” my inner thoughts and hungover self laughed (cried).
Worse still, upon arrival in the groom’s hometown yet more excited and affable Vietnamese men wanted to drink with us. Dear reader, if you ever want to see true anguish you could do worse than turn down rice wine at a wedding. Each man left looking like a child who had just seen his puppy drowned, all zest for life gone from his eyes.
Yet this was preferable to imbibing more of the horrific liquid, with my hallucinations of an escape to solitude and silent sobbing in bed in full flow.
So what have I learned from my time overindulging in the devil’s milk? That practice makes perfect, and with about ten years practice, I should be able to drink rice wine without wanting to jump off the Nhat Tan bridge the following morning.