We’ve all heard it, and are probably guilty of it. The four words that spew forth like an auditory gushing from Beelzebub’s holiest hole. “Một, Hai, Ba, Dô!” Repeated until a rambunctious climax is reached and everyone gets heinously drunk with the sort of synchronicity Olympic aerobics teams could only dream of. This all shatters the peace of a city far away though, for right now, I’m here in Bac Kan province, some 200km away from Hanoi. Here the consumption of rice wine is done for peace, harmony and tranquillity.
Minor digression alert, despite receiving a major slap on the wrist earlier this year for referring to the beverage in question as rice wine – it is in fact, rice spirit – I’m going to carry on with rice wine as a means of colloquial discourse. Whether you want to call it rice wine, rice spirit or Satan’s urine – the point is, in Vietnam it’s probably more popular than iPhones, Facebook and K-Pop combined, especially when you get out of the cities. While the history of Hanoi’s “Một, Hai, Ba, Dô” is oddly hard to uncover, the customs North-East of the capital are passed on via word of mouth, from generations long since passed to those living in Bac Kan today.
With a known population of just 307,300 as of 2013, Bac Kan is a relatively tiny slither of Northern Vietnam, but being home to one of the largest populations of Tay and Nung ethnic groups – traditions don’t die here, even under the all-crunching wheel of modernity. As such, when drinking with the locals here, it becomes apparent that the rice wine customs of Bac Kan are here to stay – given how long they’ve been around.
“We follow our drinks with a handshake, we’ve done this for thousands of years here – it symbolises more than just friendship, but understanding and trust, these things are important to us.” The Vice Chairman of the People’s Committee explains this to me as he pours me another shot of rice wine. The ubiquity of rice wine in Bac Kan would make you think that whiskey had never been invented. “The higher the glasses are filled, the deeper the level of trust.” These words are explained to me via our translator as the Vice Chairman over-pours my glass, causing small rivulets of rice wine to run wild and free across the table. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point, it was lunchtime.
“For us, the handshake has been something that we’ve always done, but to me it represents the power of sitting down at a table with someone – all problems can be solved at a table with rice wine.” This optimistic outlook brings a warmth to the proceedings, even more so than the heat that was curdling in my stomach after the god-only-fucking-knows-what-number shot of rice wine. Despite the distinct lack of linguistic understanding we had, the Vice Chairman’s words resonated with me – even if they had to resonate through a translator first.
The notion of food and drink being a universal link is at the heart of Tay beliefs – traditional Tay housing, and this is before the age of the rice cooker and online deliveries, would have a stove crafted in the centre of the house. These were wooden houses, so starting a fire in the middle of it was partially down to security, but there was a symbolic element to it. The fire made the food, the food brought the whole family together. It’s much the same with their drinks. “It used to be a way for people to make peace, it’s about sharing something in order to let water under the bridge.”
While Hanoi’s Một, Hai, Ba, Dô and Saigon’s Một, Hai, Ba, Yo may have a catchy ring to them and certainly they’re phrases you can pick up on your gap year if your parents can pay for that sort of thing, the inhabitants of Bac Kan, on the other hand, hold tight to their tradition. “You know, if you get a small glass of rice wine, or if nobody shakes your hand, then you are not liked or trusted, but if you are, you get a full glass, a handshake – sometimes we even hug.”