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Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!

A night out drinking in Vietnam bears no resemblance to a night out in the west, as Alfredo de la casa can attest.

I’ve been out drinking in many countries around the world with people from countries as far apart as Mauritius, Chile and India, but I must say I find Vietnam rather particular, not so much about what is being drunk as much as the how and where. I can certainly say without compromising any cultural concerns that, in general, Vietnamese, especially men, love drinking alcohol. As in Spain, Italy, or France, drinking alcohol is a way of socializing, the same as drinking coffee, as opposed to the drinking customs of the British ỏ the Scottish, where most people drink to get drunk! In Vietnam, drinking after work is also a way of enhancing business relationships and reaching business agreements.

Due to the weather and geographical particularities of the country, beer, which is usually drunk cold and easy to produce (as opposed to wine, which needs temperature, soil, and other certain conditions not found in most of Vietnam), seems to be the king of alcoholic beverages in Vietnam. Having said that, spirits and rice wine (especially in rural areas), are not too far behind.

While in most countries beer is primarily served by tap, where beer flows cold from kegs, one of their characteristics of how beer is served in Vietnam’s south is the first the usual unavailability of tap beer and second how it is usually served with huge ice cubes in the glass. When I came Vietnam for the first time, I was horrified to see the waiter putting a huge ice cube in my beer, watering it down. With time, though, I have realized that watered down beer tastes better than every warm beer!

What strikes me the most about how drinking customs in Vietnam differ from those in the west is two very common “drinking practices”. First, when Vietnamese gather around a table at a restaurant or other venue, what catches my eyes is that there usually only men drinking alcohol, or mostly men with one or two women. I have never seen a woman – only table. It is also fairly uncommon to find a person drinking alone, as you can find in many pubs and bars in the west.

The multiple toasts during the evening are also astonishing, as are the requests to drink half of the glass at a time, if not all of it, which are likely to happen several times during the gathering.

This custom contrasts with those in the west, where people will gather to drink and no or only few toasts will be made. Another difference is that in the west it is unlikely that everyone at the same table will be drinking the same thing, while in Vietnam it is unusually to see a table of different drinks. What’s more, everybody tends to drink the same brand of beer at the table, regardless of several different ones being available. Is this a teaming thing? Perhaps an example of collectivism?

Paying the bill at the end of the nights in Vietnam also seriously differs from the customs in the west. After a long drinking session, the person who arranged the gathering or the most senior person in the group usually pays for the whole table. In Europe, depending on the country, either turn are taken during the nights to pay for each round of drinks or the bill is split at the end.

Another big difference in “team drinking” is how much happiness is felt among the group, with lots of smiles and laughter throughout most of the evening. I have been to many drinking nights in London where friends or colleagues gather together but barely laugh or smile, and sometimes hardly even talk.

Another drinking practice among Vietnamese, perhaps less common but more up-market, is going to a “top end” club or bar. Although this is very common in the west, it is not so common in Vietnam due to the vast difference in prices. While virtually everyone can afford a few beers at the local street bar, up market places care beyond the reach of many.

In every western country I have been to, when you go to bar of club you order drinks, usually either beer or mixers, one round at a time, and pay for them then and there. In Vietnam, first, you pay at the end of the nights, and the second and more interestingly, people, rather than order and drink for each person in the group, just order a bottle of, let’s say, whiskey or vodka, which is set on the table and people (or the waitress) will the glasses as needed until the bottle is empty, when more bottles are then ordered.

Although I have heard of them, I have not experienced the popular bia om place, where men go to drink and at the same time have access to “special service” from sexy hostesses. I’m sure this is yet another drinking custom particular to Vietnam.

Something else that really astonishes me is the drinking ability of most Vietnamese. Especially considering that in general their body size is small (and therefore people can get drunk quicker), most Vietnamese, even those half of my size who claim to drink little, can out drink me every single time.

I was recently invited to a company’s informal meal and drinking session, and although wine was served during the meal (a lot of it), vodka and beer followed, and I must say that virtually everyone drank more than I did. Maybe I need to get out and practice to improve my drinking ability, which I’m sure will be a pleasure surrounded by Vietnamese, as they are always generous and very friendly!

Resource: The guide

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